Our Sunday Long Read this week is from Elizabeth Zuko at Bloomberg's CityLab, answer your burning questions about the absolute lack of public bathrooms in a post-lockdown America.
Surviving a pandemic has a way of forcing people to focus on the basics: health, food, shelter, the need for human connection — and going to the bathroom.
This became evident during the Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020, when panic buyers emptied store shelves in the first weeks of U.S. stay-home orders. As Covid closures continued, the pandemic revealed a different toilet-related problem that predated the novel coronavirus: a dire lack of public restrooms. Though facilities in bars and retail establishments are often thought of as “public,” widespread shutdowns served as a stark reminder that they’re really not — and that few genuinely public bathrooms remain in American cities.
That reality was underscored as the pandemic dragged on. Infection fears led cities to padlock the few public restrooms that were available. Stories emerged about Amazon and Uber drivers resorting to peeing in bottles, while unhoused individuals relied on adult diapers or five-gallon buckets filled with kitty litter. Public urination complaints spiked in cities like New York and Washington, D.C., especially when crowds flooded the streets in the summer of 2020 to protest the murder of George Floyd.
“The state of public restrooms in the U.S. is pretty deplorable, with certain exceptions,” says Steven Soifer, president and co-founder of the American Restroom Association. “Public restrooms are a half-assed job. This is a public health concern, especially with Covid. It’s been a mess.”
The lack of public restrooms in the U.S. hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2011, a United Nations-appointed special rapporteur who was sent to the U.S. to assess the “human right of clean drinking water and sanitation” was shocked by the lack of public toilets in one of the richest economies in the world. A full accounting of truly public facilities is elusive, says Soifer, but government-funded options are exceedingly rare in the U.S., compared to Europe and Asia; privately owned restrooms in cafes and fast-food outlets are the most common alternatives. According to a “Public Toilet Index” released in August 2021 by the U.K. bathroom supply company QS Supplies and the online toilet-finding tool PeePlace, the U.S. has only eight toilets per 100,000 people overall — tied with Botswana. (Iceland leads their ranking, with 56 per 100,000 residents.)
The presence or absence of restrooms in public spaces has long been an indication of a particular group’s place in society, says Laura Norén, a postdoctoral associate at New York University and co-editor of Toilet: The Public Restroom and the Politics of Sharing. From women to people of color to those with disabilities, vulnerable communities have struggled to have this most fundamental of needs accommodated. Most recently, transgender individuals have found themselves targeted in bathroom-backlash debates.
“It's basically the same script that just plays over and over and over again — and these social tensions often meet in the bathroom,” Norén says. “Who gets access to the bathroom really could be summarized as who should have access to public space and public discourse. Somehow, that crystallizes around the bathroom, because people’s fears are the highest in the bathroom.”
So how did Americans end up with so few places to go? Understanding this requires a look back at the societal and sanitary conditions behind public restrooms in American cities — and the moral panics that propelled both their creation and downfall.
The answer is like every other infrastructure need in America since Reagan, nobody wants to pay for them, nobody wants to pay for people to maintain them, and cities and counties want to save money by closing them because too many local governments are busy giving billions away in tax incentives to corporations rather than, you know, cleaning up park bathrooms.
Still, the history of the public bathroom in America is pretty interesting. Give it a read.