The lack of public restrooms in New York City, compared to other large cities is an ongoing “crisis,” according to Manhattan borough president Mark Levine. Everyone is concerned about it, he said, but nobody is making it a top priority.
“This is a public health problem,” he said. “This is an economic development problem. This is definitely an equity problem.”
He made his remarks earlier this month in an Instagram Live discussion with Teddy Siegel, the creator of got2goNYC, a social media account focused on public bathrooms in the city.
During the livestream, which lasted just over 35 minutes and averaged around 50 viewers, Levine and Siegel discussed recent legislative progress on expanding access to public bathrooms as well as ensuring existing ones are well-maintained.
“This affects everyone,” said Levine. “Maybe you’re a tourist coming to New York. Maybe you’re a worker out there in the street, you need a public bathroom. Maybe you’re a journalist out on an assignment. Maybe you’re someone with a disability or a medical condition, like Crohn’s or colitis, that means you’re going to need access to [a bathroom] frequently.”
Siegel, a Manhattan resident originally from Long Island, created got2gonyc in July 2021. While shopping in Times Square with her sister, Siegel felt the need to use the restroom but was unable to find a place to go, being turned away at several businesses, and eventually resorting to making a purchase at a McDonald’s to gain their bathroom code.
“Afterwards, I was just wondering, why did that happen?” Siegel said. “This is a basic bodily function. I just [went through] so much anxiety and spent money in order to go to the bathroom. I really wished there was a resource that I could have gone to that just showed me where this bathroom was.”
Got2go soon became that resource. Through the accounts, Siegel shares reviews and information regarding publicly accessible restrooms in parks, stores, restaurants, hotel lobbies, and more. She has also created a public, crowd-sourced map of over 2,000 such restrooms throughout the city. In the two years since Siegel created got2gonyc, she’s racked up over 230,000 followers on Instagram and 150,000 on TikTok. With her sizeable audience, Siegel has gained allies in the city government, who hope to expand the city’s public restroom infrastructure to a point that New Yorkers will no longer need resources like got2gonyc to find a place to relieve themselves.
Last year, Siegel appeared at a press conference with Levine and testified before the City Council to advocate for Int 0258-2022, the so-called “Bathroom Bill.” The legislation mandates the Department of Transportation and the Department of Parks and Recreation to identify a location where a public bathroom could be constructed in every ZIP code throughout the city. The bill was introduced by Levine and Brooklyn Council Member Rita Joseph and was enacted last November.
The bill, notably, does not mandate the construction of any new public bathrooms, simply the identification of potential locations. Nonetheless, Levine explained that he sees this as a valuable first step. A 2019 report from the Comptroller’s Office found that, among the 100 largest cities in the United States, New York ranks 93rd in public bathrooms per capita. St. Paul, Minnesota ranks first, with 210 bathrooms per 100,000 residents. Buffalo has 84. New York City? A measly 16.
“I’ve talked to government players for years [about building more restrooms], and [they say] it’s too complicated, there’s no way to do it,” Levine said. “We wanted to call the question, to force the city to find options.”
Levine and Siegel also discussed another bill, Int. 1076-2023, which would make more restrooms in public-facing municipal buildings accessible to the public. Levine noted that expanding access to existing bathrooms is a less expensive option than erecting new ones, which requires not only construction but the installation of new plumbing lines. Building a new, fully-equipped comfort station in a park, Levine said, can cost the city $3-5 million each.
A less pricy option, Levine explained, is modular, prefabricated single-stall units, like the Portland Loo, which cost roughly $185,000 each to install. In February, a trial run of five Portland Loo units, one in a public park in each borough, was announced with a tentative launch date next summer.
Levine also spoke enthusiastically about Int 0576-2022. Another bill introduced by Joseph last year, approved by the council in October, and enacted on November 5, this bill requires the Department of Parks and Recreation to inspect and issue detailed reports on public bathrooms under the department’s jurisdiction that have previously been reported as being in “unacceptable” condition. This bill, Levine explained, would ease the maintenance of existing public restroom infrastructure by centralizing information on what repairs and improvements are needed at specific locations.
Expansion of public bathroom access in New York has often been slow. In 2006, Mayor Bloomberg announced a 20-year contract with JC Decaux to build 20 public restrooms. The City reported last year that only five have been built. But Levine seems optimistic that now is the moment to change that.
“In 2022 and 2023, we have been scoring wins to fix this, passing laws to change this, to force the city to address this crisis,” Levine said. “Partly because of [Siegel] and the got2go community, we are making more progress than ever. We’re going to make this a more hospitable, healthier, safer city, a more equitable city by expanding access to public bathrooms.”
Levine and Siegel concluded the stream by emphasizing the importance of everyday New Yorkers reaching out to their representatives to support public bathroom expansion. “There’s not any city council member who would say having public bathrooms is a bad idea, but it’s about priorities. If they hear from you, that has an impact.”
The ultimate goal, Siegel explained, is for the city to be a place where public bathrooms are so accessible that resources like got2go are no longer necessary. “I just hope that one day, New York City is a place where everyone has a place to go whenever they need it,” Siegel said. “And it’s not even something that people have to think about.”
“In 2022 and 2023, we have been scoring wins to fix this, passing laws to change this, to force the city to address this crisis. “Partly because of [Teddy Siegel] and the got2go community, we are making more progress than ever.” Manhattan Borough president Mark Levine.