San Diego You decide to take the trolley to Tijuana. The day goes well, and you're ready to start homeward. Before boarding the Blue Line, a cup of coffee at the McDonald's Trolley Station in San Ysidro sounds nice. Then a refill and you're ready to go. "Maybe I should use that restroom in the corner," you think. "But the queue is too long. And what's this? They want me to put a quarter in the turnstile to get in? Think I'll just get on the train. If I have to, I can use the bathroom up the line."
Recollection serves you well that building attendants at the 12th and Imperial Transit Center buzz folks into the restrooms inside Trolley Towers. But that's during the weekdays before 6:00 p.m. Today is Sunday. When you get to the station in 25 minutes, you see a locked gate instead of attendants.
Pressing your knees together, you now wonder, "Did I miss a bathroom at the Chula Vista Visitor Center (at Bayfront/E Street) on the way up?" Good thing you didn't try it. The building's front door has a sign saying No Public Restrooms. If you had gone searching for the restroom in a nearby business, the management might have wanted you to buy something more to drink -- or something more expensive. And you would have risked missing the next trolley.
Here at 12th and Imperial, however, and depending on your ultimate destination, there are two options. Getting back on the Blue Line will lead to City of San Diego public facilities at Third Avenue and C Street. (If it's after 8:59 p.m., the wait between trains is a half hour rather than the daytime 15 minutes.) Or you can take the Orange Line out to several portable toilets at the Euclid Avenue Trolley Station. (After 6:34 p.m., the train intervals on the Orange Line will also be a half hour.) You are lucky if you even have this info. No signs anywhere in the Metropolitan Transit System post the whereabouts of public restrooms.
We who ride San Diego's trolleys and buses see an occasional puddle on a seat, or on the floor underneath. Although drinks aren't allowed on board unless in sealed containers, the puddle can usually be chalked up to a spill. We make sure we sit a good distance away anyway.
Not many people are willing to talk candidly about this subject. When they do, it goes something like this. "I'll tell you a little story if you promise not to identify me in any way," says a man at the Grossmont Transit Center. "I had a long bus ride home and suddenly had to go to the bathroom. It was urgent, so I got off the bus right away. But there were no bathrooms around. Well, to get right to the point, nature took its course. I said to myself, 'I can't get back on the bus in this condition.' So, with three miles left to go, I started walking. I was going up this hill, and my legs were killing me, and I yelled out loud, 'Screw this.' I waited for the next bus and got on. You can imagine the looks I got. People held their noses and moved away from me. But what the hell was I supposed to do?"
George Brown (not his real name) rides the trolley and buses from where he lives downtown to his work site on Shelter Island. Due to transfers and a walk at the end, his trip can take up to two hours. Brown tells me he used the suggestion cards available on some buses to complain about the lack of public restrooms in the transit system. "When you gotta go," he says, "you gotta go." And, Brown complains, "City College has a wonderful new multimillion-dollar trolley station and no public restrooms. Why? America Plaza is a very busy station with two doors labeled Men and Women, but they are always locked. Why? The Old Town [Transit Center] is very outdated, and the only public restrooms are in the snack shop. Guess what happens when the snack shop closes for the evening?"
The run-down men's restroom in Old Town has one urinal and one stall. The appliances are metallic, like the ones you see in the City's public restrooms at the beach. Those locked portable toilets you see across the Amtrak/
Coaster tracks? They're for bus drivers.
In contrast, Brown's ideas are expansive. "There should be sets of restrooms on both sides of the tracks at Old Town, and not in snack bars," he says. "The men's rooms should have numerous urinals and 10 stalls. The women's should have 20 stalls."
And Brown is not happy with other aspects of the Old Town station. "I'm not a small person; I'm not big either," he says. "But the flip-down seats they have by the bus terminals are so narrow I can't get my bottom into them. They're useless."
During the hard rain two Fridays ago, I noticed an associated problem. The roofed shelters along the tracks were not wide and long enough to allow everybody to keep dry. Many people were left standing in the rain, and it wasn't an especially crowded day. In the summer, says Brown, "There is very little shade for people to stand in. And it gets very hot out there."
These deficiencies suggest that the relative scarcity of restrooms along the trolley lines is part and parcel of running trains and buses on the cheap. Yet in November, the Metropolitan Transit System announced it would have to raise its charge for monthly passes. It also said that transfers would no longer be used. For some riders that would mean paying two or three fares to reach a destination. And to think that the San Diego Association of Governments touts public transit as the lynchpin of taking cars off the freeways.
But back to your restroom needs while riding the trolley. In toto, there are eight stations that have public facilities of varying quality: San Ysidro, Palm Avenue (portable toilets only), 12th and Imperial, Civic Center, Old Town, San Diego State University (the best of the lot by far), the Euclid Avenue Trolley Station (portable toilets only), and the El Cajon Transit Center. It is El Cajon where one best sees both the advantages and difficulties of providing public restrooms.
The El Cajon Transit Center performs a variety of functions. In addition to the Green and Orange Lines, four bus lines pick up and drop off passengers there. Inside a small building, monthly transit passes are sold from a snack bar. The Greyhound bus company has a ticket window and picks up passengers heading out of San Diego to the east.
The men's and women's restrooms lie down small hallways from the two entrances on either side of the building. The snack bar occupies the center between the two passages, making them narrow and dark. The bathrooms are similar to Old Town's, with three metallic fixtures, including a basin but no mirror. Despite the work of a cleaning lady six days a week, their run-down aspect makes them feel filthy.
There is almost constant demand for the facilities. In broken English, not all of which I understand, the cleaning lady tells me that people get mad at her when she has to close the bathroom for cleaning. She does that several times a day. Someone will want to use one of the fixtures at the same time she is cleaning another. Then she says, while pinching her nose, "They even make poo-poos in the hall outside the door."
From behind the snack bar, another lady tells me, "Oh, they are always urinating in those halls. And did you see the rainwater dripping into the bucket back there? The biggest problem we have, though, is people stealing the toilet paper. Then they come to me and complain that there isn't any in the bathroom. Besides bus and trolley riders, a lot of alcoholics come in here. The worst is on Sunday, because that's her [the cleaning lady's] day off. There's nothing I can do about the toilet paper. I'm running a snack bar, and we're a private company. The upkeep of the building is the responsibility of [the Metropolitan Transit System]. We close at eight o'clock, but the trolley lets people come in and out of the cold until 11:00. They own the building, and they do send someone in once each morning to clean. But my boss hires our cleaning lady because he doesn't want it to get so bad in here."
It's easy to understand how, with as much traffic as goes through the station, the bathroom problem becomes so bad. But there is little doubt that the bathrooms are needed. Maybe George Brown is right. There should be restrooms on both sides of the trolley tracks, with 10 to 20 fixtures in each one.