Home View from Underground Link: The subway’s missing and closed restrooms

Link: The subway’s missing and closed restrooms

by Benjamin Kabak

Please don’t relieve yourself in this former subway restroom. (Photo by flickr user theratrace)

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.

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JB January 7, 2013 - 2:24 pm

Used the Forest Hills one not too long ago for the first time….it was clearly not touched since the station was built and it definitely had a “basketball diaries” vibe to it. Still, it was far more pleasant than having to hold it all the way to the city.

Bolwerk January 7, 2013 - 2:25 pm

You know, if we actually had some outlet for those “unscrupulous activities,” they probably wouldn’t overflow into the public sphere to begin with. Prostitution and drugs have a place whether we like it or not in almost every society, and ours doesn’t deal well with that fact.

Oh, well, this observation is probably well outside the sphere of transit politics…but then, it still affects us by making some poor diabetic sucker’s day a little worse.

steven kennedy January 7, 2013 - 2:30 pm

Subway bathrooms would require full-time attendants. Add that to the payroll + medical + retirement benefits. We simply cannot afford it.

Bolwerk January 7, 2013 - 3:18 pm

They do not. There is no reason the janitorial crew that should exist for the subway can’t deal with them.

DingDong January 7, 2013 - 9:12 pm

Contract them out to private operators, as SBB does (and perhaps other countries). The operators can charge a fee. Same way the convenience stores in subway stations aren’t staffed by MTA employees.

JJJ January 8, 2013 - 5:39 am

WHy do they require full time attendants, but the ones in other public places like the mall, do not?

Rob January 7, 2013 - 2:43 pm

I always wondered why they don’t just charge to use the bathrooms. Even if it were something like $2 per use, occasionally you are down there any you just need to go. I imagine that would cut down on the use of the bathrooms by the homeless or loiterers. It would also help pay to keep it clean and keep people from just going on the platform like they do now.

Kai B January 8, 2013 - 9:01 am

This is how it’s done at Times Square.

Several years ago in Munich, I even saw a chain called McClean offering restroom and shower facilities in subway stations for a charge. I just found a photo of one in Nuremberg: http://members.virtualtourist.com/m/p/m/697ad/

The subway station I often frequent in Vienna has an attendant most of the day with extremely clean facilities. I believe the charge to use the toilet is €0.50. At night, when there is no staff, a “night toilet” is opened and it’s of about the quality of New York City subway restrooms.

Someone January 8, 2013 - 11:40 am

I saw one at the corner of 23rd St and Madison Ave in NYC. I also saw some other pay-to-use restrooms while I was on vacation in England. Those type of restrooms are really good investments and might actually be profitable for NYCS (unlike some of its other ventures).

Emily January 7, 2013 - 3:13 pm

Urinal.net has a great collection of urinal photos from around the system taken throughout the mid 00’s. Which of these are still open to the public?


Bolwerk January 7, 2013 - 3:17 pm

Heh, just looking at those pictures filled my nostrils with piss vapors.

Scott E January 7, 2013 - 3:17 pm

I’ve used the restroom at the Willets Point elevated station. With #7 trains running on the tracks above and traffic rumbling on Roosevelt Ave below, the room shakes like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. It’s no wonder the floor near the urinals show so much evidence of those who have a tendency to “miss”.

Someone January 7, 2013 - 3:46 pm

No wonder they closed all these bathrooms. No one wants to do their business in a trash-littered, graffitied bathroom full of rodents. Imagine how many lawsuits that would cause.

But there’s still open restrooms. I recently used the one at 161 St-Yankee Stadium and it stunk.

Anon January 7, 2013 - 3:54 pm

Seems like they’re missing out on a great advertising/sponsorship opportunity. Serious. Plaster the damn things with ads, you’ve got a captive audience. If they can sell ad space on the inside door of a porta-john at a music festival, charmin or kleenex or scrubbing bubbles or clorox could sponsor some public restrooms.

