Dan Fumano: Lack of Broadway subway washrooms has advocate ‘pissed’

Analysis: Advocates, councillors raise concern about lack of public bathrooms, a long-running problem in Vancouver.

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Vancouver council recently tackled an issue that concerns a particularly large special interest group: people who use the bathroom.

In other words, everybody.

Last month, a “virtual groundbreaking ceremony” marking the start of major construction of the Broadway Subway drew five B.C. cabinet ministers, Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart, TransLink interim CEO Gigi Chen-Kuo, and federal Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna.

The online press conference struck a celebratory tone.

“Today’s a great day,” McKenna said. “We’re celebrating a really important milestone in the lives of so many folks in the Greater Vancouver area: the beginning of construction of the Broadway Subway.”

It is, indeed, a big project: a $2.83 billion, 5.7-kilometre rapid transit connection linking Vancouver’s east and west sides, with ties to the downtown core and several neighbouring municipalities.


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But less than a week later, Vancouver’s council — most councillors support the Broadway subway project and want to extend it to the University of B.C. campus — unanimously expressed their “serious accessibility concerns” about a key element of the project: the lack of accessible public washrooms (indeed, any “public” washrooms) at stations.

But the push for accessible public washrooms at the Broadway subway stations goes back at least four years, to before the federal and provincial governments even funded the project.

The council motion was introduced by Green Coun. Michael Wiebe, council liaison to Vancouver’s persons with disabilities advisory committee. That committee advises the city on improving inclusion for people with disabilities, unanimously approved a motion in 2017 calling for “universally accessible gender-neutral public washroom facilities be installed at ALL stations along the Millennium Line Broadway Extension and be considered for ALL TransLink stations.”

In 2018, TransLink’s board approved a policy to increase access to public washrooms at transit stations. At that time, Laura Mackenrot, a member of the persons with disabilities advisory committee member, told Postmedia News she welcomed the transit authority board’s decision as “a great first step.”

Mackenrot said she and her committee colleagues believed the board’s decision meant there would be accessible public washrooms on Day 1 of the Broadway subway. But she was “dismayed,” she said, to learn last year that wasn’t the case.


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Laura Mackenrot, a member of Vancouver’s persons with disabilities advisory committee, with Green Coun. Michael Wiebe at the construction site for a Broadway Subway station.
Laura Mackenrot, a member of Vancouver’s persons with disabilities advisory committee, with Green Coun. Michael Wiebe at the construction site for a Broadway Subway station. Photo by Francis Georgian /PNG

A Ministry of Transportation representative confirmed last week that when the Broadway subway starts running, slated for 2025, “All stations will have single-occupancy washrooms accessible from the public areas of the stations with the assistance of a SkyTrain attendant, similar to the existing situation throughout the SkyTrain network.”

Mackenrot said that is not acceptable. A locked bathroom only accessible by asking a SkyTrain attendant — who may need to come from a couple stations away — to unlock the door, Mackenrot said, is “basically a staff bathroom.”

Frequent SkyTrain riders might be surprised to learn there are bathrooms in the existing stations that can be accessed by asking an attendant to unlock them.

“They’re secret,” Mackenrot said. “No one knows about them.”

The Ministry statement said two Broadway stations — City Hall and Arbutus — “will be designed to accommodate accessible washrooms in the fare-paid zone in the future.”

But that simply means those two stations have space for a hypothetical future public washroom. And, Mackenrot points out, when someone has to pee, a hypothetical toilet is not helpful.

Mackenrot’s committee’s call for accessible washrooms was also backed by Vancouver’s children, youth and families advisory committee, the transportation advisory committee, and the seniors’ advisory committee.

Wiebe said it was unusual to see four distinct advisory committees get together around a single issue like that, and it speaks to the subject’s importance.


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When Wiebe’s motion came to council last month, many councillors used strong language to express their support.

“I think it’s absolutely absurd that we have to be begging to get washrooms in transit stations,” said COPE Coun. Jean Swanson. “We’re supposed to be a civilized country.”

Independent Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung said: “It is unfathomable and shocking that it’s just not a given we would have washrooms in facilities.”

Some councillors described close calls they’d experienced riding transit with young kids who needed bathroom access.

The only councillor not to support Wiebe’s motion was independent Coun. Colleen Hardwick, who abstained, saying while she supports more public bathrooms, she is opposed to the Broadway Subway.

Green Coun. Pete Fry called it “bizarre” public washrooms are not a fundamental part of the planning of Metro Vancouver transit stations, the way they are in many other cities around the world.

Wiebe’s motion also raised another concern: the lack of paired elevators in all stations. Current plans include a single elevator in most stations, which means one out-of-service elevator renders the station inaccessible for many people. The Broadway-City Hall station is an exception, and will have paired elevators.

For Mackenrot, the lack of paired elevators at the station closest to Vancouver General Hospital is particularly “ridiculous,” considering its proximity to all kinds of health facilities, including the Blusson Spinal Cord Centre, B.C. Cancer agency, and the Mary Pack Arthritis Centre.


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In an emailed statement, TransLink spokeswoman Jill Drews said: “In the past, factors like safety and cost have been reasons to not provide TransLink owned and operated washrooms in fare-paid zones.”

Following the board’s support for the new washroom policy in 2018, Drews said, TransLink is developing an “implementation strategy” to increase washroom accessibility at high-volume SkyTrain stations and bus exchanges.

“Costs are being determined,” Drew said. “The next step would be including washroom implementation and operation in a future investment plan, as set by the Mayors’ Council.”

In other words, it sounds like it’s up to Stewart, now armed with his council’s support on Wiebe’s motion, to make the case to his colleagues on the Mayor’s Council for getting public bathrooms into the Broadway stations now under construction.

This problem isn’t unique to the Broadway subway. Vancouver has a long and well-documentedshortage of public washrooms, as do some other big Canadian cities. Last month, a feature in the British newspaper The Guardian described Toronto as a “no-go area” due to its “unreliable patchwork of restrooms.”

For Mackenrot, the correct direction is clear. The issue might be particularly felt by some groups — including people with disabilities, seniors, and parents with kids — but, Mackenrot says, “this is an everybody issue.”

Asked to describe her feelings on Metro Vancouver’s transit station washroom situation, Mackenrot said: “I’ll tell you the word I generally use because I like the pun: I’m pissed.”

“I think everyone is going to be pissed … that there aren’t going to be accessible public washrooms in the SkyTrain stations,” she said. “How can we be a world-class city without washrooms?”




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