CURIOSITY DESK
6:15 pm
Thu July 25, 2013

Flushing Out The Truth About Boston's Public Toilets

This automated city toilet on Boylston Street in Copley Square was out of order earlier this week, but on Thursday morning when we went back and checked, it worked like a charm.
Credit Edgar B Herwick III / WGBH

To follow up on a report from earlier this week about public restrooms in Boston in which five of six automated city toilets were out of order, I caught up with Peter O'Sullivan, who runs the Boston's Coordinated Street Furniture Program. The program is responsible for many of the information kiosks and bus shelters you see around the city, as well as the city's eight automated public toilets.

O'Sullivan is essentially a department of one, and he admitted that keeping the toilets operating is a challenge.


"It's a job that I do everyday. Seven days a week, 365 days of the year," he said.

In order to keep the toilets running, O'Sullivan works closely with the director of operation for JC Decaux, the German company responsible for maintaining them. In exchange for keeping the toilets working, JC Decaux earns advertising revenue from the signs in the kiosks and then pays the city a cut of the revenue.

"They do have technicians that do go around and at least clean them and try and fix them," explained O'Sullivan. "We have had some issues. I mean some of those have been out on the street since 2001."

 O'Sullivan stressed that the relationship between the city and JC Deceaux was a strong one, and that they worked together daily in an effort to keep the toilets operating properly.

Following our report from earlier this week, O'Sullivan said he and JC Decaux's team of technicians went around to each of the toilets and got seven of the eight units up and running on August 24.

But by the following morning, when I went around to the automated city toilets once again, I found that at least five of those seven were once again out of order.

Though the automated toilets on Boylston St. near the Boston Public Library and on Commercial St. in the North End worked like a charm, bathroom units at Drydock Ave. in the Seaport District, Shipyard Park in Charlestown, Central Wharf, Long Wharf, and City Hall Plaza were not functioning.

At the automated public toilet near the Aquarium  on Central Wharf we were warned by a nearby kiosk employee not to try our luck.

"I see people every day trying to put their money in," she said. "And the door never opens, so, welcome to Boston."

Here's some more details we've learned about the city's Coordinated Street Furniture Program and the city's eight Automated Public Toilets:

  • The toilets are German made. Often when the toilets malfunction, JC Decaux has to get parts shipped from Germany in order to get the toilets back in working order. JC Duceaux brought a technician over from Germany a few weeks ago to get them all in working order.
  • The city did not pay to construct the toilets. The costs were covered by Wall, USA- the company that built and installed the toilets. JC Decaux bought the contract from Wall, USA a few years ago. 
  • JC Decaux earns advertising revenue from signage on the toilets, plus all the quarters dropped into the slots. They pay a cut of that revenue – plus a fee – to the city each year (see their Statement of Gross Revenue and Annual Percentage Fee for 2012 here.).
  • Since 2001 the city has earned roughly $16.7 million the outdoor furniture program (which includes bus shelters, info kiosks, etc.), O'Sullivan said. It's not clear what percentage of that money comes from the actual toilets but it would be a relatively small percentage.
  • Two more toilets will be installed by 2026 in order to fulfill the contract.
  • On the heels of our report, O'Sullivan updated the Automated Public Toilets section of the city's website, which now only lists all eight locations. Six were listed previously.

See which of the city's automated public toilets are working, on Greater Boston:

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