Would You Use A Subway Bathroom If It Magically Cleaned Itself?

Pursuing the impossible: Clean, safe, and usable public toilets in public transit systems.

“This is the restroom of the future.” So says Louis Herrera, president of Public Facilities & Services, about his latest installation at an Atlanta subway station–a public toilet designed to make people actually want to go inside.


The company hopes to transform public toilets in places like transit stations, where filth, vandalism, and safety issues often mean that station agents give up, lock the door, and park a permanent “out of order” sign outside. Right now, you often can’t get inside even if you’re brave enough to try.

The new restroom tries to solve every potential problem a public restroom faces. It cleans itself, automatically misting the room with antibacterial spray and then using high-pressure jets to wash away grime from the graffiti-resistant walls. A giant blow dryer and heated floor quickly dry the room, and then it’s ready to use again.

“All the activities you’d normally do manually have been computerized,” says Herrera. His company, which manages the facility remotely, decides how often to clean, and then programs the restroom to wash down after a certain number of uses or hours.

It’s also fully hands-free. Hold your hands in front of the toilet paper roll, and a few sheets automatically glide out. At the sink, more sensors dispense soap and turn on the faucet, and a blowdryer is built into the side of the basin, so you don’t even have to turn around to dry your hands.

To keep the restroom safe, and eliminate drug deals or prostitution that might otherwise happen inside, a “virtual restroom attendant” watches the door via a camera and buzzes people in, politely kicking someone out after 10 minutes. The attendant works for Herrera’s company rather than for a transit agency.

“What’s happening with a lot of these stations is that the station attendants, who’ve got their own set of duties, are becoming restroom attendants opening and closing doors all day,” Herrera says. “We’re allowing them to outsource their toilet services to us.”


The restroom even has an option for an infrared scanner than can check a bathroom after someone leaves to make sure a suspicious package hasn’t been left behind. “One of the reasons that public restrooms are closed in transit agencies right now is security,” Herrera says. “We go to the higher code alert in the homeland security system and all of the sudden bathrooms close everywhere.”

In Atlanta, the new restroom is a pilot, and if all goes well, the city may install more. Public Facilities & Services also has a handful of other facilities around the country. The company has been making automated restrooms for over a decade, but now may finally be the time that their “restroom of the future” starts to spread.

“Twelve years ago, it was a little ahead of its time,” Herrera says.


About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.