What It's Like To Use LA's Singing, Self-Cleaning, Automated Park Restroom

The Exeloo automated public toilet is installed near the tennis courts at North Hollywood Recreation Center. It has two all gender stalls, and the center door is for maintenance supplies and access. (Sharon McNary/KPCC/LAist)

The opening of a self-cleaning toilet didn't seem like it should be a big deal. Paris has had them for decades, and L.A. has 14 scattered around town. Metro has them at two transit stations. But a new version opened this month and is the first to be installed in a Los Angeles city park.

This two-stall automated restroom is an experiment to lower the cost and increase the cleanliness of the city's aging stock of public park restrooms. It cost $182,000, L.A.'s Recreation and Parks Department spokeswoman Rose Watson said.

The parks department was so proud of their new loo that Councilman Paul Krekorian told me they held a grand opening, including a ceremonial cutting of the toilet tissue.

Los Angeles officials cut a ribbon of toilet paper at the opening of the new automated public toilet at North Hollywood Recreation Center. From left: Department of Recreation and Parks Board of Commission President Sylvia Patsaouras, , Deputy Mayor Barbara Romero, Councilman Paul Krekorian, Department of Recreation and Parks General Manager Mike Shull. (JuanCarlos Chan/Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks)

And with that news, I drank a big cup of coffee and headed to North Hollywood Recreation Center to give it a go. So to speak.

WHAT'S IT LIKE TO USE AN AUTOMATED TOILET?

This structure is made by Exeloo, a New Zealand company. It has two unisex stalls behind the wood and stainless steel exterior. Signs in English, Spanish and Braille give instructions. A wave of the hand near the no-touch entry button and, whoosh, the door opens and you step inside.

The aesthetic is similar to an airplane restroom, with all the stainless steel and white-painted surfaces polished to be as clean and sanitary as possible, but far more spacious.

Interior of an Exeloo automated toilet installed in North Hollywood Recreation Center (Sharon McNary/KPCC/LAist)

These restrooms are ADA-compliant, meaning there is plenty of room for a person in a wheelchair and even an attendant to be in there. It can also fit a small family, if a child needs help. There's a sturdy fold-down diaper changing table.

I expected the self-closing doors and the automated no-touch soap and water dispensers. I was a little surprised that a push-button automated toilet paper dispenser measured me out 24 inches of tissue.


But I didn't expect the Voice of God coming from a speaker high above the toilet bowl, telling me I had ten minutes to complete my business. I also didn't expect to hear music. A piano and strings version of "As Time Goes By" fills the disinfectant-scented cubicle. Talk about pressure.

The 10-minute time limit is meant to keep the units from being commandeered by squatters, drug-users or sex workers. That happened in Seattle a decade ago, causing automated restrooms to be removed.

And if you're the kind of person who needs some time alone in a restroom, 10 minutes should be enough, but I wouldn't bring any reading material.

After several minutes of standing still with my microphone (I also did this radio report), the Voice of God says, "Warning: internal scanners show this unit to be empty, if occupied, move around to allow detection."

I didn't want to have the doors pop open or get spritzed with disinfectant (to be honest, I was a bit afraid of what happens inside the unit when it launches into its unoccupied self-cleaning mode), so I waved my arms around and got a bit more alone time.

This button is used to lock or unlock the door of the Exeloo automated public toilet. (Sharon McNary/KPCC/LAist)

As for the toilet itself, it flushes when you wave your hand under the no-touch soap dispenser, the water faucet and the hand dryer. Then, you wave your hand at the button to unlock the door, Voice of God thanks you for using Exeloo, and with a whoosh of air, you're back out in the North Hollywood sunshine.

The toilets self-clean after every 30 uses, Krekorian said. They are also regularly checked by the park maintenance workers.

HOW WELL ARE AUTOMATED TOILETS SERVING L.A.?

They are new to the city parks department, but if you've ridden to the end of the Silver Line in El Monte, or have been to the Harbor Gateway Transit Center in Gardena, where the 91 and 110 freeways meet, you could have seen and used one. Los Angeles also has 14 scattered about the city, more on those below.

Metro installed its first Exeloo toilet at the El Monte bus station when it opened back in 2012. An early review of the automated toilets criticized their tendency to collect wet tissue on the floor.

By 2015, the toilets were being used about 400 times a day, according to a report to the Metro board. Its inspection found most people were in and out within about two minutes each, and that generally only two to three people were waiting in line at a time for the two-stall unit.

The toilets were reported to work well, although they were expensive to install (more than $400,000) and required about $130,000 maintenance costs per year, including frequent checks by janitors to keep that toilet paper problem at bay.

I've asked the city Recreation and Parks Department to explain the difference in cost between their unit (at $182,000 and Metro's restrooms at $400,000 installation plus $130,000 a year in maintenance), but I don't have a full answer to that yet. Department spokeswoman Watson says the city expects to do all the maintenance with existing staff that already cleans other restrooms at the park and save some money.

ARE MORE SELF-CLEANING TOILETS COMING TO L.A. PARKS?

