New York City

New Yorkers are scrambling for public restroom access with limited availability

While a new bill would require city departments to identify a new restroom location in every ZIP code, it stops short from ordering their completion.

A public toilet at Herald Square.

A public toilet at Herald Square. Richard Levine/Corbis via Getty Images

It’s a unifying situation that all New Yorkers and city visitors face at some point: finding a place to go while on the go. 

In a city of more than 8 million people, the number of public restrooms translates to about one for every 6,000 individuals. And that says nothing of the millions of tourists swarming the city each year, or the fact that while some ZIP codes have a swath of restrooms, others have far fewer. Given the many restaurants and businesses that shuttered their doors throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the past two years only exacerbated the issue.

New Yorkers have responded to the lack of restrooms in a variety of ways. Some might shell out a couple of dollars to buy a coffee or pack of gum in exchange for that coveted bathroom access. Others may try their luck at a hotel or a bustling restaurant. Some may even consult one of the more creative methods that’s sprung up from the demand: @got2gonyc, a TikTok account that shares videos on free public restrooms in the city. As for city leaders, some have drawn up legislation. 

The latest method that’s making waves across public discourse? Legislation that would require the city Department of Transportation and the city Department of Parks and Recreation to submit a joint report to the mayor and city council speaker that identifies at least one location in every of New York City’s 214 ZIP codes that would be suitable to install a public restroom. The report, which would also require both departments to consult with community boards and the public about the best locations, would be due in about a year. An average Parks and Recreation Department restroom costs taxpayers a little under $3.6 million as of 2019, according to The City. 

“When we don’t have public bathrooms, we smell human waste in public parks, in our subway stations, in our neighborhoods, no one wants to see that,” said the bill’s sponsor, City Council Member Rita Joseph. “We can prevent this by providing public bathrooms that the city will clean and maintain for everyone. Everyone needs a place ... a safe place to use the restroom, this will improve the quality of life for every New Yorker.”

During a legislative hearing where the bill was first introduced towards the end of April, Joseph said the city needs more than one new restroom per ZIP code, but this is a “step in the right direction.” On June 28, she and supporters of the bill, including Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine, underscored these points when introducing the legislation to the City Council Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. 

"This is a matter of public health. It's a matter of equity. It's a matter of dignity, and it impacts everybody whether you are a parent with young children, whether you are pregnant or menstruating," Levine said during the hearing. "Whether you are an older New Yorker or someone with a unique medical condition that impacts this, whether you are a street worker, or a delivery worker or a tourist, it impacts all of us.”

According to Levine, the greatest symbol of the city’s failure to address this issue is the fact that there are currently 15 bathrooms ready to be installed in Queens which have remained in a warehouse for years.

There’s about 1,100 publicly accessible restrooms in New York City – a number that has had no significant increase in over 40 years, according to an analysis published in 2020 by the Urban Design Forum. The research, which comes from an architect, data analyst and urban planner, said the city is experiencing a “public bathroom crisis” and described restroom access as both a human right and public health concern. 

New York is ranked 93rd out of the 100 largest U.S. cities for the number of public restrooms per capita, according to a 2019 report by then-New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer. The report notes that many of the New York City Parks restrooms have fallen into a state of disrepair. 

While Joseph’s legislation takes steps towards unfurling more safe publicly accessible restrooms in the city by identifying good locations, it stops short of requiring the city to actually install any new restrooms, which she said has to do with wanting to be as informed as possible. 

“When I was a teacher, data always drove my instruction, and now that I'm a legislator, data needs to drive my policy." she told City & State. "Before any major policy changes are enacted, we need the best data available to ensure that any decisions being made are the right ones." Thirty-one council members have signed on to the legislation as co-sponsors, and Joseph said she’s excited by the momentum. 

Teddy Siegel, the face behind the @got2gonyc TikTok account, joined Levine and Joseph earlier this week on the steps of City Hall to support the bill. 

Since starting the account after scrambling to find a restroom in Times Square, the 23-year-old opera student at the Mannes School of Music has gone from sharing screen recordings of restroom locations to giving speeches on bathroom equity. Over the past year, Siegel’s account has amassed more than 1.7 million likes and over 118,000 followers – many of whom have made her think deeper about how the lack of bathrooms is also an equity issue. 

“As a white, cis woman, I can walk into most hotels and use their lobby bathroom without being questioned or told to leave … So many New Yorkers have written to me or commented on different posts that that’s just absolutely not the case for them,” Siegel told City & State. “It’s just not right. Going to the bathroom is a human right. It’s not something that should be a privilege or should be monetized.” 

Like many voices in the fight to increase the number of bathrooms in the city, she recognizes that the passing of this legislation would be the first step in bolstering restroom equity. Still, she’s hopeful for what’s to come and intends to continue using her voice – and account – to speak about the issue. 

“They are not building more bathrooms, it's just to identify the bathrooms,” Siegel said. “I really hope that I will help spark a change in New York City to have it be a place where people aren’t panicking and no one will ever have to go ‘Oh my gosh I have to go, where do I go?’”