When I visited the Georgetown Waterfront in July, I spent almost 20 minutes searching for a public bathroom. This incident, although merely an inconvenience for me, exemplifies a much larger issue for residents of Washington, D.C. Local governments in the United States have relied on private businesses to fill in for a scarcity of public restrooms, a strategy that has proven futile during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, tourists, delivery drivers and the homeless population have extremely limited access to bathrooms in the District. The D.C. Council must work with underserved populations and public interest advocacy organizations to increase the installation of public restrooms, allowing all District residents convenient and clean access to basic amenities.
The lack of accessible public bathrooms has been an issue since before the pandemic. As a part of its 2015 Downtown D.C. Public Restroom Initiative, People for Fairness Coalition, a housing advocacy group, visited 85 businesses around the District, including in downtown D.C. and Georgetown, and asked for use of their restrooms. Only 43 businesses gave them permission. When the experiment was repeated in 2017, the number had fallen significantly lower to just 11. In a 2020 interview on WAMU’s The Kojo Nnamdi Show, PFFC member Marcia Bernbaum stated the 2015 study found only five public restrooms open in downtown D.C. during the day that would accept homeless people.
When public spaces like libraries were forced to close their doors during the COVID-19 pandemic, those relying on public restrooms were left with little to no options. Low-income residents were severely impacted, as private businesses often require a purchase for use of their bathrooms. But as University of Maryland School of Law professor Taunya Banks notes, the discrepancy in affected demographics is not only because of income disparity but also gender and race. People who experience periods need a private space with a working sink, and people of color could be endangered when attempting to use a private bathroom. A lack of public restrooms creates a tremendous burden for the populations most overlooked by society.
As a result of advocacy by the People for Fairness Coalition, the D.C. Council passed the Public Restroom Facilities Installation and Promotion Act of 2017, which created a working group that identifies locations for 24/7 public restrooms and proposes incentive programs for businesses to provide public access to their bathrooms. The initiative, however, is still in the early stages and does not include measures for implementing public bathrooms. Although the city has installed portable toilets and handwashing stations near homeless encampments as a short-term solution, homeless advocates report these facilities are not regularly cleaned. With only temporary plans in place, the city must further develop concrete initiatives to construct long-term public restrooms.
To advance current projects, the D.C. Council can look at programs implemented by other cities for guidance. The Portland Loo, an innovative public bathroom project from Portland, Ore., offers one example of how to address a lack of public restroom access. Designed with a focus on crime prevention and easy maintenance, each structure has open slats at the top and bottom, which allow onlookers to see inside without invading the user’s privacy. The bathrooms are also designed to prevent heroin use by making it difficult to see one’s veins.
On the other hand, some of the design features of the Portland Loos have severely stripped down the restrooms’ usability. There are no sinks to encourage quick use, which means homeless people are unable to use the facility to wash up. The design functionally discourages use from those who need it most. D.C. public bathrooms must include all the necessary accommodations so the needs of residents who fully rely on these facilities are addressed. Even if security risks are posed, a partial restroom is merely a partial solution to an issue that will worsen over time.
The Portland Loo project teaches us that public bathrooms must be tailored to a city’s unique needs. The local D.C. community should play a key role in deciding restrooms’ features so demographics such as disabled people, homeless people and other underrepresented groups historically left out of city planning projects are able to use the facilities. By incorporating usability feedback with necessary safety mechanisms, D.C. can build public restrooms that reduce waste on the streets and create a more tourist-friendly city.
Angela Yu is a first-year in the School of Foreign Service. District Discourse is published every other week.