Automated public toilets get off to very slow start in L.A.

Times Staff Writer

The green, oval, vaguely Art Deco pod arrived in Pershing Square six months ago -- billed as the answer to one of downtown’s most human of needs.

It’s a luxury automated toilet, the kind seen on the streets of world-class cities such as Paris and New York and a prototype for as many as 150 that officials plan to roll out across Los Angeles in the next few years.

Costing as much as a small downtown condo, it offers instructions in Vietnamese, French, Italian, Spanish, English and Braille, advising passersby to drop a quarter in the slot and step inside.


Unfortunately, the bathroom doesn’t work.

Six months after the arrival of the automated public toilet in Pershing Square -- and 2 1/2 years after officials began installing public toilets in the city -- only one of seven facilities actually works. In downtown, where they were supposed to help tourists and homeless alike, there is only one working automatic lavatory.

Though the luxury public toilet has become a status symbol in cities around the world, in L.A. it’s a slightly complicated tale -- one of the city’s efforts to create a more pedestrian-oriented life, but also a story about its bureaucratic struggles to achieve that goal.

The city plans to install the APTs, as they are known, around the Westside, the Miracle Mile, the San Fernando Valley and Hollywood, and by doing so, it joins more than 600 cities around the globe that have installed the toilets.

In Los Angeles, the facilities are part of a 20-year contract between the city and a joint venture of two companies: CBS Outdoor and JCDecaux. The latter, a French firm, has installed thousands of the sleek units worldwide, mostly in exchange for the right to sell the ads that adorn them. It’s a common model that is used by the majority of American cities looking to install the loos. L.A. is guaranteed $150 million in revenue over the course of the contract.

Backers say the toilets are needed to instill a more pedestrian culture in places such as downtown, Hollywood, Westwood and Ventura Boulevard. They note that they are a big step up from the Porta Pottis used in some parts of downtown.

But skeptics wonder whether the toilets are needed, and whether they are less about serving a public need than selling ad space.


“There is a price for it,” said Kevin Fry of Scenic America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to scenic conservation. “The city streets become increasingly commercialized.... You are surrendering the visual quality of the public realm to marketers, and we don’t think that’s a way for cities to be built.”

Even some supporters are becoming frustrated with all the delays, which include getting the power turned on -- and to stay on -- at the toilets. One downtown blogger has posted regular “Toilet Watch” updates on his website in frustration.

“If we want to clean up the smells and sights of our streets, we have to be able to offer these facilities,” said Eric Richardson, the blogger, who is a member of the area’s neighborhood council.

CBS Outdoor and JCDecaux are installing transit shelters, public kiosks and toilets as part of a massive “coordinated street furniture” deal with the city. The companies foot the bill for installing all the structures, including the toilets, and for the maintenance on each.

Separate city departments have been responsible for overseeing installation of the APTs, the running of sewer, power, water and phone lines to the sites, and inspection and permitting of the toilets.

The departments blame each other for the delay. Various people interviewed attributed the delay to a lack of cooperation among the agencies responsible for getting the toilets operational.


Francois Nion, a co-managing director of the CBS-JCDecaux venture, blamed the slow installation process on a lack of power and water hookups.

“It’s a big city,” he said. “There are so many departments you have to go through.”

Lance Oishi of the city’s Bureau of Street Services was blunt: “The utilities are holding up the opening,” he said -- a nod to the city’s Department of Water and Power.

Joe Ramallo, a spokesman for that agency, said officials were looking into the cause of the delay. He said work on the Pershing Square unit would be completed in a month.

The one downtown toilet that is operational sits just outside San Julian Park, at San Julian and 5th streets.

Its location -- in the heart of skid row -- and its price -- free -- guarantee that it gets a lot of use. Nion said estimates put daily usage at about 120 to 130 flushes.

A toilet at the Red Line station in North Hollywood gets a similar number of flushes. An APT in Northridge, near the Metrolink station, gets about 20 to 30 users a day.


As a group, the toilets are sleek, modular units with doors that whoosh open like an elevator’s, with plenty of space for ads on the outside.

JCDecaux offers three stand-alone models: the Hydra, a gray, boxy structure that resembles a plastic storage bin; the Cox, a more streamlined version with a levered awning over the entrance that makes it look more like a bus shelter; and the premium, $300,000 Pillar, the oval, green version chosen for Los Angeles that has much in common with phone booths of yore.

Still, L.A. is a little late in embracing luxury toilets.

Singapore, London and Athens have more than 500 of the APTs each -- most installed in their city centers.

In some cities, the facilities have been tailored to the needs of the toilet-going public. Those that adorn Bukit Bintang, for example, a shopping district in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, give users the choice of using a squatting bowl or a sitting pan. A deputy prime minister attended the opening of one of the public toilets there.

But even with those features, some problems have plagued the APTs. In Seattle, which pays about $700,000 a year to maintain five downtown toilets, business leaders said the facilities had become a haven for drug dealers and prostitutes.

L.A. officials say that the risks of such use are far outstripped by the public benefits of self-cleaning, self-monitoring toilets -- and that the time limit on each person’s use of the toilet, usually 15 to 20 minutes, also limits such behavior.


After Kevin Scott left the APT outside San Julian Park, it whirred a little as it cleaned. Scott, who is homeless, said he prefers the APT to a bank of nearby Porta Pottis and the missions, which make their toilets available to the public.

“These are a lot cleaner” than the Porta Pottis, he said. “They’re being used.”