Urine Trouble: How Can the CTA Keep Its Elevators Free of Pee?

The elevator at the Red Line’s Grand Avenue stop. Photo: John Greenfield

[This piece also rain in Checkerboard City, John’s transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]

I don’t mean to sound pissy, but the Chicago Transit Authority is having difficulty keeping ‘L’ stop elevators urine-free. Some say it’s the agency’s Number One challenge.

Like most Chicagoans who get around by rapid transit, I’ve noticed that people often use the lifts as restrooms. However, the issue really hit home when my seventy-eight-year-old father visited last month. Due to knee troubles, it’s tough for him to walk more than a couple blocks at a time, but he gets around great on a bicycle, and enjoys seeing the Windy City on two wheels.

My dad and I did much of our sightseeing by cycling to my local El station, riding the train downtown with our bikes, and then pedaling to destinations like the Shedd Aquarium and an architectural boat tour. That made for nearly door-to-door trips, requiring less walking than if we’d taken a car there.

The main downside of this approach was that we had to use CTA station elevators on numerous occasions, and they often contained pungent puddles that dampened our tires. It was a minor annoyance for us, but for seniors and people with disabilities who have to use these lifts on a regular basis, the daily indignity of wet floors must be a major aggravation.

Last week, I staked out an elevator that serves the Red Line’s Grand Avenue stop and buttonholed a few riders to get their perspective on this yellow peril. Natalie Bell, a project director for a consulting firm, commutes from 79th Street in the Chatham neighborhood to her office in River North via the El. Since she has rheumatoid arthritis, she uses the lift instead of the stairs.

Bell estimates that about half the time she enters a CTA elevator, someone has recently urinated in it. “It’s major to me,” she said. “You don’t want to step in it on your way to work, and especially when you’re on your way home, because you don’t want to bring it in the house.”

Davey Williams, a retiree from East Garfield Park who walks with a cane, told me that flooded elevators are also a common hazard on the Green Line. “It’s real bad at Pulaski and Lake, and Kedzie and Lake,” he said. “Oh my god. That stuff is so strong, it burns your eyes.” He thinks the CTA could address the problem by adding more security guards at stations, and by providing washrooms for customers, instead of just for employees.

World-class subway systems in cities like London and Tokyo do provide reasonably clean restrooms free of charge to riders at most or all stations. New York and Washington, D.C. also provide bathrooms at some transit stations. So why doesn’t Chicago?

An elevator at the Green Line’s Conservatory-Central Park station. Photo: John Greenfield

The CTA used to have washrooms for customers, but shut them down in the 1970s, according to spokeswoman Ibis Antongiorgi. “CTA’s decision to close the public restrooms more than forty years ago was due to a lack of funds to maintain the facilities, and also a security concern,” she wrote via email. “Today, costs associated with maintaining such facilities multiple times a day and ensuring a safe environment continue to be beyond the agency’s fiscal means.”

The transit system currently has about 250 bathrooms for CTA workers, but civilians can only use these facilities when the situation falls under the guidelines of the Illinois’ Restroom Access Act, Antongiorgi said. In general, the person must have a medical condition requiring immediate access to a toilet, and there must be no public restroom within a half block of the station.

“Cleanliness throughout our bus and rail system is a priority we take very seriously,” Antongiorgi added. Elevators are cleaned seven days a week, several times a day between 5am and 9:30pm, including mopping the floors and wiping down the walls with disinfectant. Presumably, much of the illegal peeing takes place after 9:30pm, during the wee hours. However, any time a customer complains about a defiled lift, the CTA dispatches a janitor to clean up the mess. The elevator shafts are also power-washed about twice a month.

Antongiorgi noted that urinating in CTA elevators is illegal under an ordinance that outlines the rules of conduct on the system, since this behavior is classified as indecent exposure. Culprits are subject to a fine of not less than $100, plus court supervision, restitution for damaged property, and/or community service. Chicago police officers are responsible for enforcing the law when they encounter someone heeding nature’s call on CTA property, but fear of arrest doesn’t seem to be an effective deterrent—yet.

