Outsourcing public restrooms to Starbucks wasn’t the best idea

Photo: Ira Berger/Alamy Stock Photo

There are, as of 2018, four proper public toilets open 24/7 in the city that never sleeps. The rest of our publicly accessible bathrooms — about 1,100 of them, apparently a sizable number until you start doing the math for 8.8 million people — are closed and locked at night. If you have to go and can’t make it to one, you have several choices. If you’re geographically lucky, you can visit a large open building like the Port Authority Bus Terminal, whose once-awful restrooms are now surprisingly fine. You might be able to walk around a hotel lobby or similar tall building, that is, if you’re dressed respectably and look reasonably well-off. You can, if you squint and cross your legs in despair, rob the corner of a building or a metro station, at the risk of a summons. Or you can do what most of us do, which is find a Starbucks. You don’t have to buy coffee while waiting in line, but you can, at least if you don’t mind speeding up your next trip to the bathroom.

This option, however, may soon disappear. Howard Schultz, citing unspecified concerns about “security” and “strengthening our stores,” said during a New York Time forum that the company was reconsidering the open bathroom policy it had in place in 2018. It uses the language of gun violence prevention, but you have to assume it’s mostly about allowing access to homeless people and the effect their presence has on paying customers in cafes. Starbucks is within its rights to do so, of course. It is a private company and its bathrooms are not owned by the municipality. Most businesses — in New York, at least — won’t let non-customers use the restroom; many limit their use to staff only.

And therein lies the deeper problem. We definitely have a serious problem with access to bathrooms in this city. Outside of a brief, commendable, and dissatisfied attempt by the Bloomberg administration to resolve it, we as a city have ignored it indefinitely, instead allowing the free market to somehow make up the difference when it feels like it. . The urgency (and I mean emergency) to install proper public facilities in every park, or on every fifth street corner, as a modern city should, has been pushed back time and time again for the simple reason that we let Starbucks and its kin worry about it. And now they can be permanently in the tubes.

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