I used the restroom at 36th St. in Sunset Park a few years ago. It was both better and worse than I thought it would be, but there were precious few other options around.

Someone January 7, 2013 - 3:58 pm

The bathroom is not a place worth putting ads in. Those ads would be vandalised in no time.

Think twice January 9, 2013 - 9:39 pm


Add product placement, like those free Charmin bathrooms in Times Square, as well. I’m surprised the Bryant Park restrooms never went that route to pay for upkeep.

I only wish the MTA’s marketing department could share our thinking.

Think twice January 9, 2013 - 9:44 pm

Oops, I thought I was replying to Anon’s.

As for vandals; there’s nothing like cheap, replaceable mylar to keep their efforts in vain.

Patrick January 7, 2013 - 4:31 pm

You MUST be talking about another 36th St. I used Brooklyn’s 36th St. bathroom and its HORRIBLE. Coney Island’s bathrooms are a little better than 36th St.

John-2 January 7, 2013 - 4:07 pm

If the MTA wants to reopen the restrooms (or, more likely, if political pressure forced the MTA to reopen the restrooms), the probably should look at installing something like those self-cleaning toilets which were tried on in several Manhattan locations back in the 1990s. Fit the mechanics inside the existing bathroom space, factor in the price to maintain them (the original French-made self-cleaners cost 25 cents to use) and make it deductible on a Metrocard or future smart card so there would be no cash to worry about.

Christopher January 7, 2013 - 7:27 pm

My thoughts exactly. Can anyone tell me how we can propose this to someone who can make it happen? Or tell me why this isn’t a good idea (am I missing something)?

DZH January 7, 2013 - 4:11 pm

Every time I see an MTA worker sitting inside of a bullet-proofed glass box doing virtually nothing for hours at a time, I wonder why that labor is not deployed more productively doing things like cleaning up trash in the stations and keeping the system’s bathrooms up and running.

Simon January 10, 2013 - 8:17 am

Union work rules.

mark January 14, 2013 - 8:50 pm

should the Station Agent also wipe you too. I’ve personally seen them berated for no reason other than they missed there train. I don’t think they should treated as badly as they are. How many times have you smelled foul odors within feet from the token booth and they are breathing this in I hope they get $50 an hr for being subjected to that. I always say Good Morning as I come through my station. Remember the old adage if you do not have something nice to say don’t say anything.

DZH January 16, 2013 - 12:35 am

Really? I hope they get replaced by robots.

Scott B. January 7, 2013 - 4:14 pm

Self cleaning restrooms are the way to go with a weekly inspection. 25 cents is a fair price.

Someone January 7, 2013 - 4:38 pm

Installing bathrooms in all new stations, and charging people to use them, should more than cover the costs of installing non-free public bathrooms in the other stations.

Beamish January 7, 2013 - 5:11 pm

Lived in Queens and went to High School in Manhattan in the late ’80’s. Always transferred at Delancy b/w F&J – that platform bathroom was open at the time and it was shooting gallery most of the time. If there was no one in there shooting up then there was a homeless guy camping in there.

Once in four years I saw someone in there with a mop not accomplishing much. I asked him if that was actually helping and he just said “It’s like watering weeds, man.”

That was 25 years ago and it has only gotten worse. Heinlien long maintained that the decay of society could be witnessed in its public bathrooms. From the looks if the subway it seems as if society is simply gone now.

Tsuyoshi January 7, 2013 - 5:17 pm

By contrast with the subway restrooms (and many of the elevators…), the restrooms in both Penn Station and Grand Central are clean. I wonder why?

Benjamin Kabak January 7, 2013 - 5:21 pm

One word I would never ever use to describe the restrooms in Penn Station is “clean.”

Bolwerk January 7, 2013 - 5:28 pm

Seems to depend when you get into one.

What I wouldn’t do is describe the people in them as “sane.”

Someone January 7, 2013 - 5:24 pm

They are privately operated. Neither bathrooms are operated by the MTA.

