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More public restrooms could come to D.C. under proposed pilot programs

Business incentives and a working group that would identify sites for freestanding facilities are on the table

A Portland Loo public restroom in Portland, Oregon

Update, Dec. 18: The D.C. Council gave final approval to a bill that sets up pilot programs to encourage more bathrooms for free public use in the city, drawing praise from advocates.

Update, Dec. 4: District lawmakers on Tuesday preliminarily approved legislation to create more public restrooms in the city through two complementary pilot programs that are set to launch next year, assuming that they are funded during D.C.’s annual budget process in the spring. The D.C. Council is expected to approve the legislation for a second and final time on Dec. 18, before it is forwarded to Mayor Muriel Bowser and to Congress for standard review.

Original post, Nov. 27:

Residents and visitors in need of a bathroom while out and about may find a bit of relief in the months ahead, thanks to an official effort to facilitate more public toilets in the District.

The D.C. Council’s committee on transportation and the environment last week advanced a bill to establish a working group of city agencies and community experts that would review where additional public restrooms are needed and could feasibly be built. Composed of 14 members, the group would recommend to the mayor two pilot sites for stand-alone public restrooms. The District would maintain these facilities and they would be free for all to use.

To ensure public safety, the bathrooms would be subject to periodic monitoring during the pilot. After they have been open for a year, the mayor would report the “costs of installing, maintaining, policing, and repairing” the facilities to the Council, which could then sign off on the creation of more stand-alone public toilets. The working group would weigh nearby pedestrian traffic, the availability of existing restrooms, proximity to homeless services, and the advice of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) in determining the two initial locations.

If approved, the legislation would bring D.C. in line with other major cities around the world that provide freestanding public toilets, such as San Francisco, New York, and Paris. Though there are several public restrooms around the National Mall and some businesses keep their bathrooms open to non-customers, activists like the People for Fairness Coalition, which has extensively studied the topic, say there are not enough round-the-clock public toilets in D.C.

The organization hailed the committee’s approval of the bill, which still has to be marked up by the Council’s committee of the whole before two required legislative votes that are poised to occur before the end of the year. In an email, Marcia Bernbaum, an adviser and a mentor to the People for Fairness Coalition’s Downtown DC Public Restroom Initiative, writes that proponents are confident that the working group “will incorporate lessons learned and best practices from other cities” when choosing the two pilot sites and the models for the toilets.

As a complementary measure, the committee’s proposal would also establish a second pilot program under which businesses would receive funding for making their restrooms publicly available, including to people who have not purchased anything from those businesses. The mayor would select one BID whose establishments could participate in the pilot. Businesses would not be forced to change their hours or admit anyone “violating District law, posing a health risk, or posing a threat of harm to themselves or others,” according to the legislation.

After two years of this second pilot, the D.C. police department would report to the Council whether crime increased around the participating businesses. The mayor would also report the total number of participating businesses and the yearly costs of the incentives program.

In late October, D.C.’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO) found that implementing the bill would cost $336,000 in the current fiscal year and $722,000 over the next four. The CFO’s analysis assumes that the two freestanding pilot restrooms would go into service after October. It also assumes that the District would install two Portland Loos—a safety-focused model that took off in Oregon and is now used in about two dozen North American cities—and that 30 pilot businesses would each receive $2,000 a year in financial incentives to run public bathrooms. The Council would have to allocate this funding in the spring, in annual budget negotiations.

The D.C. Chief Financial Officer’s fiscal analysis of the public restrooms bill
D.C. government

The legislation has been scaled down since it was introduced by four councilmembers in early 2017 at the urging of advocates. The original version laid out that the working group would identify “at least 10 locations” for public restrooms and that the mayor would create citywide incentives for businesses—not just two locations and a single-BID incentives pilot.

Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, who chairs the committee on transportation and the environment, said at the committee’s meeting on Nov. 19 that lawmakers were concerned that implementing the dual programs on a large scale before the working group produced its recommendations would risk “investing extensive effort and funding into solutions that may not be a right fit for the District.” The committee approved the bill on a 4–1 vote. Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd voted against it, and said that though he supports having public restrooms in the District, the proposed method “seems untenable and unnecessary.”

Todd added that he had spoken with someone in the Seattle city government who warned him about Seattle’s experience with stand-alone public toilets. “I will spare you the graphic details,” Todd told the committee, “but needless to say the bathrooms were a detriment to the city and not an enhancement. I fear the same results here in the District.” He also said he was “not convinced” that D.C. actually has a significant need for additional public restrooms.

Bernbaum, the adviser to the People for Fairness Coalition, challenged Todd’s assessment. She said that while Seattle had to shutter five of its automated public toilets a decade ago after encountering “serious issues,” the city has decided to install a Portland Loo next year. As for the pending D.C. proposal, a majority of the Council—including the bill’s drafters and the members of Cheh’s committee who voted in its favor last week—has supported it so far.

On Nov. 28, the Council’s health committee also moved the bill forward. “One need only walk into some of our McDonald’s, for example, to have an appreciation of the enormous need we have for addressing this problem,” committee chair and Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray said. Ward 1’s Brianne Nadeau, one of the bill’s initial authors, noted that the process behind it was “a long and winding road, but we’re here and I think this is the very best version of the legislation.” Adequate restroom access is “a question of public health and basic human dignity,” she said.

This post has been updated to reflect the health committee’s Nov. 28 vote.


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