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To Ride or Not to Ride. It's Not Just a Traffic Question

Public Restrooms is the Concern

August 8, 2002

What do airports, railroad stations and bus terminals have that Metro doesn't?

Public restrooms.

It's not that they don't have restrooms. It's that they don't have "public" restrooms. For many potential users that is the determining factor in their decision not to use Metro and, thereby, add to Northern Virginia's already bumper-to-bumper roadways.

Why don't they have public restrooms? Answers range from personnel demands to terrorism to budgetary priorities. But none of the reasons ring true to Robert Brubaker, director, Metroped, a nonprofit organization dedicated to removing public-policy impediments to pedestrians.

"Metro's refusal to not make their restrooms available on a regular basis is an example of an impediment to commuters and others who would like to use mass transit rather than drive. They need to have all restrooms unlocked and available for public use, and they need to have a published policy to that effect," Brubaker insisted.

One of the arguments by Metro is that the restrooms could be used by terrorists to plant explosive or biochemical devices. But the restrooms have been locked since 1976.

Other mass transit systems such as the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) in San Francisco and the Chicago system have restrooms available. Restroom access is not restricted at either Reagan National Airport or Dulles, at Union Station in Washington, at Alexandria's Union Station, or at any of the area bus terminals.

MetroPed's Web page states, "BART closed all station restrooms immediately after 9-11 but has since reopened many. BART now provides restroom access" and is planning restroom upgrades as part of its renovation process.

Brubaker's information also cites a survey of public restrooms in New York City that highlighted as "a serious deficiency" the fact that 21 percent of NCVT's 74 subway-station restrooms were not available to the public. MetroPed also noted San Diego's recent decision to purchase "33 customer-friendly buses equipped with restrooms."

Ray Feldmann, Metro's director of media relations, explained the lack of public restrooms as "an intentional move on the part of the original designers of the system. Stations were designed without public restrooms for safety reasons."

Feldmann noted, "Although there are restrooms for our employees, they are not places where the public can have ready access. They are also very small and not designed for public use.

"Even the new stations that have been added to the system over the years were not designed with restrooms. And none are included in future planning at this time."

THE PRIMARY REASON cited by Feldmann for this decision, in addition to security concerns, was primarily cost — both in terms of construction and maintenance. "They would require patrolling for safety reasons and would require use of employees to maintain them to the standards required," he said.

"There doesn't seem to be a lot of demand for them, and our resources are stretched very thin. On the long list of priorities, I'm not sure it has moved near the top. To include them would cost a considerable amount of money," he emphasized.

Feldmann did concede that now that the system is approaching nearly 103 miles in length, "it could become more of an issue. If the Board deems that this is a priority, I'm sure they will deal with it."

He acknowledged that Metrorail does have a policy in place, which has been made known to all station managers, that there are three situations where managers are supposed to provide access to existing restrooms if requested by a customer. They are (1) in case of emergency, (2) if the rider is disabled and (3) if a small child is involved.

Brubaker verified Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) policy that patrons in need must obtain permission from station managers. But there are no signs advising of this policy in the stations, nor is it printed in Metro literature, according to Brubaker. On a recent visit to the Eisenhower Avenue Station this reporter tested WMATA's advice to "obtain permission from station managers."

"Is there a restroom available?" was the question posed to the station manager on duty at approximately 5 p.m. on July 30. Her answer was "We have no public restrooms." The question was then clarified as to not whether there was a public restroom but rather was there a restroom available? Again, her stock answer was "We have no public restrooms."

When asked if a passenger had a critical need to use a restroom, what would he be told, the station manager stated, "They would be told we have no public restrooms."

AT THE SAME TIME this conversation was taking place, representatives of the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club were conducting a campaign at the Eisenhower Avenue Metro Station advocating the building of the proposed Purple Line across the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Their rationale was that this would encourage commuters to use Metro instead of their individual vehicles.

As stated on MetroPed's Web page, "WMATA Restroom Policy, as practiced by a significant percentage of their station managers, is at variance with good public health and, apparently, with Metrorail Policy itself," as explained by Feldmann. It then quotes from a medical advisory published by the National Institutes of Health in July 1995, concerning the public and personal health needs for ready access to restroom facilities.

Lee District supervisor Dana Kauffman, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors' representative to WMATA, assured, "We are seriously addressing this concern. The challenge we face is twofold. One, making sure the station managers are letting people use the restrooms unless there is an obvious reason not to, and two, addressing the security concerns while also serving the patrons of Metro."

Kauffman further noted, "The county code requires that every store and public facility have restrooms available. However, they are not required to have them open, just to be available upon request.

"I would prefer that we would err more on the side of more liberal use and availability than on the side of being more restrictive. But we do have to be aware of security concerns, since Metro is a vital part of our area transportation network."

MOUNT VERNON District supervisor and vice chairman, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, Gerald W. Hyland, agreed with the argument to have them available and accessible. "I believe that they should be available to all those that use the system. And I'm not happy that people have to ask to use them. But if they must, they should be made available," he said.

MetroPed isn't the only group behind making Metrorail more user-friendly. Steward Swartz, executive director, Coalition for Smarter Growth, pointed out, "We have issued reports since the early 1990s on how to make mass transit more usable and affordable. To the extent that Metro hasn't taken immediate action on this issue, I assume is because they have had their hands full with all their other problems.

"But they should keep at it. And the restrooms they have should be available to Metro riders. We are very supportive of Bob Brubaker and MetroPed on this issue."

To further buttress his case for restroom availability and accessibility at Metro stations, Brubaker cited two examples of the hardship imposed on those who rely on the system.

"Fairfax County Social Service recipients requiring medical care are often sent to Inova Fairfax Hospital. For those in the Mount Vernon area, this requires a bus trip to Huntington Station, a transfer from the Yellow to the Orange line, and then a bus trip from the Dunn Loring station to the hospital.

"With no delays, this is a 1- to 1 1/2-hour trip without accessibility to restroom facilities. Many patients suffer, particularly the elderly and pregnant women," he stated.

"Another example is those that must travel from the Mount Vernon area to the Fairfax County Court House to resolve legal matters. This is particularly true of the increased immigrant population along the Route 1 corridor. This is often a 2- or 2 1/2-hour trip on Metro," Brubaker emphasized.

MetroPed has suggested the following be adopted by Metrorail as a minimum to becoming more user friendly when it comes to providing accessibility to restroom facilities:

* Clarify Metrorail station policy so that station managers understand that no request from a customer is to be denied. And make this policy clearly known to customers;

* Post restroom policy in a public area in every station;

* To minimize staff impact, allow pre-approved swipe-card patrons access to station restrooms or allow patrons to be buzzed in;

* Stations with long-term parking should have at least one discretely placed chemical toilet;

* Where current restrooms are located above ground and are visible from the station manager's kiosk, and the restroom entrance is located before any other doors, move (or remove) the first lockable door. This could be done on a trial basis at a few stations with large restrooms; and

* All future stations should be designed and built with public restrooms.

METROPED ALSO offers several suggestions to minimize the threat of terrorists or others from using restroom facilities to perpetrate crimes. These include the following:

* Employ sight-line, doorless entrances;

* Provide video and audio surveillance entrances;

* Add sensor alarms with automated restroom HVAC shutdown control; and

* Have no paper towel dispensers or trash bins in the restrooms. Use air-only dryers.

In the Metro Pocket Guide there is a host of information to aid the customer in using the system. Leading off the text part of the Guide is a paragraph headed, "Thanks for using Metro." It states the following:

"Clean. Modern. Safe. And easy to use. No wonder Metro is considered the nation's finest transit system. This guide tells how to use Metro."