Why are public toilets still so rare?

When a visiting friend asked me if I wanted to go running in Philadelphia, I did a lot of planning. Not just our itinerary, but where to go to the bathroom. It didn’t go well.

I took the PATCO Speedline, which has no toilets on the trains. The station I left from in southern New Jersey didn’t have one either, nor did the one I arrived at in Philadelphia. When I arrived at my friend’s hotel, the toilet in the lobby was locked.

Luckily, I was able to follow a woman with a password into the bathroom. But it was a matter of luck. Relying on the whims of fate was my only option because the United States — and much of the world — has a problem with public restrooms.

On average, the United States has just eight public toilets per 100,000 people, according to the Public Toilet Index, a 2021 report by British firm QS Bathrooms Supplies. This is far behind Iceland, the country with the highest density of public toilets: 56 per 100,000 inhabitants. That number drops to four per 100,000 in New York. Madison, Wisconsin led the way for US cities, with 35 per 100,000.

It has not always been so. In the 18th century, before indoor plumbing, bathrooms were communal and generally communal, said Debbie Miller, curator of the Independence National Historical Park museum. In Philadelphia, one of these octagonal outhouses was located in a public garden behind what is now known as Independence Hall. “You could have shared the bathroom with George Washington,” she said.

The acceptance of public and shared bathrooms changed in the Victorian era, Ms Miller said, when bodily functions became more taboo. The temperance movement to limit alcohol consumption led cities to build public toilets in the late 1800s and early 1900s: it was thought that men would not need to enter a bar to use the toilet. In the 1930s, investments through the Works Progress Administration and the Civil Works Administration added more than two million latrines in parks, on public lands, and in rural areas, as well as “sanitary blocks in cities, including Central Park.

But as city budgets dried up in the 1970s, resources for maintenance also dwindled. Movements arose to end the practice of pay toilets, seen as both sexist (urinals were often free but cubicles were not) and classist. Cities responded by completely removing public restrooms.

Bathrooms are “difficult spaces because they often end up being places where people get needs they can’t meet anywhere else,” such as sex work, drug use, or sleep, said Lezlie Lowe, the author of “No Place to Go: How Public Restrooms Fail Our Private Needs. “All of these social concerns have nothing to do with bathrooms, but due to the nature of these spaces, bathrooms end up being used by people to meet their needs, whether addiction or desperation.”

As public toilets closed, establishments like cafes, museums, libraries and department stores – which are usually only open at certain times – had to become the gatekeepers to toilet access.

“We face a problem where the demand for public restrooms far exceeds the supply,” said Steven Soifer, president of the American Restroom Association, a group that advocates for better public restrooms. “It comes into, who is responsible for providing public restrooms?”

There have been various approaches to answering this question. Some European cities have tried public-private partnerships, said Katherine Webber, an Australian social planning researcher who traveled the world in 2018 to study toilets on a Churchill Fellowship scholarship. She said the strongest programs involve local governments playing a role in determining the best toilet locations. “A city or place will do better if it takes into account the different needs of residents and tourists.”

In 2022, Berlin completed the expansion of public toilets, which doubled the number of public toilets from 256 to 418. The city reviewed its existing toilets and identified where the gaps were, then partnered with Wall GmbH , a street furniture company that also builds structures. such as bus shelters and newsstands.

In the same year, London introduced the Community Toilet Scheme, where shops and restaurants could list their toilets as open to the public on the City of London website for a small fee. Business owners thought billboards on restroom windows would attract customers.

Each of these approaches has drawbacks, however: toilets in Berlin cost 50 cents per use, and London’s community toilet scheme is only useful during the opening hours of businesses that sign up to it.

Some towns have adopted the French “pissoirs” – essentially fully or semi-private public urinals, which have been around since the early 19th century. In 2011, Victoria, BC installed urinals that doubled as street art, called Kros urinals, which have four locations per unit and can also be moved to special events or bars.

But like the classic pissoir, they are generally usable only by able-bodied people and those who can easily use the bathroom while standing. “They solve a small problem for people who already have pretty good access,” Ms Lowe said.

Asian countries have taken a different approach, partly because of different cultural norms. While Americans might approach public restrooms with trepidation due to past experiences with dirty or broken fixtures, in China, Japan and Singapore, they expect their bathrooms to be clean, Jack said. Sim, the founder of the World Toilet Organization. Between 2015 and 2017, more than 68,000 toilets were built in China in what became known as the “toilet revolution”, with a government directive to keep toilets clean.

Tokyo has turned its restroom program into public art. The Nippon Foundation sponsored the redesign of 17 toilets in the Shibuya district, with striking designs including a white hemisphere and glass walls that change from transparent to opaque when the bathroom door is locked. They will be cleaned and maintained through partnerships with the Nippon Foundation, Shibuya City Government, and Shibuya City Tourism Association. (One question that arises is whether it can be extended to cover the large, sprawling city.)

American governments have tried a patchwork of solutions. Some cities have had more success than others, even if no one has overcome the problem. In 2008, New York City purchased 20 self-cleaning toilets that cost 25 cents per use. But their installation has stalled as the Department of Transport scrambles to find the right places for them, which must meet a long list of requirements. Five are currently in use, and the department is taking suggestions for locations for the remaining toilets – perhaps a recipe for NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) complaints.

San Francisco launched the Pit Stop program in 2014, after hearing children in the Tenderloin district say they were bypassing feces on their way to school, said Rachel Gordon, director of policy and communications for the works. public in San Francisco.

They started with three bathrooms and now have 33, with hours varying by location. (The amount was expanded to 60 locations when homeless shelters closed during the pandemic, Ms. Gordon said, but the temporary stalls have since been removed.) attendants working. According to a study conducted by the University of California, Berkeley, feces reports decreased by 12.47 per week in the Tenderloin District in the six months after the first Pit Stops opened.

Public restrooms in Portland, Oregon are available 24 hours a day. The Portland Loo is a gender-neutral, wheelchair-accessible, single-cabin bathroom that costs $100,000 per unit.

The city created the concept in 2008 with the goal of building a simple structure that could not be vandalized. Each bathroom is connected to mains drainage and has running water and electricity (provided by solar panels in some). The units are lit blue, which makes it difficult to find veins and thus discourages drug use, said Evan Madden, sales manager at Portland Loo.

Toilets are ventilated to control odors and overheating; the air vents also provide just enough privacy for toilet use, but not enough for sleeping or prostitution. It is “intended to be uncomfortable for the occupant”, Mr Madden said.

In 2013, after Portland transferred sales and manufacturing operations to Madden Fabrication, 180 units were installed across North America.

Vancouver, Wash., installed three Portland Loos in a 7,000-acre waterfront park in 2018 — a response to typical issues: The city’s public restrooms “really took a beating, and our police can’t monitor what’s going on.” going on. said Terry Snyder, landscape architect for Vancouver’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services.

The Portland Loos have done well enough that Mr. Snyder said the city would install three more this summer at Esther Short Park, replacing a 22-year-old brick bathroom building.

Philadelphia also plans to install six Portland Loos over the next five years, with the first opening in the city center this year.

Mr. Soifer of the American Restroom Association believes that the problem in the United States should be tackled on a national level rather than having a patchwork of individual solutions. His group had several meetings with the US Department of Health and Human Services in hopes that it would step in to manage public restrooms – much like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is responsible for restrooms in the workplace. – but in vain.

“Since this is truly a public health issue, someone has to take responsibility,” he said, “and no one is.”


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