Someone January 7, 2013 - 5:27 pm

By contrast with the decrepit conditions in the NYCS bathrooms, the bathrooms I’ve seen in the Tokyo Metro are sparkling clean– and high-tech.

Phantom January 7, 2013 - 8:51 pm

The Japanese are more civilized than we are.

I’d be happy with rest rooms in most express stations. You can’t have them everywhere.

Someone January 7, 2013 - 9:23 pm

But still, the MTA should try to put at least a little more effort in cleaning their bathrooms. As it is, I wouldn’t go in a subway bathroom unless I was about to pee in my pants and I couldn’t hold it any longer.

Phantom January 7, 2013 - 9:38 pm


And anyone who frequently has an issue with this problem may want to learn how to drink less

You don’t see too many women pissing at the end of the platform at night. Its the men who don’t know hiw to drink beer in very many cases

Matthias January 10, 2013 - 8:21 am

Some of us drink water to stay hydrated.

Bruce M January 8, 2013 - 1:48 am

Yes, they provide a convenient, and clean, ledge to place your briefcase on top of while at the urinal, and a hook to hang up your umbrella! Need I say more?

Miles Bader January 8, 2013 - 4:38 am

Of course in many cases they receive a lot of use, so even with very regular cleaning and relatively civilized users, Tokyo rail bathrooms can be a bit grotty.

That does bring up one interesting observation though: squat toilets have a significant advantage over the sit-down kind when they’re dirty, because you don’t have to touch them to use them…

Bruce M January 8, 2013 - 3:44 pm

I think a homeless person at 34th Street squatted and missed tht toilet altogether.

Someone January 8, 2013 - 5:25 pm

When did that happen? I’m sorry, but I haven’t heard about this yet.

peter January 7, 2013 - 7:38 pm

If you want to try a relatively clean and open MTA restroom, the ones at the transit museum in Brooklyn are well maintained. It’s no longer a functioning station, but think of it as a peek back at a more innocent time.

Brian January 7, 2013 - 9:12 pm

A few of my friends and I were considering doing a ride the whole system ride. The Bathroom situation s why we decided against it

Chicken Underwear January 7, 2013 - 10:46 pm

The Men’s room in the Atlantic Ave / Barclay’s station is not so bad. But it might actually be part of the LIRR

Benjamin Kabak January 7, 2013 - 10:52 pm

If it’s outside of NYCT fare control, it’s LIRR. If it’s inside fare control, it’s Transit’s. The McDonald’s in the Atlantic Center has a very nice bathroom though.

Chicken Underwear January 7, 2013 - 10:56 pm

ahh. There is a nasty bathroom between the IRT and the D/N/R

alen January 8, 2013 - 7:45 am

this was a problem in the 80’s and 90’s, but now we have starbucks

Kai B January 8, 2013 - 9:07 am

I used the restroom at Church Avenue (F,G) shortly after the station renovation was complete and it was fine. No idea what it looks like now.

Daniel Howard January 10, 2013 - 8:06 pm

In San Francisco, there has been some argument that restrooms are an ADA issue, for two reasons:

1) One could argue that having reduced capacity to wait a long period to use the restroom is a disability which ought to be reasonably accommodated.

… but also …

2) Lack of restrooms means the most private spot in the system to perform a bowel movement is in an elevator. Lack of restrooms creates lack of sanitary elevators, creates non-compliance with ADA.


Someone January 16, 2013 - 9:17 pm Reply
Deezil March 3, 2013 - 9:56 am

NYC is a Cesspool shit hole anyway. No real reason why I Would expect it’s Subway’s to actually have working Restrooms in it.
Can’t Imagine why anyone would want to live like that. Too Worried about Big Soda’s and stripping people of their 2nd amendment than to keep the restrooms up. Real Civil.

snogglethorpe March 3, 2013 - 8:33 pm

…theme song from deliverance…

Someone March 15, 2013 - 5:18 pm


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