Depending on the performance of North Hollywood's self-cleaning toilets, the Recreation and Parks Department intends to put an Exeloo unit in a very different environment. It would be installed at San Julian Park near Skid Row, which is Ground Zero of the city's homeless population and among the most bathroom-needy places in the city.

It's not entirely clear whether automated toilets are the answer to the needs of hundreds of homeless encampments in the city. Even without the high tech, the city estimates it's costing about $340,000 a year to provide two portable toilets (one standard and one larger that would be accessible for wheelchairs) a handwashing station staffed by a trained attendant 12 hours a day. That pencils out to more than $57 million for the city's existing homeless encampments.

Interior of an Exeloo automated public toilet shows the sink with touchless soap dispenser, water faucet and air dryer, left, and the tissue dispenser. (Sharon McNary/KPCC/LAist)

IT'S 2019 - WHY ARE AUTOMATED TOILETS NOT YET EVERYWHERE?

A review of city documents shows the city has yearned to install automated toilets for decades.

The billboard company Outfront JC Decaux installed automated toilets around the city under a 2001 agreement that originally called for 150 toilets.

That number turned out to be overly optimistic, and the company has installed (are you sitting down?) only 14.

There were 15, but one was taken out to make room for a construction project and is in storage.

They are part of a larger advertising deal that gives JC Decaux the exclusive right to place ads on bus shelters, kiosks and walls of automated toilets located on city rights-of-way. The company pays a fee and a portion of the ad revenue to the city.

In return, the city doesn't pay for the cost of the toilets except for any installation costs (water, sewer, power, wi-fi) that rise above about $30,000 each.

The city's agreement with JC Decaux is set to expire in 2021, after having earned the city about $84 million dollars. It sounds like a lot of money, but the advertising deal including the toilets was supposed to bring in about twice as much.

A 2012 audit by then city Controller Wendy Greuel said the contract terms were simply unrealistic, given the delays the city and company encountered in approving sites for things like transit shelters.

JC Decaux communications manager Francois Nion manages the Los Angeles project, and he agreed that the city's conditions for finding locations for the restrooms were far too cumbersome, and so both sides ended up with fewer than the deal originally called for.

Despite the shortfall, the company has negotiated a 10-year extension this year that would let the company put up additional bus shade shelters, newsstands and 15 more automated toilets, charging for the advertising that's placed on them within the city right-of-way. The extension agreement awaits City Council approval, Nion said.

In exchange for giving the company exclusive advertising rights on city property, L.A. takes in one-quarter to half the revenue. That would add about another $144 million dollars to the city treasury over the 13 years remaining in the contract, a city report said. The toilets are just a small part of that.

THE TOILETS ARE AUTOMATED, BUT STILL NEED MONITORS?

The contract also requires some of the toilets to have people employed to monitor the toilets. At first, that was something the company didn't want to do, but that condition was included in the City Council's Public Works Committee vote in January to extend the contract.

So, think about it — while the toilets are supposedly scrubbing themselves, there are still workers present to monitor the users at six of the city's 15 automated toilets. The city found that at the few locations where there were monitors, the toilets got used about twice as much as before.

Which would seem to defeat the purpose of having a fancy self-cleaning toilet. Why not build lower-tech permanent toilets and just have people there to clean them and keep an eye on the users?

At any rate, having so few city-sponsored automated toilets scattered around a city of millions of people means you could be holding it a long, long time before you find one.

WHERE ARE THESE AUTOMATED TOILETS?

Los Angeles city has these toilets by JC Decaux scattered around town.

FS means "far side" of the intersection. NS means "near side."

Actual Address

Approximate Location

Open to Public

5356 Lankershim Blvd

NB Lankershim Blvd FS Chandler Blvd

September 2004

8803 N. Wilbur Ave

NB Wilbur Ave FS Parthenia Street

September 2004

318 E. 5th St.

WB 5th Street FS San Julian

September 2004

326 W. 5th St

WB 5th St NS Hill St

May 2007

549 S. San Pedro St

SB San Pedro St NS 6th Street

June 2007

509 E. 5th St

WB 5th Street NS San Pedro Street

June 2007

200 E. 5th St

WB 5th Street NS Los Angeles Street

June 2007

14455 Erwin Plaza

NB Van Nuys @ Erwin St

October 2007

331 W. 4th St

EB 4th Street FS Hill Street

Removed to storage

2213 E. 1st St

WB 1st Street NS Chicago Street

March 2008

1045 N. Vermont

SB Vermont Ave FS Santa Monica Blvd

July 2008

4001 S. Avalon Blvd

SB Avalon Blvd FS Martin Luther King Blvd

June 2008

3430 Monterey Road

NB Monterey Rd FS Huntington Dr

Apirl 2008

505 S. Hill St

SB Hill St FS 5th St

March 2009

6050 Van Nuys Blvd

NB Van Nuys Blvd FS Aetna St

May 2010

Metro Exeloo automated toilets

El Monte Transit Center, 3357 Santa Anita Ave, El Monte, CA 91731

Harbor Gateway Transit Center, 731 W 182nd St, Gardena, CA 90248