The good news is, the transit agency is now including 360-degree security cameras in the construction specs for all new elevators. So far, there are six stations whose lifts are equipped with the cams: the Green Line’s Morgan stop, and the Red Line’s 87th, 63rd, 55th, and Clark/Division stations.

“We have yet to catch someone urinating or vandalizing an elevator at one of these six stations, Antongiorgi conceded. However, as the cameras become commonplace and would-be elevator urinators realize Big Brother is watching, surely they’ll opt for an alley instead. It seems like the security cams are a golden opportunity to solve the problem.

  • Anne A

    During my recent disability, I’ve had to rely on elevators in some CTA stations. On about 80% of trips at the Jackson red line station, the street level-to-mezzanine elevator had fresh puddles. A few times it was dry but malodorous. Once it had been freshly mopped and actually smelled clean. The mezzanine-to-platform elevator had fresh puddles less often but was equally smelly and smelled clean once – same day as the upper level elevator. 95th St. station was less smelly and rarely had fresh puddles.

  • Interestingly, in 1973 Chicago was at the forefront of a national movement to improve restroom access, by being the first major city to ban pay toilets: http://www.psmag.com/navigation/business-economics/dont-pay-toilets-america-bathroom-restroom-free-market-90683/

  • Anne A

    Ah, the irony….

  • Anonymous
  • Wow, I had no idea those urine detectors existed. In funding allows, sounds like those might be a good idea for the CTA.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    I certainly don’t think this wee problem (as you so state) has anything to do with the lack of restroom facilities. Providing restroom facilities can be difficult as you really don’t want camera monitoring in restrooms and restrooms often become refuges for homeless and elements that could harm other patrons. Its easy to compare this to London and Toyko, but its not the same. Part of the problem is that the CTA wants less employees on site at their stations 24/7. The best suggestion is to have elevators that (at street level) can only be opened by a CTA employee after purchasing a fare. However, each station is laid out differently because you can’t retrofit an elevator in a convenient location in all stations. Also at stations with no elevators, people use station exits and stairways.

  • C Monroe

    Why not rent port-a-potties in the short term?

  • Dennis McClendon

    Chicago’s downtown subway stations featured public toilets when they opened, and into the 1980s I think official policy was that they were available on request. Some are now damaged or unusable, but the doors, usually marked with a number ending in M or W, are easy to spot near the attendant’s booth.

  • High_n_Dry

    Since we can assume it is mostly men doing this… When will we outgrow our Puritan upbringing and allow these in strategic locations? http://uhurumahlodi.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/mens-outdoor-urinals.jpg

  • ICUP

    How about urinals in the elevators?

  • gpblight

    I have been sending emails to the Mayor and CTA Superintendent for approx 18 years. The Greenline/Kedzie stop elevator is ALWAYS full of pee. Apparently the union manager is not smart enough to figure out how to monitor pee and get it cleaned up quickly. The glass booth attendant can leave the station to have conversation with other employees or do other outside the glass booth including reading books. Why can’t that employee take a periodic stroll to the 3 elevators and request service when it is needed?

    More than that…Why doesn’t CPD write tickets? Or the CTA police write tickets? If there were portable revolving cameras…that took tickets and the beat cars came and made arrests immediately…it would be a huge step in discouraging this kind of behavior.

    TheGreenline/Kedzie elevators are the TOILET for the loiterers on the Kedzie/Lake intersection the city owns. Seems it is ok for the Salvation Army to feed people and collect “sinners.” They can leave behind 20-70 vagrants composed of drug dealers, drug users, unemployed, homeless, pediphiles, theives, gangbangers, gun toting, prostitutes, et al. CPD seems to think that the patrons of the nearby liquor store need their own PUBLIC SPACE.

