GREATER BOSTON
5:20 pm
Thu July 25, 2013

Are There Enough Public Restrooms In Boston?

Each year, more than 12 million visitors come to Boston to take in the city's rich culture and history. We've got old . But there's one amenity that we keep hearing downtown Boston is distinctly lacking: Good, clean well-marked public restrooms.

Well that got us wondering, could it really be that hard to find a place to attend to one of life's most mundane functions in such a high-minded metropolis as ours? The only way to find out was to set out and see for ourselves.

We started out near Copley Square, where one of six automated, self-cleaning city toilets is located. Announced with great fanfare in 2007, the city promised these state of the art toilets would bring relief to the masses for just a quarter per use. But the one on Boylston Street near the Boston Public Library, was out of order. Passersby told us that the experience was all too typical.

"Basically, it's broken all the time I go by," said Ralph Hodgeton, of Beacon Hill. "And, I'm thinking that probably if the city bought them, it's a bad deal because it must cost a lot of money to repair them."

So, off to another public toilet near City Hall Plaza. Everything appeared to be in working order, but when we dropped our quarter into the coin slot to gain access, the doors stayed closed. A second quarter produced the same results.

John McDonough, who’s a courier in the city, told us not to bother.

"Those doors haven’t opened in—I could be wrong—but in about four years," he said.

Our next stop was yet another city toilet in the North End, where the third time was the charm—sort of. We were out of quarters, and when we asked some locals if they could change a dollar, they did us one better, lending us a special token that offers unlimited use of the bathroom. 

Edgar stands outside a city toilet in Charlestown near the U.S.S. Constitution. It was out of service, but the open door allowed us to peak in and see a very dirty toilet and what looked to be an attempt to repair the floor or plumbing inside.
Credit Abbie Ruzicka / WGBH

It worked - and we finally got to see how one of these supposedly self-cleaning and self-sanitizing toilets operate. It was hot inside. And while soothing music played upon entry, it was not soothing enough given the state of things inside. It did not look — or smell — self cleaning. The floors were dirty and the toilet was unflushed. There was one bright spot, however, in that the automatic sink worked perfectly.

While this city toilet was "working" the day we used it, our new, token-wielding friends explained that's not always the case.

"A lot of people, they want to use it, and it’s broke a week, a month at a time," said North End resident Pasquale Barona. "And they don’t fix nothing."

So with the city toilets not a reliable option, where to go?

One place many people we spoke with suggested is the Boston Public Library. Our trip to the bathrooms there confirmed that it is indeed a pleasant experience. The attendant at the library happily pointed the way, the restrooms were clean - and big. 

But, not every neighborhood has a library. And even when they do, libraries close.

Boston resident Vicki Arroyo knows the area around Copley Square well. "There aren’t really public bathrooms around here, so finding a place and not feeling embarrassed about it, too, because sometimes it’s a little embarrassing,” she said.

Arroyo recommended ducking into the Prudential Center or Copley Place. Or, sometimes she said that she and her family will "suck it up and ask the restaurants if we can just sneak in there."

Another tip came from Cambridge resident Cleola Payne. She said that hotels are the best strategy.

"I go to any local hotel," she said. "I know that it's usually going to be a clean bathroom for me to use, and I'm comfortable in clean bathrooms, of course."

Read the follow-up to this piece here

What's your favorite public (or secret) restroom in the city? Have a tip for where to powder your nose along the Freedom Trail? Know of a good place to use the loo along the Esplanade? Do your fellow man a solid and leave the details in the comments section below, and we'll add it to our map. Remember to include the location, and the condition the bathroom is (usually) in.

On Greater Boston, Edgar B. Herwick III elaborated on his experience searching for a clean public restroom in downtown Boston: 

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