You may never notice the public restrooms located inside of Metro stations – but you almost always have a right to use them.

Bathroom access inside Metro stations garnered attention this week, when NBC 4 reported that a pregnant woman was denied access to the bathroom at the Shady Grove station last week, causing her to “have an accident.” Rachel Eisinger-Baskin, who is five months pregnant, told NBC 4’s Adam Tuss that a Metro employee told her that she had abused her bathroom privileges – she had asked to use the employee restroom a few times before, as the customer restroom was closed.

“Unfortunately, I ended up having an accident, and then I got so upset, and I was embarrassed that I got sick on myself, and I had to go home,” Eisinger-Baskin told NBC 4.

She ended up filing a complaint with the transit agency — “I was so appalled and so frustrated,” she said — and has since been able to use the bathroom again. Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said that Metro’s customer service department “addressed the issue” and apologized to Eisinger-Baskin.

But it’s been a years-long battle to get passengers’ restroom rights recognized by Metro — a battle that The Washington Post recounted back in 2014, with the help of Robert Brubaker, founder of the American Restroom Association. Back in the early 2000s, “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,” the story explains.

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.”

In 2004, Metro finally clarified their policy customers’ access to station restrooms, issuing a special order declaring that “WMATA policy is to make a restroom available to customers in limited circumstances. … The customer restroom will be labeled ‘Customer Restroom.’ The circumstances under which the restroom will be made available to customers are: in an emergency situation, for children, and for customers who are elderly or physically disabled.”

Under the policy, Metro reserves the right to deny access to the bathrooms when there is a higher-than-normal threat of a terrorist attack, or if law enforcement agencies declare it necessary to keep the bathrooms closed.

Metro staff can also hold off on opening the bathroom for a passenger if the station is overcrowded and employees need to assist with other passengers.

And according to the special order, station managers are required to fill out a “restroom refusal report” that details the reason why a customer was denied access to the bathroom.

Still, many of Metro’s customer restrooms remain hidden to unknowing passersby. Our colleague Victoria St. Martin recounted her experience hunting down a bathroom at the L’Enfant Plaza station:

“One station manager says the restroom is being cleaned and suggests going upstairs to use the facilities at the Five Guys restaurant,” St. Martin writes. “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,” she added.