Reopening subway bathrooms is a priority


Tdorante10, CC BY-SA 4.0 | Wikimedia Commons

The Editorial Board

With subway ridership steadily returning to pre-pandemic numbers after months of empty train cars, the MTA faces a stark reminder of the inequality within its stations: bathrooms.

Less than 20% of subway stations have a public bathroom, but since the COVID-19 pandemic started, New Yorkers have had nowhere to relieve themselves  in any of the 472 stations across the five boroughs.

The decision to close all may be understandable for public health reasons, but it ignores the permanent issues of accessibility and dignity in New York City.

New Yorkers, both those experiencing homelessness and those not, currently face a public bathroom shortage all across the city. The disparity of access has worsened since 9/11, with the COVID-19 pandemic only exasperating this trend.

Acting MTA Chief Janno Lieber has chosen to ignore this issue. During his confirmation hearing in January, he said the reopening of bathrooms in stations is “not the MTA’s priority.”

He said the “above-grade population” that the MTA serves is a detriment and other concerns take precedence like security and scheduling issues since, as he clarifies, “We are a transportation agency.”

Any city’s transportation agency doesn’t run without riders. Every $2.75 collected deserves to be met with trustworthy service, which includes consideration of basic human needs.

The complete shutdown of bathrooms in response to the COVID-19 pandemic adds another notch in the long timeline of liberties being disregarded by public services.

The United States as a whole has only eight public toilets per 100,000 people overall, which many scholars have pointed out as being done by design.

Public bathroom access has been contested as early as the Great Depression, with it continuing to happen during the desegregation of the South and persists with both transgender rights and the stripped dignity of people experiencing homelessness.

The MTA should be focused on its service to all New Yorkers, which starts with basics. Some bathrooms in large commuter rail hubs like Penn Station have reopened, according to spokesman Tim Minton.

Lieber also said that the MTA will “try to get those bathrooms open with the support of the State Department of Health in a reasonable timeframe.”

In on-brand MTA fashion, “a reasonable timeframe” will almost definitely be experiencing delays. With stations still at half the capacity they once had before the pandemic, the time to act is now.

Establishing a more effective hygiene routine for all bathrooms not only helps keep stations clean with more available hand-washing locations and trash cans, but can also add more jobs for New Yorkers. It would be a positive turn for the transportation agency to not only rebound after the pandemic but to also better its long-existing issues.