Better restroom access can help municipalities live up to their claims of diversity and inclusion
Talking about going to the bathroom is a social taboo. But what do you do and where do you go when you really gotta go? The United States has eight public toilets per 100,000 people, trailing Iceland’s world-leading 56 public toilets per 100,000. Catarina de Albuquerque, chief executive of the United Nations Sanitation and Water for All global partnership, has lamented that the lack of public bathrooms is “an ongoing sanitation crisis, and it highlights American inequality and marginalization.”
I advocate for increasing the number of public restrooms in the Boston metro area. I began with a survey on Facebook and Reddit to see how people in our communities deal with the need for restrooms. I got more than 200 responses and learned that many businesses restrict use to paying customers. People also shared horrific stories of racial minorities being reported to the police for using retail restrooms even when they were paying customers, and taxi drivers using wide-mouthed bottles to relieve themselves because they did not know where public restrooms were. Some complained that even where restrooms did exist, they were often dirty. Many women and members of other marginalized groups, such as trans people, did not feel safe using them.
Despite this need for restrooms, public officials are going the opposite way from investing in infrastructure to design “hostile” architecture that has removed water fountains, restrooms and even park benches to repel use by unhoused people. At the same time, there are heavy fines for public urination and defecation. This unfairly penalizes the most vulnerable groups, but we all suffer from these policies.
It’s not just that we lack an adequate number of public restrooms. Even finding existing restrooms is not easy. The City of Boston has done a great job of designing an interactive map and a list of public restrooms by neighborhood, found easily on the municipal website. Greater Boston is made up of more than 40 communities, though, and most of their websites include ways to find parks, walking trails and even water-filling stations, but not restrooms.
As I campaign with local officials to acknowledge this essential biological need, I hear persistent fears that listing public bathrooms on official websites would encourage misuse by the unhoused population, or that it would attract illegal drug activity. Confoundingly, most if not all cities have initiatives to promote a diverse and inclusive community. If there are no mentions of public restrooms, how inclusive are these cities really being?
It is time to reframe the sanitation crisis as a social justice issue and hold local officials accountable to pledges of fostering a thriving and inclusive community. They must:
List on their websites all existing public restrooms. This is a first and easy step.
Improve street signs and wayfinding so people can locate public restrooms. Cambridge had 351 citations for indecent exposure in 2021; a reasonable estimate based on my work is that about 30 percent to 50 percent are due to public urination. Would these numbers go down if it were easy to see where restrooms are?
Enforce Ally’s Law that allows customers to use retail restrooms, especially when they suffer from chronic conditions such as Crohn’s. This is very important because minorities, the unhoused and people who don’t look “acceptable” are often denied access to restrooms by retailers or hotels.
Acknowledge public restrooms are public infrastructure and build more.
Not knowing where public restrooms were in our town led my grandfather to stop talking walks. I built bathroomaccess.com to step into the vacuum, but my aim – and wish – is that each municipality acknowledge this essential need and make my map redundant.
Amith Saligrama lives in Weston and attends school in Boston. His bathroomaccess.com is included among resources for “getting around Somerville” and was considered in 2022 for inclusion among Cambridge resources before the city decided to set up its own public database with restroom information.
Now how do we get retail sites to comply? Many simply post a sign here in Cambridge (including restaurants) that says ‘No Public Restrooms’ or ‘Restrooms Only For Patrons’ and will ignore the law (Ally’s Law) as they feel they are not bound by it, say they don’t know about it, or basically refuse with a ‘report us we will deny it they can’t enforce it, its your word against ours’.
Unfortunately, due to the Sackler induced opiate crisis, many business owners fear that people will overdose in their bathrooms and they will be liable and well as have traumatized employees. This is an all too common occurrence and understandable concern.
Public bathrooms should bear the opiate public health crisis in mind when it comes to everyone’s safety and comfort.