Image by Thomas Hawk licensed under Creative Commons.

As I wrote about last week, DC doesn't have enough restrooms throughout the city, to the detriment of residents' and tourists' comfort and well-being. Adding public bathrooms would help. DC has three options to choose from if it wants to join other world-class cities in ensuring that there are enough clean, safe, and accessible restrooms open to the public.

I'm a member of the People for Fairness Coalition's Downtown DC Public Restroom Initiative. We've researched three public restroom models that are used in the US, Canada, Europe and Asia. Two are stand-alone, prefabricated models and the third is patterned along the Community Toilet Scheme (CTS) now used in London and other cities in Great Britain. It provides businesses with incentives to open their restrooms to the public.

Based on our research, we believe that two — the Portland Loo and the Community Toilet Scheme — would be appropriate for the District, as they integrate best practices from cities in the US, Canada, and England. We have reservations about the Automated Public Toilet, but since it's used widely in the US, Europe and Asia, it should also be considered as an option. Here's more information about each one.

Public toilets in San Francisco by Jamie licensed under Creative Commons.

1. Automated Public Toilets (APTs) are prefabricated structures the size of a parking place. They are connected to water and sewer, and are entirely closed. After the user enters, the door automatically closes for up to 20 minutes. APTs are manufactured by several companies, and you can find iterations of them in Europe and Asia as well as in San Francisco and New York City.

APTS vary in their level of automation. Depending on the model, just the toilet or the toilet plus the walls and floor are washed between uses or at a programmed time after several uses. In the most highly automated models, toilet paper is dispensed by pushing a button, the toilet flushes automatically when the hand washing station is used, water and soap are dispensed automatically, and the drier turns on automatically.

Most APTs are attractive, clean, and safe, but in some areas there are issues with cleanliness and safety. For example, items dropped onto the floor cannot be removed by the automated washes. Since the structure is entirely closed, one cannot see or hear what is happening inside while it is being used. APTs also tends to be relatively expensive to purchase and maintain.

Image by The Portland Loo used with permission.

2. Portland Loo: The Portland Loo is also a prefabricated structure, and like the APT it takes up an area the size of a parking place. The Loo was designed in Portland in 2007 by a team composed of an architect, businesspeople, and members of the Portland community. They aimed to maximize safety both inside and outside, for it to be easy to maintain, and also economical.

To maximize daily use (up to 270 flushes/day), the Portland Loo includes a hand wash facility outside in lieu of having a sink inside. Like the APT, the Portland Loo must be located near water and sewer connections.

Selecting an appropriate location for the Portland Loo is very important for ensuring safety and discouraging illicit use. It should be in an area that is visible from a distance and where there is a high level of pedestrian and vehicular traffic. For a Loo to be successful in a given location, there must be support and monitoring from the surrounding community (such as businesses, ANCs, and community organizations).

Crime prevention features include angled shutters along the bottom and above the eye level that protect privacy while ensuring that one can see how many people are in it. It's also possible to hear what's taking place from the outside. The restroom has an anti-graffiti clear coat, has lighting outside at night, and has blue lights to prevent drug users from finding their veins

The Portland Loo is less expensive to purchase and maintain, and is designed to ensure safety and discourage illicit use. As a result, it has become the stand-alone public restroom of choice in over 20 cities in the US and Canada and growing, including Seattle, Washington; Victora, British Colombia; Greeley, Colorado; Salt Lake City, Utah; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and others.

Nette Toilette in Germany by ingoism licensed under Creative Commons.

3. Community Toilet Scheme: The Community Toilet Scheme (CTS) was the brainchild of Richmond Upon Thames, a borough located near downtown London. Instead of building additional toilets open to the public, Richmond Upon Thames decided to provide an incentive to businesses in highly-frequented areas to open their restrooms to the public.

Participating businesses are selected based on their locations and their willingness to abide by the CTS terms. Each business signs a contract with the local government committing to making its restroom available to everyone who wants to use it at no cost during the hours it is open. Users can be turned away only under “extraordinary” circumstances.

Benefits for participating businesses include the potential to generate revenue when people use the restroom and then decide to purchase something, and demonstrating to the community that the establishment is socially conscious.

Decal used in London's community toilet scheme.

The CTS is now operational in many boroughs and localities in London, as well as in small towns throughout Great Britain. Businesses put a decal on their window to indicate they are participating. Many Boroughs offer a combination of public restroom options: businesses participating in the CTS, stand-alone public toilets, and libraries and other facilities open to the public.

The location of all restrooms available to the public, including those participating in the CTS, are on an interactive map available on each locality’s website. Germany’s Nett Toilette (Nice Toilet) is similar to the CTS, except that it is managed by a company. The Nett Toilette is in over 200 German cities and growing.

A DC public bathroom bill incorporates lessons learned from other cities

The Public Restroom Facilities Installation and Promotion Act of 2017 was co-introduced in April by councilmembers Brianne Nadeau, David Grosso, Elissa Silverman and Robert White, and a hearing was held on January 10, 2018. A markup, followed by two consecutive votes by the Committee of the Whole, is scheduled to take place this fall.

The bill establishes a working group consisting of a variety of DC agencies including DC Water, DDOT, DGS, DHS, DPR, and DPW. They are tasked with identifying up to 10 sites with limited access to public restrooms that would be appropriate to install a stand-alone model, and to create a subsidy program for private establishments to open their restrooms to the public.

In preparing guidance for the Working Group, drafters incorporated many of the lessons learned and best practices the PFFC Downtown DC Public Restroom Initiative identified from cities in the US, Canada and England that have been successful in providing clean, safe restrooms available to everyone in needed areas. Most appear in the descriptions of the three restroom options above.

Bill 22-0223 appropriately recognizes that it’s not a matter of installing, clean, safe stand-alone public restrooms available 24/7 OR providing incentives to businesses to open their restrooms to the public. Depending on the location, one, the other, or both are necessary. This bill already has the support of 13 ANC resolutions and a number of social advocacy organizations. Three Business Improvement Districts “support public restroom access for all members of the Downtown DC community to support a higher quality life for our residents, workers and guests.” They cannot formally endorse legislation.

Our nation’s capital has the opportunity to join other world capitals in recognizing that access to clean, safe public restrooms is a human right, is critical to human dignity, and is fundamental for personal and public health.

Marcia Bernbaum, retired from a 20-year career in international development with the US Agency for International Development (USAID), is a proud member of the People for Fairness Coalition (PFFC). Since 2014 she has been Mentor and Advisor to PFFC's Downtown DC Public Restroom Initiative which advocates for clean, safe, public restrooms available for everyone in needed areas of Washington, DC. You can email her questions about the initiative at