I’m restroom-challenged. Wherever I go, I have to plan carefully to make sure I’m never too far from an available restroom. And I’m not alone. Millions of Americans, including older adults, children, pregnant women, the homeless, tourists and those who suffer from myriad diseases, have to spend a lot of time and effort to make sure they’re always prepared in the event that nature calls.
Unfortunately, access to restrooms here in the nation’s capital is woefully inadequate. While plenty of public restrooms are available along the Mall during the day, options dwindle to just three at night.
It’s time to declare that we can — and must — do better. In 2010, the United Nations declared safe and clean drinking water and sanitation to be a “human right essential to the full enjoyment of life and all other human rights.” Access to clean, safe restrooms is a matter of human dignity, and it is critical for personal and public health.
Those of us who have traveled in Europe and Asia know that public restrooms are plentiful in large cities there. In most major cities overseas, those who may need to go urgently can rest assured knowing that there is a clean, safe public restroom nearby and that they can find out how to get there.
In London, to take one example, the central borough has four attended public restrooms open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekends; eight stand-alone public restrooms that are open 24/7; four urinals (situated near bars and pubs, because liquor is a diuretic) that come up from the ground at night; and 75 private facilities, mostly restaurants, that receive an incentive and have stickers on their windows indicating that their restrooms are open to the public during the hours they are in service. The city even offers an app that can help you find the nearest available public restroom.
Nearly three years ago, the People for Fairness Coalition launched the Downtown DC Public Restroom Initiative. We carried out a feasibility study to identify lessons learned and best practices from U.S. cities that in recent years have been successful in installing clean, safe, available public restrooms. We did an inventory of restrooms in private facilities in five D.C. neighborhoods: Gallery Place, Dupont Circle, Georgetown, the K Street corridor and Columbia Heights. And we carried out a comprehensive search to identify public restrooms open during the day as well as those open 24/7.
To our amazement, we found that there are only three public restrooms in all of the District that are open 24/7: those at Union Station, the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial — and there are no signs telling you how to get to them. Imagine it is late at night. You are walking down the street and urgently have to go to the bathroom. If you can’t make it and experience the misfortune of having no choice but to “go” outside and are caught by a police officer, you risk receiving a fine of up to $500, up to 90 days in jail or both. During the day, off the Mall there are only six public restrooms in downtown Washington, their hours are limited, and there are no signs to tell you where they are.
The situation isn’t much better when it comes to finding private facilities with restroom access. Forty-two of the 85 private facilities we visited in early 2015 permitted people who weren’t patrons to use their restrooms. When we visited the same facilities in early 2016, the number had dwindled to 28. And when we returned to the same facilities in mid-2017, only 11 (or 13 percent) permitted entry to non-patrons.
In April, D.C. Council members Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), David Grosso (I-At Large), Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) and Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) introduced Bill 22-0223, the Public Restroom Facilities Installation and Promotion Act of 2017.
The bill would work toward creating public restrooms and establish an incentive for private businesses to make their restrooms available to the public. A public hearing on the bill is scheduled for Jan. 10.
I’m confident that everyone has a story to tell about a near-miss or unfortunate accident. For everyone who lives in, works in and visits our nation’s capital, we can do better.
The writer is mentor and adviser to the People for Fairness Coalition’s Downtown DC Public Restroom Initiative.