The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding

Toilet Talk



Diving right into a decidedly unglamorous topic today, but one that matters to everyone on a daily basis, the bathroom. 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, 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 purvey 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 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). 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.

I think any city 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. If the city needs to charge 50 cents for each restroom visit, that’s fine by me, but however they manage it, 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.


3 thoughts on “Toilet Talk

  1. I have lots and lots and lots of thoughts about toilet accessibility, only a few of which I’ll ramble on about. Chiefly, I believe the need to relieve one’s self to be a human right, which is not to say that states MUST provide facilities but that states that do not cannot rightly criminalize public urination.

    Incidentally, the United States, which follows International Plumbing Code, cannot legally set restrooms as customer-only. From Chapter 29 (

    “[P] 2902.3.1 Access.
    … The public shall have access to the required toilet facilities at all times that the building is occupied.”

    So, if you’re ever in a place where you really need to use the facilities, consider politely informing the business owner that his or her customer-only restroom is against code (also: human decency).

    Having just returned from a summer in Europe, I’ll say that I absolutely loathe pay-to-pee facilities, and would rather there be no facilities than a norm of paying for them. The problem with pay-to-pee toilets is that they’re viewed (by the wealthy white lawmakers who allow them) to be a viable and accessible solution, meaning that public urination is much less tolerated (because, the argument goes, public toilets are everywhere). The problem is that those public toilets cost money, and some people can’t afford to pay every time they need to go—particularly a homeless individual who may need to pee six or seven or eight times per day (those $3 or $4 could buy a meal for them). Parts of Germany (and a few other places) have a very agreeable donate-plate option, which I think offers the best of both worlds: bathroom attendants get paid to run the facility, but only through social nicety, and no one is prohibited from exercising their most basic of human needs.


    • Fantastic input. I was not aware of that law–I am definitely going to whip that out in the future. I still think that the responsibility for providing facilities should rest on the government, not business owners because as you stated, it’s more a human rights issue. It’s better for everyone when there are appropriate, safe, comfortable places to relieve yourself. Your point about homeless people is well taken. You’re absolutely right that when I was thinking about the inconvenience of paying a few quarters to use the restroom once, I was not considering individuals who would need to use it multiple times a day. I have a particular respect for day shelters and other free places like this one that offer that offer these facilities to anyone who needs.


      • Oh, absolutely. The socialist in me is all for government providing these services to citizens free of charge, the libertarian in me is all against ever fining or jailing someone for exercising a natural necessity (PARTICULARLY when said services aren’t even available), and the anti-capitalist in me just thinks it’s really skeevy for business owners to charge people to use their restrooms, when they’re going to get cleaned (and used by paying customers) anyway.

        🙂 Anyway, thanks for bringing up this topic—it’s a really important one that we too often accept as a reality of life.


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