4M Residents, 14 Permanent Public Stalls. Why Access To A Toilet Is So Crappy In LA
You’re out in the city and you need to answer nature’s call. Where do you go? You probably make mental calculations about using a library or a park bathroom, or even a Starbucks or a gas station, barring any customer-only rules. (And if you’re unhoused, it’s even more difficult).
In many cities in the U.S., you can turn to a nearby public bathroom. But here in Los Angeles, they’re a rare sight. In a city of nearly 4 million, we have just 14 permanent stalls on the streets.
Bathroom access doesn’t fare well overall. We have five for every 100,000 residents, ranking us 57th in the 2021 Public Toilet Index nationally.
It’s kinda absurd. How did we get here?
A brief history of pay toilets
It wasn’t always this way. For decades, Los Angeles had pay toilets, stalls and “comfort stations” (an old term for large underground bathrooms in city centers).
You’d walk up to a locked stall either in a city-run bathroom or private business, drop a dime (sometimes more or less) in a slot and boom, the door would open. Pay toilets were seen as a way to recoup costs of operation and encourage people to keep them clean.
But by the '70s, pay toilets were falling out of favor. Toilet equity was one issue. Places would offer more toilets for men than women — and urinals were free. That didn’t strike many women as fair.
Another was that people didn’t like having to pay to pee. A few high school students in Ohio launched a group called Committee to End Pay Toilets in America, or CEPTIA, to organize and protest pay toilets. One of their statements said “You can have a fifty-dollar bill, but if you don't have a dime, that metal box is between you and relief.”
The group’s activism spread across the country. “Some students spend their time going to parties and drinking; we wrote model legislation and drafted press releases,” founding member Ira Gessel said near its 50th anniversary. “Everyone has to have a hobby.”
California takes a stand
CEPTIA often gets credit for campaigning against pay toilets, but many groups raised the issue. The Sacramento-based group F.L.U.S.H. (Free Latrines Unlimited for Suffering Humanity), encouraged people to hold bathroom doors open for the next person as a form of protest and to give dime change to bartenders.
Meanwhile California Assemblymember March Fong Eu had had enough of the inequality between men and women’s fees, and championed a bill to ban pay toilets in public buildings.
Her press conference theatrics in 1969 made her a legend, when she took a sledgehammer to a chained up porcelain toilet on the steps of the state capitol as part of a “down with pay potties” protest.
(Potty puns abounded. “Put up or flush up,” said one protester’s sign. “We don’t give a dime,” said another).
Her first attempt died in committee. But by 1973, when Eu reintroduced her bill, it made it all the way to then-governor Ronald Reagan’s desk, and was signed into law in 1974.
Within the next few years, pay toilets disappeared nationwide. People who’d been campaigning against them had assumed that local governments would step in and create a network of free public toilets — but that mostly didn’t happen, especially in L.A.
Expanding L.A. toilet access
In 2001, however, L.A. did reach a deal to provide 150 free public toilets.
Under the contract, Outfront/JCDecaux were the exclusive operators of these stalls for free in exchange for selling ad space on city property and sharing revenue. (You may remember those names from other street furniture — bus shelters, newsstands, and yes, the toilets).
These automatic public toilets weren’t the same as porta-potties, or the bathrooms you’ll see in libraries and parks. They had self-flushing, automated sinks and sanitizing features without costs for the users or the city. These were recognizable in their green glory — a vaguely Art Deco oval stall.
But the promised 150 never got built. The deal ended up encumbered by permit delays, leaving us with 14. For years, the City Council and the Department of Public Works faced problems getting the entire street furniture program to fulfill its goals.
In 2022, that deal finally ended. But as they searched for another contractor for a new street furniture program, the public works department held that public toilets weren’t a “mandatory component” because the city was exploring options to have a standalone program. (What those are exactly we're keen to find out.)
The City Council ultimately awarded a new street furniture deal (now called the sidewalk and transit amenities program) to Tranzito-Vector, LLC. But those green public toilets — or any toilets for that matter — weren’t part of the deal. So the Bureau of Street Services took them over and has been replacing them with two types of public bathrooms — either a stainless-steel or brick-and-mortar stall.
According to spokesperson Paul Gomez, 11 are in working order as of April 4, while others are “pending the re-establishment of electrical service.” They should all be open by mid-April.
Public toilets map
What will it take to add more toilets?
The bureau’s executive director, Keith Mozee, says his small agency is strapped and can’t expand its bathroom program. He says any expansion should include the city’s municipal buildings.
“StreetsLA similarly believes a comprehensive citywide public toilet program lies beyond the immediate core functions of StreetsLA itself and requires the participation of other city agencies that operate public buildings providing public toilet access …” he wrote in the bureau’s 2022 report.
Could pay toilets be reintroduced?
If the San Diego City Council has its way, yes. While unlikely, it's lobbying the state to lift the ban on pay toilets specifically under local jurisdictions. Some argue charging could help fund more permanent public toilets, while others say it could create a cost barrier where unhoused people hurt most.
Street Watch LA organizer Kristina Meshelski says charging again will bring its own issues. Before Street Watch LA officially formed, they protested toilet access during a hepatitis A outbreak in 2017.
“In our ideal scenario, people who live here are not paying for a service that they should have already,” Meshelski said. “If you have paid toilets, you’re gonna see people who can’t pay for them using the streets again, or you're gonna see ways that people break the laws. People are gonna find a way to do what they have to do.”
But there is one looming event that could heighten the demand for more toilets — the 2028 Olympics, which will bring millions of visitors to the city. Local officials are on a tight timeline to build up L.A. through a myriad of infrastructure improvements, such as better transit lines.
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