Letter to the Editor: Open the Subway Bathrooms Today!

This subway bathroom, at Hudson Yards, is not open, according to the MTA. Former federal transit man Larry Penner (inset) thinks it should be. Main photo: Tdorante10
This subway bathroom, at Hudson Yards, is not open, according to the MTA. Former federal transit man Larry Penner (inset) thinks it should be. Main photo: Tdorante10

I was very disappointed by then-interim MTA Chairman Janno Lieber’s statement at his State Senate confirmation in January that, “We are a transportation agency [and] reopening subway station restrooms is not a priority.”

Lieber forgot about equity when it comes to NYC Transit subway riders versus their counterparts on the suburban rail lines of the Long Island Rail Road and Metro North, whose riders have access to clean, safe bathrooms. Perhaps Lieber has a strong bladder, but thousands of subway riders need a restroom from time to time.

Long Island Rail Road restrooms at Penn Station, Atlantic Terminal, Jamaica Station and dozens of other stations are open. Metro North’s Grand Central Terminal and dozens of other stations have open restrooms. Staten Island Railroad passengers have direct access to the Department of Transportation’s Staten Island Ferry and St. George Ferry Terminal restrooms. Perhaps Lieber forgot that his former colleague, then-NYC Transit President Sarah Feinberg, said in June 2021 that she would like to reopen NYC Transit subway station bathrooms as quickly as possible. Feinberg’s comments came after transit riders (and Sen. Chuck Schumer) started to complain that the Covid-era shutdowns had overstayed their welcome.

Yet the bathrooms did not reopen.

There are 76 existing bathrooms at NYC Transit’s 472 subway stations, and only five appear to be open, according to the MTA’s website, which was updated on Monday. The stations are: Yankee Stadium, Atlantic Avenue/Barclays Center, Fulton Center, 14th Street/Union Square, and 74th Street/Roosevelt Avenue.

That’s not enough. Reopening secure, safe subway station bathrooms with adequate supplies of toilet paper, soap and hot water would be one way to attract several million pre-Covid-19 riders who have yet to return. Access to a public restroom is a basic human right — one that was removed at the start of the pandemic.

Surely, funding can be found within the $51 billion 2020–2024 Five Year Capital Plan to reopen the still-shuttered subway system bathrooms. Bringing more subway stations into compliance with the Americans for Disabilities Act should also include construction of restroom facilities at those stations lacking such amenities. The MTA was eligible for $1.5 billion in funding from the Federal Transit Administration in 2021. This will grow by several hundred million more in 2022. The MTA historically has allocated 70 percent of these annual federal funds for NYC Transit.

Why doesn’t the MTA add functioning restrooms to the NYC Transit Capital Program and use federal funds to pay for these improvements?
Larry Penner is a transportation advocate, historian and writer who previously worked for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office where he worked on the development, review, approval and oversight of billions in capital projects and programs for the MTA’s many divisions, New York City DOT, NJ Transit and 30 other transit agencies in the region.