Rideshare Drivers With No Place to Go Demand Bathroom Access

Along with long hours, often-mediocre pay and other challenges associated with working in the gig economy, rideshare drivers in New York City say they often must contend with a more fundamental issue — finding a decent bathroom.

Although the City Council enacted legislation in 2021 granting access to restaurant bathrooms to workers for delivery apps like DoorDash and Grubhub, Uber and Lyft drivers still struggle to find a clean and accessible place to relieve themselves during shifts that frequently last 10 to 12 hours.

“It can be a challenge,” said Jelani Bass, a rideshare driver and treasurer of the driver community group NYC Rideshare Club. “Normally, my strategy is: I’m looking for hotels, restaurants, bars, places that I know they’re used to having people in and out all day.”

Finding parking can be an even bigger obstacle than finding a toilet, Michelle Dottin, a Brooklyn-based driver and organizer, said, noting that a parking-ticket fee can wipe out a day’s earnings. This leads many drivers to urinate in bottles or on the street, raising concerns about public health and quality of life.

“It’s not safe, and it’s not fair to the person who may be living five blocks away [to] all of a sudden come and be smelling the stuff,” Dottin said, adding that restroom access is a bigger problem for female drivers. “A guy can use a bottle, a female can’t.”

While the city provides “relief stands,” giving drivers an exclusive place to park, most of the locations are restricted for use by yellow and green taxi drivers. Of the 109 relief stands in New York, only 42 are also accessible to the more than 80,000 drivers for Uber and Lyft.

Several drivers said the dearth of parking spaces at relief stands is compounded by the fact that city vehicles often use them illegally.

“All the [for-hire vehicle] relief stands are taken by city workers,” said Madjed Kamel Zegrar, 37, who has been driving a rideshare vehicle since 2017. “The best solution is to make sure the FHV relief stands are used only by FHV cars.”

Bathroom access has long been a point of emphasis for rideshare drivers and advocacy groups representing them. The Independent Drivers Guild, a nonprofit created in 2016 through an arrangement between Uber and the Machinists Union, organized a telephone campaign in 2017 involving hundreds of drivers that resulted in the installment of portable toilets for drivers at JFK Airport, IDG spokesperson Moira Muntz said. The guild has since helped secure temporary, running water bathrooms at LaGuardia and Newark airports.

On Sept. 20, Aziz Bah, the IDG’s organizing director, called for the construction of additional relief stands as part of the conversion of the city’s rideshare fleet to electric vehicles. The new facilities would provide drivers with bathroom access and charging stations.

Drivers “already face issues with places to park and take a break with bathrooms and running water without getting a ticket,” Bah said. “Now, add a lack of charging in areas that are needed, and this just compounds the difficulties that drivers will face on a daily basis.”

Others have also taken steps to address the problem. Earlier this year, taxi medallion owner Marblegate Asset Management created a “Taxi Clubhouse” on West 26th Street. The 3,000-square-foot facility provides drivers with private lounges, bathrooms and prayer rooms and is open to all TLC-licensed drivers, including rideshare and taxi workers.

The clubhouse is a step in the right direction, according to James Parziale, a spokesman for the New York City Taxi & Limousine Commission.

“The ability to use the restroom is a basic human right,” he said in a statement. “We encourage more access for our drivers and appreciate ventures like the Taxi Clubhouse, which can offer TLC drivers a dignified and designated place to rest, recharge, and take a break.”

Mona Bruno, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Transportation, didn’t respond to emailed questions.

Despite some progress, drivers say their bathroom-access problems are not going away.

Mohammed Salim, 38, who began driving a rideshare vehicle in 2018 before switching back to a yellow taxi this year, said the scarcity of available toilets in Manhattan costs him in lost revenue.

“I go to Queens where I know there’s easily accessible bathrooms” because of more available parking, he said. “But when I do that, I’m losing business. I’m leaving the city where the cream-of-the-crop of the business is.”

Salim said Uber and Lyft could do more, potentially by converting empty real estate in Manhattan to relief areas for drivers.

“It would actually improve their productivity and efficiency and their customer service because a lot of these drivers, you’ll notice they’re pretty mad,” he said. “They’re mad, mainly because they’re not making money and they can’t go to the bathroom.”

About the author(s)

Peter Saalfield is a journalist and fellow at the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University.