A few years ago, I had the admittedly terrible idea of documenting the New York City subway system’s public restrooms. I thought I would maybe make a day of checking out the bathrooms, snapping some photographs and writing up a witty overview of what I would find. Eventually, amNew York beat me to it, and I’m glad they did. I’ve used a subway restroom only once in my life (8th Ave./42nd St.), and it wasn’t a terrible experience. It was just one I’d rather not repeat.
Now and then, though, my curiosity still gets the best of me, and if I’m walking past a subway bathroom, I’m often tempted to duck in. Usually, though, I can’t. Despite signs promising open hours of 5 a.m. to midnight, I’ve found subway restrooms locked more often than not. Those on the mezzanine at West 4th St. are never open, and only once or twice have I seen straphangers duck into the bathrooms off the passageway between the Atlantic Ave. and Pacific St. sides of that complex. I can’t imagine what the ones on the F platform at Delancey St. look like, but those too are often locked.
This past week, Eric Jaffe at The Atlantic Cities tackled a different element of the Great Subway Bathroom Conundrum. Why, he asked, are America’s public transit systems generally without restrooms? By and large, cost seems to be the dominant factor as transit agencies that have restrooms have shut them because no one wants to pay to keep them clean. New York seems to be the exception. Jaffe writes:
Back in 1940, with Fiorello LaGuardia running the city, there were 1,676 functioning toilets in subway stations throughout the system — and all of them received weekly inspections. That figure has since dwindled significantly. Most reports now believe that 77 stations citywide have working public bathrooms (28 in Manhattan), mostly at major transfers or at the end of the line. A survey of the Manhattan facilities conducted by New York magazine in 2006 found most of them either impossible to locate or closed for “construction.” (The rest were just gross.) A citywide survey, done by AM New York in 2010, found that 60 of the 129 total restrooms were locked or being used for another purpose, such as storage. (The rest were still pretty gross.) The MTA cited “criminal activity” as the main reason for the closures.
So there you have it: We don’t have restrooms underground because of the unscrupulous activities they seem to foster. That doesn’t stop many people from simply using the subway system itself as a restroom, and therein lies the problem.