Who hasn’t had the experience of strolling around a city really needing to use the bathroom and being unable to find anywhere to go? It’s more than just an inconvenience. The unavailability of bathrooms can make people less interested in visiting and walking around cities, preferring to stay at home or stick to the malls and stores they know well where a bathroom is always within reach. They’re not enjoying their cities, interacting with their neighbors or contributing to local economic growth.
In particular, a lack of bathrooms limits pregnant women, parents with babies,* homeless people, people with certain medical conditions and children who aren’t always the best at holding it. And let’s be frank; for all of us it’s an annoyance and frustration when our afternoon plans are derailed by the hunt for a bathroom. We’re stuck feeling uncomfortable or being forced to pay for some beverage we don’t want, just to entitle us to use the coffee shop bathroom. Besides the need to actually use the toilet, there are also a number of other reasons one might desire a bathroom—for instance, washing your hands for hygiene or religious practice, or grabbing a tissue to blow your nose. So, truly, this is a universal problem.
If you’re stealthy like me, you handle the bathroom issue by mentally cataloging all the free restrooms you know of, or the ones you’re comfortable sneaking into: inside libraries, supermarkets, hotels, fast food joints and parks. But this only works if you know the city well. If you’re visiting a new city for the first time and your four-year-old suddenly asks for the restroom, you’ll most likely be faced with a row of restaurants whose hostile signs reading, “Bathrooms for paying customers only,” leave you with few options.
As it currently stands, restrooms are largely the purview of private businesses like cafes and bars, for which the use of the facilities is directly related to your purchase of goods at the business in question. However, as human beings, regardless of whether we eat lunch at the pizza joint or grab a pint at the pub, we will need to use the bathroom at some point during our day, even if all we’re doing is walking around. Thus, if cities want to encourage more use of their public spaces and their unique amenities, they ought to equip them with the appropriate restrooms.
Now, while a few cities do a top-notch job of providing commodes at easily accessible locations, most fail us. New York City is particularly notorious for this—so much so that many restaurants don’t even offer bathrooms due to their small quarters. On the other hand, Washington DC—another popular tourist destination—provides more than enough restroom opportunities in highly trafficked areas through its free Smithsonian Museums, and other bathrooms at the national monuments. These options make it easy to take a quick pit-stop, maybe even see a famous statue while you’re at it, then be on your way.
Another alternative is the European angle—“50p to pee”—as we liked to say when I lived in Ireland (“p” meaning “pence,” the Irish equivalent of cents back then). For Americans who are used to free bathroom access, it can seem absurd to pay money to use the toilet in a mall or public square, but at least it’s available when you need it. I bet we can all remember a time when we would have gladly paid someone 50 cents for the use of their restroom.
Meanwhile, some entrepreneurial folks have taken it into their own hands to help others find the public restrooms that do exist. Several smartphone apps have cropped up in the last few years that can point you in the direction of the nearest toilet. Australia even has something called the National Public Toilet Map which was developed specifically to assist people with incontinence issues.
This brings me back to my initial point: public restrooms are a public health issue. Just as we build our sidewalks and businesses to be handicap accessible and equip crosswalks with brail and auditory signs for the blind, we should provide public restrooms for the millions of Americans who's health needs depend on them. Otherwise we'll find that they don't want to spend time in our downtowns, frequenting local businesses (besides restaurants with bathrooms) or participating in the life of our cities.
I think any town that wants to get serious about welcoming tourists into its walkable areas and encouraging its residents to spend more of their time downtown, needs to implement a public restroom strategy, examining highly trafficked areas and equipping them with the proper facilities. The plumbing should be easily accessible. It might even just be a matter of unlocking or making public some existing facilities that are currently only available for park staff. Heck, even porta-potties would do if that's all a city could afford.
However they manage it though, bathrooms should be a priority as much as clean streets or garbage cans. They don’t have to be fancy, or large, or perfectly clean — they just have to be there when you need them.
*Public breastfeeding facilities would be another good step for towns to implement as well, although I fear we are a very long way from that being the norm.
This article is based on an essay originally published at The City Space.