Last month, public restrooms reopened in two underground BART stations after more than 20 years, having been closed after the September 11 attacks in 2001. Powell Street Station’s two public restrooms reopened on Feb. 2, while bathrooms reopened at Oakland’s 19th Street station on Feb. 25.
Advocates applauded the reopening but faulted the Bay Area-wide transit agency for shutting public bathrooms in the first place, which has denied the human right to accessing water for drinking, sanitation and hygiene purposes to homeless people.
“Reopening restrooms represents a big step towards delivering the world-class transit our riders deserve,” BART Board member Bevan Dufty said in a statement last month. “I thank every individual who raised their voice to insist that bathrooms are a human right.”
John Stiefel, a water, sanitation and hygiene consultant, has examined water access issues in Africa, Asia and the Middle East for 12 years as a water, sanitation and hygiene consultant. Last year, he co-authored a report for the Coalition on Homelessness, which publishes Street Sheet. The report found that most homeless San Franciscans lack access to the United Nations’ minimum standard of 15 liters of water daily for personal use.
Stiefel says he welcomes the reopening, but that it’s unclear how much closer it will bring the City to the U.N.’s benchmark.
“The good news is that Powell Street is centrally located [for water access], and it would contribute to meeting the minimum standards,” he told Street Sheet. “But we need more data.”
As for BART’s national security rationale for closing the bathrooms, Stiefel says he doesn’t quite understand it. His work as a consultant took him to high-risk security nations, and he never saw that kind of response abroad.
“I’ve worked in fragile states and in places with high security issues, but I’m confused on how that connection is made between 9/11 and public toilets,” he says.
Voter-approved measures, including BART’s Measure RR and the San Francisco County Transportation Authority’s Proposition K, passed in 2016, made the reopening possible. Prop. 1B, a statewide infrastructure bond that passed in 2006, also provided funding.
The amenities in Powell Street’s restrooms have improved since they were last open to the public. They are now all-gender restrooms, with LED lighting. A touchless sink is located outside of the restroom on the concourse, making it easily accessible for those who just want to wash their hands. There is also a drinking fountain and water bottle filling station.
BART says it plans to renovate restrooms at the Lake Merritt and Montgomery Street stations by the summer of 2022, and that restrooms in the Downtown Berkeley and Embarcadero stations could open in fiscal year 2023. Underground restrooms remain closed at Civic Center, 16th Street Mission and 24th Street Mission in San Francisco, as well as 12th Street in Oakland.