    NFPs took $$ to keep the area clean. Most of the time it is overgrown and a mess. When they drop grass w/ goat maneur…we then feed the rats gourmet food.

    It is a crazy crazy mess in Chicago ghettos…all MAN MADE.

  • FG

    Millennium Park (aka Randolph Street) Station restrooms used to be hustler haven, after renovation they have staff there to keep the restrooms clean and chase off the sex workers. I can’t imagine the CTA wanting to deal with that across the system or with drug abuse in the toilets. You could charge (via Vulture card) perhaps, for restroom usage, as is done in Europe, but Americans would have a fit about that.

  • FG

    Interesting, since there used to be many public, as in municipal, accessed without going into buildings, restrooms in the loop (accessed from sidewalk outside the City-County Building among others – you can still see the remnants or scars of the entries in some places) and closed them because they were a maintenance and supervision nightmare. In other words, the city got rid of a lot of public toilets (and this was during the heroin epidemic too, so another reason to get rid of them, along with a growing terrorism threat) and were able to get rid of additional employee’s too. Frankly, allowing the public to use private facilities restrooms is ridiculous.

  • Something tells me there’s not much overlap between the segment of the population that would be willing to pay to use a bathroom, and those who would be willing to relieve themselves in an elevator.

  • Dan Staggs

    A twist on this concept: what about a fine mesh/grate type floor where all types of spills, biological or otherwise, drip through and into the concrete floor of the elevator shaft? I know we’re talking about a utility that use electricity, but there shouldn’t be anything exposed that could short out, and those dank walls get pretty funky anyway. The bottom of the shaft can just be hosed out periodically. No claims to being an expert here, just thinking out loud.

  • FG

    This would be better though.

  • FG
  • FG

    True, but the restrooms at Randolph are easily accessible outside of fare control (well, more or less- it’s Metra). But available restrooms, even for a fee, might lesson the problem, especially for night shift workers for when no businesses are open. We certainly have homeless peoples, um, squatting, behind my loop office building as it is now.

  • Anne A

    I suspect that, if bathrooms were available for a fee, it would increase ridership among those who would pay to use them.

  • berkeleygirl

    I could have said the exact same thing about the elevator on the north side of the Clark/Lake station. Come to think of it, the stairs are hardly any better…

  • berkeleygirl

    Does the CTA enforce any of its laws? I was reminded of this last week, sitting on the Brown Line with a woman swaying above me with her phone in one hand, coffee in the other, neither holding onto the pole.

  • “Why doesn’t CPD write tickets”? So we can have Ferguson right here in Chicago after it all escalates — “They shot my baby just for peeing on the wall……..”!

  • The lack of public toilets in major transit hubs in various cities around the country is just one more example of a government that could give a hoot about its citizens. There seems to always be money for raises to the transit executive class but there is never enough money to provide basic services to consumers.
    This is not just a Chicago problem, there are plenty cities with the exact same problem, Like ‘green’ Portland (Trimet)

  • Officer Unfriendly

    That’s not a law FYI.

  • C Monroe

    City I live in(Grand Rapids) had a public urination problem downtown and not enough public bathrooms so the city decided in the short term to rent porta potties. In the rental agreement, the porta-potties had to be cleaned at least daily and a few busier areas multiple times a day. The cleaning included hand sanitizer and tp. Now if you are downtown you are never more than a block or two from a public toilet. It has cut down on the public urinating arrests. You could also come up with exterior designs to disguise them to fit the surroundings.

  • rohmen

    I literally just watched a guy this morning at a blue line station whip it out and start peeing on the platform while people were casually walking past him, which made me think of this article again.

    Part of me was glad that he at least did it on the platform, rather than boarding a train and doing it there.

    It’s a tough problem, though, as I don’t see how you can provide restroom facilities at most stations without also creating some serious concerns from a safety, vagrancy and drug use perspective. I just don’t think the CTA will ever be willing to take on the liability concerns providing bathroom facilities creates in this day and age.

