MTA’s New Plan to Pay as You Go: Public Toilets


The city’s subway may not be much compared to Paris’ storied Metro, but the Metropolitan Transportation Authority wants Los Angeles to have at least something in common with one of the world’s great cities: pay toilets.

The MTA is considering installing the first automated pay toilets on Los Angeles sidewalks. Like the Parisian les sanisettes that cost about two francs (roughly 40 cents), MTA’s “facilities” would charge a quarter and be above ground, located at entrances to the subway and other transit stations.

But when it comes to the MTA, nothing--not even so basic a function--is simple.

At the moment, for example, the agency’s officials are seeking a legal opinion after being reminded of California’s history of potty politics, namely a state law banning pay toilets.


A city spokesman in San Francisco, which has installed 25-cents-a-flush street toilets, said the 1974 law--made famous by its leading advocate, then--Assemblywoman March Fong Eu smashing a commode on the Capitol steps--applies only to public buildings, not sidewalks.

But Los Angeles City Councilman Hal Bernson, a member of the transit authority’s board, said during a recent meeting: “I think the MTA may have enough problems already as far as public image is concerned without charging people to pay for use of a toilet.”

MTA officials say they have been impressed by the favorable public response to the privies in San Francisco. “We have recorded over 1.3 million flushes” since 20 toilets were installed on sidewalks three years ago, a city spokesman there said proudly.

If anyone thinks that the MTA is planning to pay off its debt a quarter at a time, officials say the coins will be used to pay for supplies, such as disinfectant for the self-cleaning toilets.


A toilet surcharge is not the only issue. Concerns have been raised about the MTA’s plan to allow a company to put up advertising in exchange for installing 10 stainless steel self-cleaning toilets.

“People are tired of having their streetscapes turning into the Yellow Pages,” said Frank Vespe, vice president of the Washington-based conservation group Scenic America.

Under the proposal, a joint venture of Omni Outdoor and Strategic Technologies International would be allowed to put up no more than five ads for every toilet. The ads would not be located on the toilets but rather on kiosks and billboards placed on MTA property around the county.

Although sidewalk toilets are common in Europe, they have been controversial in Los Angeles.


For years, homeless advocates sought to put toilets on skid row but were blocked by then-Mayor Tom Bradley, who worried that it would hurt business.

Transit officials decided more than a decade ago not to provide public toilets in the Metro Rail system, citing concerns about crime and vandalism. But the lack of toilets has been a constant source of complaints from riders.

MTA’s change of heart is not entirely due to a desire to provide for the comfort of riders--who still must often stand on crowded buses or stand waiting for the subway because of a lack of benches. It also is an effort by the agency to make money. MTA expects to make $3.9 million over 10 years from its share of advertising revenues.

Vespe complained, however, that “already, the average person sees about 3,000 commercial messages a day.” Bernson expressed concern that the advertising planned in return for the toilets could violate the city’s sign control law.


But Juan Levy, co-chairman of Philadelphia-based Strategic Technologies International, doubted that the public would even notice the additional advertising.

Moreover, he said, the MTA will be able to provide a public service at no cost to the agency or taxpayers. The company not only would install the toilets but would send a worker out daily to maintain the facilities.

These are not just ordinary toilets: To prevent misbehavior, the toilets can be programmed for a set time limit--say 15 minutes. A voice warns users 10 minutes after the door shuts that they have five minutes remaining. Another warning is given one minute before time expires.

Finally, a voice says, “Your time has run out. Please leave the facility” and then 15 seconds later, the door pops open. Sensors in the floor detect when users stay beyond the allotted time and alert emergency personnel.


The 6 1/2-foot-by-10 1/2-foot toilet structures feature call buttons that allow users to communicate over a speaker system during an emergency to an MTA operator, and they include a flashing light and alarm to summon help from passersby.

Levy said the 25-cent charge deters vandalism.

Free tokens could be be given to the homeless, perhaps through service agencies, MTA officials say. And the toilets provide change for dollar bills, Levy said.

Former California Secretary of State Eu said in a statement that she is amused that it took 25 years for someone to try to circumvent the law she authored outlawing pay toilets in public buildings. “I hope some brave legislator will not take 25 years to introduce legislation that will return the bill to its original intent,” she said.


If approved, the ceremonial first flush is expected to occur later this year.