May 13, 2022 - News

D.C. exploring locations for public restrooms

Illustration of a public restroom lock, but "occupied" is replaced with "new."
Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

D.C. is exploring adding public restrooms near Union Station, Dupont Circle, and Starburst Plaza as part of a pilot program for 24/7 restroom access.

Why it matters: A lack of public restrooms is a public health, equity, and public safety issue, particularly for women, people experiencing homelessness, people of color, and transgender persons, says a new report by government officials, housing advocates, health care providers, and the DowntownDC BID.

  • People who are pregnant, running errands, or facing an emergency may have only one option: A restroom in a business they first must patronize.

The report notes that certain medical conditions, such as Crohn’s Disease and diabetes, can mean more frequent trips to the bathroom while medications for illnesses like kidney disease and high blood pressure lead to more frequent urination.

  • The lack of a public restroom in these moments, the report says, can lead to bowel and bladder disorders.

And the need is even more urgent for people experiencing homelessness who may be forced to publicly defecate, increasing their risk of contracting diseases such as hepatitis A due to unsanitary conditions or risking arrest for exposure, the report says.

Details: The locations near Union Station, Dupont Circle, and Starburst Plaza are being considered based on their proximity to public transportation, public facilities, and other existing bathrooms as well as their accessibility, number of homeless resources in the area, and proximity to streetlights.

The report includes a number of recommendations for the restrooms, including:

  • Making them gender-neutral;
  • Ensuring adequate ventilation and regular sanitation;
  • Having contactless features;
  • Using lighting and potentially CCTV to ensure safety and;
  • Having a large enough bathroom to accommodate many people.

Of note: The report says the pandemic has further highlighted the need for public restrooms for sanitary reasons and also that recent large events that brought crowds downtown, including the Women’s March and the 2020 Black Lives Matter marches, have required the city to rethink daily operations and management.

Flashback: The report follows a 2018 D.C. Council bill that established two pilot programs: one to build two public restroom facilities and another to incentivize businesses to offer public access to their restrooms.

  • There’s buy-in from agencies across the District: D.C. police recommended in a 2021 report to the D.C. Council that public restrooms be added in places including NoMa, Foggy Bottom, and Columbia Heights because of frequent reports from these locations of human waste.

Zoom out: The number of public restrooms in American cities has shrunk over the years, Bloomberg CityLab reports.

What’s next: The committee is accepting public comments on the proposed locations until June 30.

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