Denver Embraces Mobile Restrooms

By Sarah Ford

A mobile restroom at the intersection of Franklin and Colfax. Each restroom has three stalls and is maintained by an attendant. Credit: Sarah Ford

A mobile restroom at the intersection of Franklin and Colfax. Each restroom has three stalls and is maintained by an attendant. Credit: Sarah Ford

To those who frequent downtown and East Colfax, the site of mobile public toilets is no longer an unexpected relief. But it was only a year ago that downtown visitors needing a restroom would find themselves with few to no options. 

Now, City Council and Denver Public Works are in the late stages of laying out a plan to make sure public toilets downtown are an exception, not just a convenience. 

The issue reached City Council’s agenda in 2015, after regular complaints of too many people being forced to relieve themselves in public. The answer was Denver’s bathroom experiment—the placement of two mobile restrooms in high-traffic areas to test public usage and habits. 

The restrooms made their debut in March of 2016, and the results have not surprised anyone. 

“There is quite a bit of need that we’re filling,” Councilwoman Robin Kniech said. “The level of response hasn’t been surprising at all.”

Two mobile restroomshave become staples in East Colfax and downtown, both of which see as many as 200 users a day. Leased by the city for $15,000 a month, each holds three stalls (including one for handicapped individuals), a urinal, and a bathroom attendant to help keep the facilities clean. 

The mobile facilities are the key part of the pilot project to revitalize and build access to a variety of public toilets, all of which are laid out on the City of Denver website. In addition to the two mobile bathrooms and their schedules, the list offers the hours and locations of permanent public restrooms in the Central Library, McNichols Building, Capitol Building and City and County building downtown. 

But thanks largely to visibility, it is the mobile restrooms that are seeing the most frequent usage, not by groups everyone would expect. According to Nancy Kuhn of Denver Public Works, about one third of those who use the restrooms are homeless. The rest are regular patrons and commuters, making their way to work or out of a downtown bar. 

“I get emails from pregnant moms or people with small kids who use the restrooms and find it to be a lifesaver,” said Kniech. “We as a city have worked hard to activate public spaces. We want folks walking and driving.”

Now, the question becomes where the best locations for permanent installments might be. The mobile restrooms have been moved to different intersections and locations since making their appearance, trying to find in which areas they see the most use. It has led to some lessons in strategy.

“People don’t walk very far,” said Kniech. “We can move them 50 feet off the thoroughfare and people don’t see it or know it’s there unless they happen to walk past it.”

The restrooms split time in various high-traffic locations, including the intersections of Colfax and Clarkson, Colfax and Downing, and various points of the 16th Street Mall. A presentation on the results is expected in December. 

But Kniech said each location will give the opportunity for the city to better integrate public restrooms into basic infrastructure, as both the 16th St. Mall and East Colfax prepare for major transportation and remodeling efforts in the near future. 

Although the project is only scheduled through the fall, Kniech assured that the city is continuing to evaluate how use of the mobile toilets might continue forward into the next year, particularly in the time bridging the gap between permanent installments. 

“We are always re-evaluating,” she said. “If this is needed in other areas, then we can use it. It is cheaper to spend (on mobile units) to find the locations that work now.”

That may include future mobile restrooms placed in the busy Ballpark or Rino neighborhoods, Kniech said. 

“This is just like a park bench, a street light, or a sidewalk,” said Kniech. “A piece of infrastructure that is crucial to a thriving city.” ■