Michael Esslen , who commutes over 40 minutes to his job, has used Metro station bathrooms before, but also he has been told several times he is not allowed to use them. (Juana Arias/For The Washington Post)

At the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station in downtown Washington, a request to use the restroom turns into a 20-minute treasure hunt.

One station manager says the restroom is being cleaned and suggests going upstairs to use the facilities at the Five Guys restaurant. After insisting that I do not want to leave the station, she concedes that there is a second restroom. On the other side of the station.

I make the trek there. The manager there leads me to a locked brown metal door marked “Fire Equipment Cabinet.” He opens it only to discover that it is being cleaned. He directs me to a third location — go right, upstairs, left, loop around. It’s a maze of twists and turns to yet another station manager, who unlocks a third door and finally, relief.

It’s not supposed to be that difficult. A decade ago, advocates lobbied the transit agency to make restrooms readily available to the hundreds of thousands of people who use the system each day. It’s not as if the stations don’t have restrooms; most of them do. They’re not easily identifiable or accessible, but station managers are supposed to make them available to any rider who requests them.

The issue has again come to the fore as the new Silver Line approaches its long-awaited opening, with Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority officials quietly revealing that each new station — McLean, Tysons Corner, Greensboro, Spring Hill and Wiehle-Reston East — will have its own state-of-the-art restroom facilities. Each station will have four restrooms — two for men, two for women — that will be in plain sight, unlike the majority of Metro restrooms, which are hidden in hallways behind locked, nondescript doors.

Customers who plan on riding Metro's new Silver Line will also have access to public bathrooms in the stations. (Victoria St. Martin/The Washington Post)

Metro officials insist, however, that the new stations are not getting anything special.

“It’s no different than anywhere else in the system,” said Metro spokesman Dan Stessel. “Even though the [Silver Line] restrooms are not tucked away in a utility hallway, they will still be accessed the same way: Station managers will provide access for customers who request it.”

The Silver Line’s distinction may cause potty envy among riders, but the advocate who led the years-ago fight for access and questions Metro’s commitment to providing restrooms in other parts of the system hopes that seeing “real transit stations with real bathrooms” sparks outrage and change.

“People are going to head out to Tysons and see these modern stations that look like they should,” said Robert Brubaker, who led a public restroom campaign for Metro riders in 2003 and later created the American Restroom Association, a national advocacy group.

“It’s going to dawn on people who say to themselves they can’t use the bathrooms on Metro, ‘Oh, yes you can,’ ” he said. “And then they’re going to go, ‘Why don’t we have better bathrooms in the other Metro stations?’ ”

An unscientific — and often odoriferous — two-month Washington Post study of Metro station restrooms revealed that although the system does provide restrooms in 81 of its 86 stations, they’re often dirty, single-stall facilities, inaccessible to all but the most savvy and knowledgeable riders.

Michael Essien, a 38-year-old information technology specialist who works in the District, commutes 70 minutes from his home, including a ride on the Red Line starting at the Shady Grove Metro station.

Paper towels are stuffed around a toilet pipe in a Farragut North Metro station bathroom. (Victoria St. Martin/The Washington Post)

Sometimes Essien uses the Shady Grove station’s restroom. Sometimes a station manager will unlock the door. Other times the station manager is missing in action, there’s a “closed” sign or the manager on duty simply tells Essien “No.”

“I don’t depend on it,” said Essien, who used the station’s single unisex bathroom one morning last month and says access generally depends on which station manager is on duty. “If I really need it, I ask. But there should be more than one.”

“If I go to the cinema, I know I can go to the bathroom,” he said. “But it’s not like that on the Metro.”

D.C. resident Rebeca Barge said she recalls someone once told her that she needed to ask the station manager for a key to use the Metro restroom. So she asked a Vienna Metro station manager for it. He laughed and said he couldn’t give her a key but would open the door for her.

“Up until a year ago, I didn’t know there were bathrooms at Metro stations,” said Barge, 28. “It’s nice to know they’re there.”

For other riders, Metro restrooms are more like that urban legend that you can see Robert E. Lee’s profile on the wisps of Honest Abe’s hair at the Lincoln Memorial.

“You always hear people talking about it, saying they’re somewhere there in the Metro station for an emergency,” said D.C. resident Aaron Chapman, a 26-year-old hotel manager.

“I’d look going down the escalator or the fire cabinet area, but no one knows where they are.”

Russell Carpenter, 73, has been riding the Metro since opening day in 1976.

“I never knew they were there,” Carpenter said.

It’s not supposed to be a secret. A special order to all Metro personnel dated March 17, 2004, required the restrooms to be opened for riders who asked. At the time, some agency officials, including law enforcement, expressed concerns that the restrooms could become havens for crime and other unsavory activities, hence the facilities remain locked.

Brubaker, the advocate for the bladder-challenged, said the push to get riders restroom privileges started at a neighborhood advocacy meeting in Mount Vernon, in Fairfax County. The meeting had nothing to do with restrooms, he said, but soon the conversation turned to them, and elderly and pregnant women complained, “We can’t go that long without going to the bathroom. Can you talk to people about the bathrooms on the Metro?”

Guy Tomberlin, Fairfax’s building code services manager, remembers Brubaker contacting his office. He wanted to know about a Virginia building code that required public restrooms in public facilities.

“We’re weren’t arguing for new laws. We were just asking for what’s required by law,” Brubaker said. “This is the law, and we want the laws enforced.”

Brubaker said the District had a similar code. And even though the building code wasn’t as clear in Maryland, Metro officials soon began examining restrooms that were tucked away in most stations’ break rooms.

In 2003, Metro leased a self-cleaning toilet from New Zealand and installed it at the Huntington station as a one-year test to “determine customer acceptance and feasibility.”

The Jetsons-inspired toilet, which the agency now owns, remains there today.

Touch a button, and a toilet seat comes out of a compartment in the wall. After the toilet is used, it automatically flushes and the seat is washed with a cleanser and returned to its compartment. But self-cleaning doesn’t necessarily mean it leaves the user feeling fresh and clean. One Metro rider familiar with the contraption joked that you have to hold your nose to use it. A Post reporter found the odor was unbearable and the floor was so wet that it was hard to tell whether it was from cleaning solution, water, urine or some combination of the three.

The rest of the system’s restrooms are pretty standard: unisex, with a urinal, toilet and sink with bubble gum-colored soap. Cleanliness and conditions of the facilities visited by a Post reporter varied, and for the most part were pretty standard for public restroom facilities.

Metro is the second-busiest subway system in the country, but other big-city systems seem to make it easier for their customers who, well, need to go. New York’s subway system has 126 public restrooms — 66 for men, 60 for women — that are kept unlocked. In Boston, there are 18 public restrooms — nine for men, nine for women — among the system’s 66 rail stations, some locked. San Francisco’s system has 35 unlocked public restrooms in its 44 stations.

Brubaker said building codes for restrooms have changed over the years and that when most of the current Metro stations were built, “the codes weren’t as rigid and not as spelled out.”

“The new ones are going to look pretty good,” he said.

Still, to Harold Cartier, a 23-year-old graduate student at George Washington University, it isn’t fair that users of some stations get nicer facilities.

“If they decide to include it for the Silver Line,” he said, “then why not do it for every line?”

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