Kathleen Horan, Reporter, WNYC News
Kathleen Horan is a staff reporter for New York Public Radio, covering the neighborhood beat. She also reports 'Reset', an ongoing series documenting police-community relations in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
Locating public bathrooms in the city is challenging for many who live, work and visit here. There are even online sites and mobile apps for people seeking help finding a restroom. But these tools don't really work for taxi drivers. Drivers often work 10-to-12 hour shifts and require a public restroom with an adjacent parking spot.
Out of 62 taxi relief stands in the city, only one that recently opened in lower Manhattan has onsite bathrooms drivers can use.
Taxi driver John McDonagh has been hacking on and off for more than 30 years. He said when it comes to restrooms, sometimes the best thing to do is avoid "nature’s call" altogether.
"You try to go before you get into the cab and hold out for the 12 hours, I mean that is the easiest solution," said McDonagh. "And that's what most drivers do. You just don't drink. That's life, and it's getting worse, so if there is some other way of doing it, I'd like to hear it."
Forty-five of the 62 relief stands are located in Manhattan, but they are basically just areas for drivers to park their cabs for up to an hour. Cabbie Mohan Singh, who has been driving for a few years, said he was shocked when he learned the relief stands did not provide restrooms.
"Relief taxi stand. This means relief only for the car, not for the person. So this must be accurate that relief should be given to the person who is driving the cab," said Singh.
Taxi and Limousine Commissioner David Yassky agrees there is a problem for drivers.
"There are not very many private businesses that are willing to welcome taxi drivers to come in and use the restroom and its a persistent issue," said Yassky.
It's an issue that affects a lot of bladders. There more than 48,000 licensed cab drivers in the city. A spokesperson for the Department of Transportation, which approves the space for the relief areas and installs the signs, says the stands are located near "taxi friendly restaurants and shops," where drivers can access the facilities.
Third generation Queens garage owner Richard Wissak is skeptical about the availablitly of such places.
"If they have a list of those we'd certainly like to give them out to the drivers, said Wissak.
A couple of the cabbies to whom he leases taxis have been ticketed for using the restrooms in public parks. They weren't aware that they can be cited for using a bathroom in a playground without being accompanied by a child. Wissak, who is also an attorney, suggested one of the cabbies fight the summons.
"This driver actually had five daughters. I said, 'bring a picture of your family to show the judge to say I'm not doing anything here but trying to go to the bathroom.'" Wissak says the driver beat the ticket, but still lost a day of work. He admits that many cabbies are forced to risk a public indecency ticket for reliving themselves outside or they use something known as a "motormen's helper" or a 'handibottle."
According to driver John McDonagh, "It is the last resort. It is not as if the cabbie got up in the morning and said 'I'm going to have a great day, I'm going to p*** in a bottle.' I would like to go a nice clean establishment and relax a bit, but that's not our option."
There are some exceptions.For example, J & R Music and Computer World in Lower Manhattan. For many years, J & R struggled to find cabs for customers who needed help getting flat screen TV’s and other large gadgets home. J & R Public Relations Director Abe Brown said they were looking for a way to entice drivers to Park Row, which isn't an easily accessible spot. So J & R asked the city if they could create a taxi stand in front of the store and, to sweeten the deal, offer free coffee and unlimited bathroom visits for drivers.
In the technology section of the store, downstairs near the returns and the tech support, are four bathrooms that are cleaned once an hour. And chairs nearby to wait if they’re occupied. Brown said not allowing the drivers free access wasn't an option. "Once you do it, you do it the right way. It would be very unfair to invite them to stop by here and not to be able to use the facilities."
TLC Commissioner Yassky hopes the idea takes hold. "We are very delighted by J & R stepping up and setting an example here. I would love to see other businesses follow suit."
When asked if there were any other options, since there are so many drivers and so few facilities, Yassky simply replied, “I think you’re on to something.”
In the meantime, drivers said they would be willing to pay to use restrooms and hope the city will increase the number of facilities.