Toilet Deserts Remain Despite Sound Transit’s Renewed Restroom Policy

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A photo showing doors for restrooms at a light rail station.
Passenger restrooms on the mezzanine level at Northgate Station. (Credit: The Urbanist)

More passenger restrooms are ahead in Sound Transit’s ever-growing system. However, a recommended policy update would discourage them from becoming a universal and easily accessible feature at light rail stations because of stringent criteria.

Under the policy, 16 transit facilities throughout Sound Transit’s network could have passenger restrooms by 2024. Only an additional two stations would benefit from passenger restrooms in the following two decades, leaving wide swaths of the light rail system without any facilities.

On Thursday, some boardmembers expressed concern with the proposed restroom policy for these very reasons.

Recommended restroom policy disregards passenger experience

Agency staff are proposing new passenger restroom policies going forward, which would severely limit the number of new restrooms at transit facilities. The policy has been justified by citing projected operational costs and cherry-picking peer North American transit agencies.

In speaking with transit agencies from the likes of Portland, Los Angeles, Toronto, and Miami, Sound Transit suggested that four key themes had come out of those discussions, which included that:

  • Restrooms are for passengers only;
  • Restrooms are only at major transit hubs;
  • Restrooms are located within fare-paid zones; and
  • Restrooms are locked, but can be used if specifically requested.

Sound Transit also cited average yearly costs per passenger restroom at $322,174 for cleaning, security, and maintenance. With nine passenger restrooms in the system today, the annual cost is $2.9 million. The recommended policy, however, would mean more locations and annual costs would rise to $4.5 million with 14 passenger restrooms and $5.2 million with 16 passenger restrooms.

The staff-recommended criteria establishes a three-prong test to determine when to provide passenger restrooms. The criteria would require a station to:

  1. Have an average of 10,000 or more boardings per day;
  2. Be at least a 20-minute ride from the nearest passenger restroom; and
  3. Have least five or more transit routes converging at the station.

Essentially, the recommended criteria would encourage passenger restrooms at key station locations, similar to cited peer agencies. The recommended policy would also direct passenger restrooms to be located in fare-paid zones — like at Northgate Station where two restrooms are located just beyond the fare-paid line on the mezzanine level.

A photo showing the entrance to a light rail station with a yellow sign stating pay to enter and escalators appearing behind it.
At Northgate, passenger restrooms are situated beyond the fare-paid zone. (Credit: The Urbanist)

This policy means that passengers would have to use fare media (e.g., ticket or activated ORCA card) to access restrooms. It also assumes that a 20-minute ride is acceptable period of time. Of course, that’s a fairly long time when someone needs to relieve oneself and it doesn’t account for the time penalty when waiting at a station, which is complicated by the fact that Sound Transit maintains exceedingly low frequencies for an urban rapid transit system (every eight to ten minutes during most hours for Link).

Conversely, in Asia and Europe, passenger restrooms are fairly common features at rapid metro and suburban rail stations. Though the implementation and policies surrounding them differ greatly. In Tokyo and Seoul, restrooms are fairly ubiquitous at stations often with no cost to passengers and available outside of fare-paid zones. In London, passenger restrooms are comparably sparse, but well-identified and free of charge, whereas in Continental Europe they tend to require payment of a fee to use.

Under the proposal, 16 passenger restrooms (inclusive of facilities operated by other transit agencies) would exist in the system by 2024, an increase of just six from the ten existing today. Future transit expansions would bring that number to 18 passenger restrooms by 2041 with completion of the Ballard and South Kirkland-Issaquah Link extensions.

The maps show huge passenger restroom deserts in Seattle, the Eastside, and south of Federal Way whereas stations on the Federal Way and Lynnwood Link extensions net many new restrooms. This raised concern by King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci who expected the recommended policy to have better geographic consideration.

“I feel like I want to do some more work on this one,” Balducci said. “When you apply these criteria, you end up with an entire section of our system that has virtually no restroom access, which I don’t think is what we were going for.” Board Chair and University Place City Councilmember Kent Keel said that Balducci was getting at some of his same concerns.

Agency staff tried to reassure boardmembers that the south end looks worse than it really is because Sounder commuter trains all have bathrooms onboard even though stations general don’t have them present. Staff also said that passengers in restroom deserts were still only a 20-minute ride or less away. Nevertheless, boardmembers said they wanted more information and work around the issue. To keep things moving forward, boardmembers passed the policy resolution out of committee without recommendation to the full board for further consideration.

