Ann Arbor installs semi-permanent public restrooms for 12-month pilot program

The city of Ann Arbor recently launched a 12-month pilot program providing free public restrooms throughout the downtown area. In partnership with the University of Michigan and the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, the city is working with Washington, D.C.-based startup Throne Labs to increase accessibility to clean bathrooms for residents and guests alike.

"We actually started looking at public restrooms more than a year and a half ago," says Ann Arbor City Administrator Milton Dohoney Jr. "We ran a survey with downtown stakeholders, business owners, people that live downtown, and the number one thing we heard was we needed public restrooms downtown."

Throne Labs, founded in 2020, provides "semi-permanent" but portable bathrooms. The units require users to either sign up with Throne Labs’ mobile app or send a text from their smartphone to open the bathroom door. Users must also follow up with a review on the unit’s cleanliness, which allows Throne Labs staff to dispatch cleaning crews remotely when needed.

"We’re a very mission-driven company. We are on a mission to massively expand access to restrooms for everyone," says Throne Labs co-founder Jessica Heinzelman. "One of the things we’re most excited about in Ann Arbor is everyone has been so forward-thinking on bathroom access."

Currently, there are eight Thrones in Ann Arbor throughout downtown, in public parks and other highly trafficked areas. One unit is stationed outside of the Robert J. Delonis Center homeless shelter – a decision purposefully made to give those experiencing homelessness a clean and dignified restroom to use at any time. Heinzelman says Throne Labs is working closely with the city and Delonis to provide access cards for those who don’t have a smartphone but could benefit from the resource.

"When cities are providing restrooms for the unhoused, they are oftentimes not funded in a stable way since this is a population that sometimes has trouble advocating for itself," Heinzelman says. "We wanted to create a service that is accessible and nice enough so anyone with a need can feel safe using it."

Dohoney explains that the pilot program will allow the city to gauge just how much of a positive difference more public restrooms can make in the experience of visiting downtown Ann Arbor. He and Heinzelman say that Throne Labs will share usage data throughout the program so city officials can make the most informed decision on whether or not to continue using Throne’s units once the pilot ends.

"We’re talking about bodily functions that every human being has," Dohoney says. "We think that providing a way to address that with dignity for all users is important."

A list of all current Throne locations and additional information can be found here. More information on Throne Labs is available on the company's website.

Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.

Photo courtesy of the city of Ann Arbor.
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