  • Alex_H

    Sheesh. What station?

  • rohmen

    Austin Blue Line, which shows the other problem CTA deals with as to some of these situations, which is that the station house is close to two or three blocks away from the middle of the platform due to the design of the Forest Park branch stations; meaning, even with video surveillance, the guys is done pissing and likely on the next train before staff could ever even get to him.

  • Raven

    Absolutely NOTHING is wrong with that, since nobody is walking down there. This is exactly what people SHOULD do, if they have to pee. Unfortunately, idiots will arrest or complain about this one, but not about the disgusting one which is on the train or in the elevator. In fact, once after one of the other homeless people peed ON THE TRAIN FLOOR and I told the CTA employees they need to kick him off, the employee said, “That’s okay because that train is being put away so we’re about to clean it.” And they did not say a word to the disgusting man.

    Also note this was not a requirement at all… he peed on this train AS IT WAS PULLING INTO THE LAST STATION (where everyone is required to get off anyway, at least at Forest Park after 2am).

  • Raven

    …And this has WHAT to do with CTA “enforcing laws”…?

  • Raven

    Really, and there is a law, as well as a policy by the transit company, as well as very large posters advertising the policy, that anyone who leaves to pee and returns within 30 minutes is automatically allowed back on to the train with no fee required since they have not actually gotten off the train yet?

    Because otherwise “X black away” is 100% completely in every possible way irrelevant.

    Also, being 2 blocks away from something is quite is an extremely long distance if you are carrying anything, or if it is in a city and it is winter and everything is dirty, or if too many people are there, or if you are disabled, etc., etc., etc. Also WTF is a “public toilet”?

  • Raven

    …And “refugee for homeless” is a problem HOW, exactly? And WTF is “other elements that could harm patrons,” since prior to this part of the sentence you have not mentioned anything that could harm anyone? Simply build a NORMAL bathroom rather then a disgusting one, and keep it clean by cleaning it every hour, and GEE OMG people will have a place to pee!

    Also, make sure the bathrooms are inside the fare gates, so that no one is coming out solely to pee, which would 100% entirely defeat the purpose in the first place.

  • Raven

    No, if you “could charge” for BATHroom (not “restroom,” since there is no such thing as that, obviously) usage, which, of course, you CAN’T morally, nor legally, do, then what would happen is…

    -Exactly 0 less people would pee in the elevator.
    -Exactly 0 less people would pay on the train.
    -Exactly 0 people would be able to pee when they need to.
    -Exactly 0 people would be satisfied customers of the CTA.
    -Exactly 0 changes would happen for anyone because it is already obviously possible to leave the station, go to a restaurant, buy something at the restaurant, and then pay a double fare to return to the train.

  • Raven

    Well of COURSE they are… any such thing like that in Chicago is going to be

    -completely useless
    -have no sink

    Would be even worse then the ones in the bars in Chicago. Pretty stupid idea.

  • BlueFairlane

    This is quite the collection of rants. That’s so Raven.

  • C Monroe

    A public toilet is owned by the city/government agency and opened to the public.

  • JeanSC

    Some months ago I was on an L train approaching the Howard station, its last stop. A woman who was not in the perkiest shape surprised other passengers when she went to the end of the car which has a secluded area because that end can be closed of for the engineer’s compartment when it’s the front of the train. She emptied her bladder on the floor and it started running down the floor to the rest of the car. I went to the next car to report this, because I didn’t want her to hear me reporting it to the train’s engineer. He said he’d get cleanup at Howard. When everyone got off, I saw this same woman rummaging through a trash can in the 3rd floor lobby. I told the CTA employee in the booth what she’d done, but police were not called to nab her for the urination. There were several witnesses, including me. What’s the point of talk of enforcement if police aren’t called? Why would police have to witness the offense? I saw it, and I’m sure a DNA test would link the urine to this offender. Believe me, it was very offensive when the urine goes all over the floor of an L car.