Whether or not Sound Transit will seriously improve the policy proposal remains to be seen, but it’s hard to be optimistic given the fact that the agency has been under the microscope on this issue for quite some time. Coming out with recommended policies that could hardly be called anything other than draconian and a poo pooing of the passenger experience doesn’t instill confidence. If the policy isn’t seriously improved, a backstop could be local governments — on their own accord or because of passenger advocates pushing them — adopting local development standards or permitting conditions for stations to include passenger restrooms. This has already been done in some cities, so there’s no reason that it can’t be replicated if needed to achieve a better passenger experience throughout the system.

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Stephen is an urban planner with a passion for sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He is especially interested in how policies, regulations, and programs can promote positive outcomes for communities. Stephen lives in Kenmore and primarily covers land use and transportation issues for The Urbanist.

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Randy Wiger

FYI: in San Francisco’s BART system there was a problem of people defecating in the elevators while there going up or down (beuase it was private at least for a couple minutes), and it was so bad that several times per year the elevator would would cease working due to the build up of feces oozing into the lift machinery from the passenger compartment. Eventually BART hired attendant staff to prevent this and help direct people to nearby restroom facilities. This program was successful and San Francisco borrowed/copied it to start their ‘Pit Stop’ program which located automated toilets and portable toilet with attendants in neighborhoods around the city. This was started by middle school kids complaining to their city councilmember about having to constantly sidestep piles of feces on the sidewalks on their daily walk to and from school.
https://sfpublicworks.org/services/public-toilets

asdf2

It’s easy to gloss over it, but restrooms is part of what is needed to make transit family-friendly. When small children need to go, they need to go. It’s not reasonable to tell them to just hold it in while they ride the train for 30 minutes.

In addition to small children, there also exists adults who have medical conditions that limit how long they can go without access to a bathroom. Restrooms in transit stations makes transit more accessible to these people as well. One could almost argue that restrooms should be required under ADA, the same as curb ramps.

Dardanelles

It’s hard to understand $322,174 per year. If you hire two full-time attendants per restroom, you would spend much less. Plus water and cleaning supplies… and what else?

MountainTaffy

The vandalism – broken toilets, broken partitions, broken toilets from needles and other random things being flushed down, etc. Etc…. Need I go on…

The cost of security and emergency response to respond to, and not limited to, intentional fires, domestic violence, drug overdose, etc. Etc.

Biohazard and Bloodborne pathogen trained personnel to clean up the blood, the needles, the pipes, etc. Etc… Need I go on…

2 full time attendants doing 12 hour shifts? Or 2 per 8 hours, either way your understating the need for this ‘solution’

Seems like some folks should introduce themselves with reality and recognize that it isn’t some toilet sitting peacefully awaiting a passenger. These things get torn apart by folks. It is extremely unfair and disingenuous to compare Asia Transit with American Transit as our societies have a completely different respect for public decency and shared spaces…

A Joy

Weird. This lawless broken toilet needle land isn’t happening at the Seatac Station bathrooms. Which Link bathrooms have you seen getting this treatment?

Benjamin

If there were more public restrooms outside of stations, non riders wouldn’t try to use the bathroom inside the station. That would also benefit riders since one’s need to pee doesn’t always coincide with when you’re at the station. Even when it does, like on Saturday for me a Northgate, I couldn’t find the thing. Sounds like I would have had to also find someone to unlock it for me too, which is just nuts. Needing to pee or poo is so fundamental to existence, and yet it’s one of the most difficult things to do when one is out and about in Seattle.

RossB

I used the bathroom yesterday at Northgate. I agree, it isn’t easy to find. I kept looking at the map, and then realized I was actually 20 feet away from it. If you exit the platform going north (which a lot of people do) then you skip the level that has the bathroom.

It was unlocked though.

My main pet peeve is that there is only one toilet in the men’s bathroom, and no urinal. Why even bother marking it as “men’s”? If that is the setup, they should just be marked “bathrooms”. Better yet, they should have several stalls for women, a bunch of urinals for men, and a family bathroom. There is going to be a really big line on Saturday nights once things get back to normal (post Covid).

matt

Seattle Municipal Code requires single person bathrooms to be designated for use independent of sex or gender identity (SMC 14.07.030), so if you send a photo and a note to the Seattle office of civil rights we might at-least fix that part of the design oversight.

Derek

Had a friend with me riding light rail after the Sounders game and had to pee and asked me where the bathroom was and I told them there wasn’t one and he said “54 billion dollars and I have to piss outside?” and maybe we shouldn’t have exclusively car drivers making the policies for transit riders.

Sam

” … and a poo pooing of the passenger experience …” haha

Simon

Came here to point that out haha