Leonard S. Greenberger: Restroom access is a universal human right

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Almost all of us can tell stories about personal restroom emergencies, many of which come to an embarrassing end. I have plenty, including the time I suddenly had to turn around less than a mile into a run and sprint back to my hotel in California — even as I was unable to control my bowels. What a mess.

Understandably, few people like to share these stories. And that’s too bad. Because restroom use is a universal need shared by every human being on the planet. It’s also a human right, according to the United Nations. Yet if one walks around Washington’s downtown core with restroom access in mind, it quickly becomes apparent that access is very limited.

Based on research conducted by the People for Fairness Coalition’s Downtown DC Public Restroom Initiative (PRI), only two public restrooms are open and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. One is located at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial; the other at the Lincoln Memorial. A third, at Union Station, is no longer available 24/7. And there are only five public restrooms off the Mall that are available during the daytime. Just one of these offers access in the early morning and into the evening, with the other four open between six and 9.5 hours.

What’s worse, there are no signs to tell you where any of these restrooms is.

Private restrooms harder to find

PRI’s research also shows that fewer and fewer private businesses (restaurants especially) are providing access to their restrooms for non-customers. That’s understandable. Restrooms get dirty quickly, and it costs those businesses money to keep them clean and available. But it’s also discriminatory. I’m a white-collar professional who usually dresses in business attire. When I wander into a restaurant or hotel to use a restroom, no one stops me. Families with small children, Uber and taxi drivers, delivery people, those who can’t afford to purchase something, and the housing insecure don’t enjoy the same privilege. They are too often turned away.

It’s an important problem, one that may be uncomfortable to discuss but that needs to be addressed. Thanks to PRI’s hard work — and the support of numerous churches, advisory neighborhood commissions, private businesses and other organizations — we are moving closer to a solution. In April 2017, DC Council members Brianne Nadeau, David Grosso, Elissa Silverman and Robert White introduced legislation that would establish a multi-agency work group charged with providing concrete recommendations for two programs designed to enhance access to clean, safe public restrooms available to everyone in needed areas of DC. A public hearing took place Jan. 10. Unless two council panels — the Committee on Health and the Committee on Transportation and the Environment — mark up the bill and send it to the full council for a vote by the end of the year, it will have to be reintroduced in the next council session.

If formed, the working group will:

  • Recommend an appropriate model and siting for stand-alone public restrooms available 24/7. There are different types of stand-alone public toilets installed and maintained in many other cities across the country and around the world. I personally favor a toilet known as the “Portland Loo” because of its safety features, relatively low installation and maintenance costs, and widespread use and acceptance in the United States and Canada.
  • Develop a program to provide incentives to businesses that open their restrooms to the public like the Community Toilet Scheme in place in boroughs throughout London and the rest of England. Under this program, restaurants and pubs receive a small stipend in exchange for making their restrooms available to non-customers. Participating businesses place a sticker in their windows and can be found easily the borough’s websites available to residents, workers and tourists. As the owner of a professional services firm in Washington, I particularly like this option. Perhaps the alley I often walk through on Monday mornings wouldn’t be so, well, smelly.

DC Council should act

Better access to restrooms would help virtually everyone: tourists, walkers, runners, cyclists, transportation professionals, the housing insecure, pregnant women, families with young children … the list goes on and on. Workers and retail business owners, too, because they would have less poop to scoop.

As a longtime D.C. resident, business owner, runner and father, I urge the DC Council to pass the Public Restroom Facilities Installation and Promotion Act of 2017 (Bill 22-0223) and get to the business of studying this long-term problem. I know I will be very eager to learn what the working group discovers and recommends.

Leonard S. Greenberger is a 30-year District resident who raised two children in the city.


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The DC Line welcomes commentaries representing various viewpoints on local issues of concern, but the opinions expressed do not represent those of The DC Line. Submissions of up to 850 words may be sent to editor Chris Kain at chriskain@thedcline.org.

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