Image by Mike Mozart licensed under Creative Commons.

Why should urbanists engage in “potty talk”? Because having ready access to clean, safe public restrooms is not only a vital part of personal and public health, but is also key to fostering livability in cities. Unfortunately, DC doesn't have enough places for people to go, and the restrooms that are available can be hard to find.

As a senior I am finding that, as my bladder gets smaller, when nature calls I have to go immediately. On the weekends I love my four-mile walk from AU Park to Dupont Circle along Massachusetts Avenue. However, I am finding that since there are no restrooms along this route, I can no longer take this lovely walk. Instead I have to walk from Connecticut Ave where there are businesses that permit me to use their restroom when I need to go.

I'm by no means the only person who struggles with this.

Cities are for people, and people need bathrooms

Adaquate public restrooms are fundamental to human dignity, and are especially critical for people who are restroom-challenged. When seniors, pregnant women, little children, and people on blood pressure medicine have to go, they have to go urgently.

“In the Fall of 2015… my family and I went on a White House Garden tour. I told my six-year-old daughter that since there was a restroom at the White House Visitor’s Center nearby, she should use it,” says Laura Cunningham, Pastor of the Western Presbyterian Church. “Instead she waited until we were walking toward the Metro station to tell me that she had to go urgently. Not knowing where to find a restroom, we spent a half an hour looking for one. Fortunately we made it just in time.”

Easily-available restrooms also make good business sense and help foster tourism. Knowing that there are clean, safe public restrooms readily accessible, people are more apt to visit parks, ride their bikes, jog, and walk. As a result, more and more cities are investing in them.

On the other hand, lacking a clean, safe place to go when nature calls often leaves people with no choice but to urinate and defecate in the open. In many cities, including DC, that’s a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500, 90 days in jail, or both. Of course, dried urine emits a foul odor and feces can produce bacteria that can be dangerous (see: the ongoing Hepatitis A epidemic in San Diego).

George Olivar, a local man who has experienced homelessness, says “I sometimes get diarrhea from one of the medications I take for diabetes. When it happens, it comes on suddenly and I have to find a restroom immediately. If I don’t, which often happens when I am in downtown DC, I end up soiling my clothes. It is very embarrassing.”

Alas, a good bathroom is hard to find

Most European and Asian capitals have it right. Not only have they gone out of their way to ensure that there are clean, safe restrooms available to the public in areas with high levels of pedestrian traffic, but most also have interactive maps that tell you where they are, their characteristics, and their hours. Sadly, this is not the case in our nation’s capital.

The DC government’s website doesn't have an interactive map of where to find restrooms open to the public throughout the city, such as those in museums, libraries, and recreation centers. The only information is on the Department of Human Services website, which lists seven places to go in popular tourist areas.

With the exception of Starbucks, which has just opened all its restrooms to the public, businesses in DC's commercial areas are increasingly limiting restroom use to customers only. Off the Mall in downtown DC, there are only five public restrooms available during the day. Four of them have limited hours, but there are no signs to tell you either their location or when they’re open.

If you are sleeping outside at night hours and nature calls, or if you are coming out of a bar or nightclub at 2 or 3 am and suddenly have the urge to go (liquor is a diuretic), there are only two places with public restrooms open 24/7 – the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial. If you are in Gallery Place, Georgetown, or Dupont Circle, you will have to walk between a mile and a half and three miles for a place to go. Again, there are no signs to tell you where they are.

And there is discrimination

Public restrooms are also important because some people face discrimination when trying to access private ones. A study by the National Coalition for the Homeless and PFFC showed that more than 65% of people experiencing homelessness had been discriminated against by a private business on the basis of their housing status.

In 2016, two of us who are People for Fairness Coalition (PFFC) Downtown DC Public Restroom Initiative members — myself, white and nicely dressed; and my colleague, who is African-American, was experiencing homelessness, and dressed to look particularly grubby — entered 42 businesses in five areas of DC and asked if we could use their restroom. I was let into all restrooms, but four refused to let my colleague use them.

At two businesses, staff provided me with the combination to the restroom door, but led my colleague to the restroom and opened the door for them without giving the combination. There were several other instances where the person at the counter cheerfully directed me to the restroom, while begrudgingly directing my colleague.

Along similar lines, the 2015 DC Trans Needs Assessment showed that 28% of transgender people in DC had been denied access to the appropriate restroom in their own workplace, and while there isn't yet data on discrimination in public spaces, a number of local incidents show that this trend goes far beyond the workplace.

Of course, public restrooms aren't a panacea, but they could help more people get access to a bathroom when they need it, with less hassle.

The DC Council has introduced a public bathroom bill

In April 2017, DC Councilmember Brianne Nadeau – joined by David Grosso, Elissa Silverman, and Robert White – introduced the Public Restroom Facilities Installation and Promotion Act of 2017. The contents of Bill 22-0223 are based on lessons learned and best practices of cities in the US and elsewhere that have successfully installed and maintained clean, safe restrooms available to the public.

If passed, Bill 22-0223 directs a working group composed of representatives from DC agencies (including the Department of Public Works, Department of General Services, Department of Transportation, DC Water and Sewer, and Department of Parks & Recreation) to:

  1. Identify up to 10 sites that meet the requirements for installing a clean, safe stand-alone public restroom open 24/7, and
  2. Propose a program for providing incentives to private businesses to open their restrooms to the public patterned on the experience of the Community Toilet Scheme.

Bill 22-0223 was referred to the Committee on Transportation & Environment. Committee Chair Mary Cheh held a hearing on Bill 22-0223 in January 2018, and a mark-up is anticipated in the Fall of 2018.

The People for Fairness Coalition's (PFFC) Downtown DC Public Restroom Initiative aims to persuade the DC government to install clean, safe public restrooms available to everyone in needed areas of Washington, DC. The information included in this article is drawn from research carried out by members of the Initiative which is available on its website. Bill, 22-0223, Public Restrooms Facilities Installation & Promotion Act of 2017, was inspired by and reflects the findings from this research. Her colleagues — Janet Sharp, John McDermott, and George Olivar — were instrumental in carrying out this research.

GGWash sometimes organizes around issues affecting our region. Should we consider advocacy around this topic? Let us know!

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