Council Discusses Bill to Identify Locations of New Public Bathrooms

Image credit: New York City Council.

Advocates highlighted the public health and equity issues New Yorkers face when struggling to find a public restroom. On Wednesday, June 28th, the City Council’s Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure held a hearing on a bill which would be the first step in expanding the number of available public bathrooms in New York City. The bill, Int. 258-2022, would require the Departments of Transportation and Parks to collaborate on a report identifying at least one location for a new public bathroom in each zip code. The report would be completed by June 1, 2023. The bill was introduced in April by its lead sponsor, Council Member Rita Joseph.

Currently, there are 1,103 public bathrooms in New York City. This number includes 680 comfort stations, which are permanent bathroom facilities in city parks, bathrooms in subway stations, all of which were closed early in the COVID-19 pandemic; bathrooms at transportation hubs like Grand Central Terminal; and other spaces such as libraries, police stations, and privately owned public spaces. There are also five free-standing, self-cleaning bathrooms, which were introduced in 2008. The City bought 20 of these self-cleaning units, but according to information shared at the hearing the remaining fifteen units are still warehoused in Queens.

The hearing featured live testimony from members of the administration including Commissioner Ydanis Rodrigues of the New York City Department of Transportation and Sarah Neilson, Chief of Policy and Long-Range Planning for the Department of Parks and Recreation.

The officials expressed support for the bill but enumerated challenges to the installation of new facilities. Commissioner Rodriguez spoke about the difficulties in finding suitable locations for the self-cleaning bathrooms because of their size, weight, and the necessity for water and sewer connections. The Commissioner also cited community resistance, referring to his own time as a Council Member, and the effort required to get a unit installed in his district. Ms. Neilson also cited utility access when asked by Committee Chair Selvena N. Brooks-Powers about the high cost of building and maintaining new comfort stations.

During public comment, there was live and remote testimony from individuals and organizations supporting the bill.

Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine testified in support of the bill, stating “This is a bill which addresses a persistent public policy failure in New York City. Our failure to provide an adequate number of public bathrooms for the people of this city. . . it’s a matter of public health, it’s a matter of equity, and it’s a matter of dignity.”

Teddy Siegel, the creator of the TikTok account, “got2goNYC,” talked about bathroom access as an equity issue. Siegel’s TikTok shares information about bathrooms in New York open to the public and advocates for more bathroom accessibility. She stated that “I have learned from my followers that the issue at hand is two-fold: as well as being a public health crisis, the lack of sanitary, accessible, and public NYC bathrooms is an equity crisis. Marginalized groups are bearing the brunt of the city’s failures.” She discussed comments New Yorkers have shared with her over social media, stating, “In February of this year a man commented on my page ‘as a black man who does deliveries at night I don’t even bother trying [to find a restroom to use] at this point.’” Siegel further acknowledged the inequity that as a white woman she “can walk into most hotels and use their lobby bathroom without being questioned or told to leave. This is not the case for the majority of New Yorkers.”

Osendy Garcia, a community organizer, member of Manhattan Community Board 11, and advocate for the homeless, talked about how the existing shortage of bathrooms was exacerbated by widespread bathroom closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The closures resulted in a human rights issue for the city’s unhoused population, who lacked alternatives for restrooms they could access. Representatives of Transportation Alternatives, Open Plans, StreetsPAC, and other advocacy groups also spoke in support for the bill.

Borough President Levine and Council Member Joseph held a rally for the bill on the steps of City Hall prior to the hearing. The rally included many of the individuals and organizations who spoke during the hearing, as well as a representative of the Street Vendor Project, Committee Chair Brooks-Powers, and Council Member Ari Kagan. Council Member Kagan said the issue was, “common sense.” He continued, “We want to make New York City livable to everyone. It’s not an issue even of equity. It’s an issue of being, like, normally alive in New York City.”

The bill is currently laid over by committee.

By: Christopher Kipiniak (Christopher is a CityLaw intern and a New York Law School student, Class of 2024.)

CC: Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure (Int. 0258-2022. 6/28/22).


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