Toilet in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, against a white brick wall and a metal public restroom stall.
The public restroom of The Nelson-Atkins Museum’s Bloch Building. Chase Castor/The Beacon

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Bathroom habits aren’t something that people like to announce to the universe. But among friends and on social media channels, some have expressed frustration at the “public restroom deserts” across the Kansas City metro.

In the Westport neighborhood, the only public restroom to be found is in the public library. After the Country Club Plaza closed its public restroom in late 2017, pedestrians have been forced to rely on the generosity of nearby restaurants and stores.

One Facebook user, who shared a post with The Beacon but asked not to be named, said that expecting KC residents to only use the restroom at home is a “delusional” solution to a universal necessity. 

People in the business of serving the public around Kansas City through services such as bus transportation and libraries agree that accommodations are inadequate.  

The Beacon asked Kansas Citians about their favorite public-accessible restrooms in the city, and their answers varied from bars to QuikTrips.

One popular answer was the bathroom in the lower level of the Bloch building of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Closer to downtown, the Union Station and River Market restrooms are well loved.

Other options are often available for those willing to look, but government officials and advocates agree that easy access to public restrooms is not only a sanitation problem, but it also makes the city less hospitable for pedestrians, families and the unhoused.

Kansas City is just one of many American cities without public restrooms

Most American cities have few public restrooms available, and Kansas City is no exception. There is no definitive tally of restrooms available, but QS Supplies, a British bathroom supply company, estimates that the U.S. has roughly eight public restrooms for every 100,000 people. The estimate for Missouri is lower, with six restrooms per 100,000 people.

By comparison, Canada has 18 restrooms per 100,000 people, and Iceland has 56.

A lack of public restrooms in the city can have implications for individual and public health. Michael Kelley, policy director at BikeWalkKC, said the shortage also serves as a barrier to walkability and accessibility.

“Public restroom access is a walkability issue,” he said. “If people don’t have access to public restrooms, especially when they’re thinking about walking to a location, it quickly becomes a less viable option because everyone has to ‘go.’”

This especially becomes a problem for people who need to relieve themselves frequently,  including pregnant people, children or the elderly. Some conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome or certain cancers, can also make finding a restroom more urgent.

The problem may soon get worse in some areas, as Starbucks considers ending its policy of keeping restrooms open for non-paying visitors. The American Restroom Association has said that this decision violates U.S. plumbing codes.

Transit agency often relies on local businesses for restroom facilities

The Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (KCATA) sees a greater need for public restrooms, both for its riders and for its own employees.

KCATA’s vice president of communications, Cindy Baker, said some transit stations and terminals have restrooms available for bus operators, but they often rely on local businesses along bus routes.

“Typically, it’s a place that’s open to the public anyway, like a QuikTrip,” she said. “So operators just park wherever they are and run in and run out.”

Baker said KCATA has received requests to make more restrooms available for riders, but she said the agency isn’t equipped to handle this problem on its own. 

“We plan for restrooms for our operators so that they can take a break during their route shifts, but we don’t feel that we have the resources to maintain restrooms for the public,” she said.

As the transit agency’s development arm evaluates new apartment complexes along transit routes, they evaluate restroom availability as a feature.

“Restrooms are part of the criteria we evaluate when considering TOD (transit-oriented development) projects, especially as it relates to ensuring availability for our drivers,” a representative from RideKC Development Corp. said in an email statement. “Every TOD project is different, so there’s not a blanket response — and in some cases, restrooms are already nearby, so we don’t need to duplicate them.”

Libraries see lots of public restroom traffic, but they can’t be the only option

As the city suffers from a lack of restrooms, Kansas City Public Library temporarily fills some of the need at their 10 locations.

“Our restrooms are well used,” said Joel Jones, the deputy director of library services. “When we open the doors in the morning at some of our locations and there are people waiting, that’s the first place they go: to the restroom.”

Jones said that library restrooms see a lot of traffic from unhoused people in particular, who often don’t have another place to go.

“Not having a house, if you don’t have a restroom, you don’t have a kitchen,” he said. “You don’t have a place to bathe. You don’t have a place to do your laundry.”

Jones said the library tries its best to be a resource for social services in as many ways as possible. Once someone comes in to use the bathroom, they can stay and work with librarians to apply for government assistance or find food and shelter.

In the past, Jones said, “People look at the grand reference desks that are in public libraries, where people come in and ask questions and the reference librarian would turn around and pull a big heavy book off the shelf and help answer that question.” 

Jones said librarians today serve a similar role — only instead of answering questions about history or biology, they answer questions that can help with basic survival.

At the same time, Jones said the library alone cannot solve the problems that arise from the housing crisis or a lack of infrastructure. Libraries alone cannot be Kansas City’s public bathrooms, he said.

Westport Public Library “is probably the only public restroom in that neighborhood,” he said. “I tell you what, we have two stalls in that building. And it seems to me that we are probably not equipped to handle it at that facility, but we do the best that we can.”

San Francisco, Minneapolis and Portland, Oregon, experiment with solutions

Other cities have responded to a lack of bathroom infrastructure in a variety of ways to make their cities more accessible and walkable.

Some, including San Francisco, have implemented self-cleaning public restrooms throughout the city. They have 25 toilets available, and the city says they operate at no cost. The city now has more than 200 public restrooms, or roughly 26 per 100,000 people and 19 per 100 square kilometers.

Portland, Oregon, has constructed similar restrooms, called the “Portland Loo,” which the website says can handle more than 1,000 flushes a day. These restrooms can operate using solar power, but they require cleaning several times a day.

Kelley, the policy director of BikeWalkKC, said cities can also place requirements on businesses to make sure that existing restroom infrastructure is available for anyone to use.

“Places like Minneapolis have been working on pilots to entice and encourage existing businesses, coffee shops, stores, to make the restrooms they have public,” Kelley said.

He said Kansas City should take both routes — expanding access to existing restrooms and building new low-cost facilities. In addition, he suggested that city planning could consider creating requirements for new developments that they must include public restrooms.

“There’s no reason that we can’t or shouldn’t be trying to find more ways to expand public restrooms,” Kelley said. “The library and the KCATA are both right. They can’t be the only places that offer that necessary amenity.”

Public restroom access is not only an issue for unhoused people or families with children — Kelley said it affects workers, transit riders, bus operators and anyone who wants to spend less time driving around the city.

“Everyone is going to have to go at some point,” he said. “That’s just how human beings work. And so taking this step is an opportunity to create a city where more people can exist as their full selves … We shouldn’t be flushing this opportunity.”

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Josh Merchant is The Kansas City Beacon's local government reporter. After graduating from Seattle University, Josh attended Columbia Journalism School, earning a master’s degree in investigative journalism....