The case for more public toilets

It is curious that given that although going to the bathroom is a basic human function, society does not make it easier for people to do so when they are out of their homes. Some activists are trying to change that, by criticizing the statement by Starbucks CEO suggesting that they might close their bathrooms to non-customers.

“Let the people go!” an activist group is telling Starbucks after the coffee chain’s boss threatened to close down its bathrooms.

The American Restroom Association is marking World Toilet Day on 19 November, an awareness-raising day started by the United Nations to celebrate toilets and advocate for proper sanitation systems, by calling on Starbucks to keep its restrooms open to the public.

While Starbucks has not officially changed its bathroom policy after Schultz’s comments, the American Restroom Association (ARA), which advocates for safe and well-designed public restrooms, notes that some Starbucks locations have closed their restrooms to the public.

Steve Soifer, the group’s president, pointed out that international plumbing codes require business establishments to keep their toilet facilities open to both visitors and customers – essentially anyone walking into their business. Such plumbing codes exist around the country, but enforcement can be non-existent.

Still, Soifer argues that Americans have few other options.

“The problem is there aren’t any other choices,” Soifer said. “You go to New York City, for example, and you’re walking around. The only places you can go are public libraries or museums. They have to keep the bathrooms open for the public. Everything else is hit-or-miss.

“Try to find city-built public toilets in New York City, they’re virtually non-existent.”

The question is whether thesse toilets should be built and maintained by governments or whether private businesses should be required to be open t the public.

Some progressive local governments have made efforts to construct public toilets. Soifer pointed to Portland’s “Portland Loo” initiative, where the city constructed free-standing restrooms around the city. Other cities have started to take on the concept, including San Diego and Sacramento.

But building more restrooms can be costly and politically difficult for local governments. The California governor, Gavin Newsom, criticized plans to build public restrooms in San Francisco’s Noe Valley neighborhood. The toilets would cost $1.7m and take up to three years to build. The ensuing anger over the plan was nicknamed “Toiletgate”.

Because businesses like Starbucks already have functioning facilities, the immediate solution is allowing access to the public with broader hopes that people can push governments to build clean and accessible municipally funded restrooms.

“This is such a widely felt issue,” Soifer said. “I mean, everyone I talk to has a public toilet horror story.”

That is so true. My most recent experience was during the pandemic when many fast-food places that I used to stop at on my long distance drives had closed their restaurants. I wrote about this last year.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    In the UK when I was younger there were municipal toilets all over the place. The problem with them was that they were just toilets, unconnected to anything. As a result, they’d get used for all sorts of things -- drug use, sex, graffiti, and more often than you’d think what looked like dirty protests -- other than their intended purpose. And because they weren’t staffed 24/7, they’d always be absolutely filthy.

    A toilet operated by a business needs to reflect that business, so it’s in their interests to ensure it’s clean and well stocked otherwise they’ll rapidly alienate paying customers. It therefore makes far more sense, rather than putting up municipal facilities at great expense, to simply require any businesses in certain sectors (food providers for instance) to provide facilities AND to make those facilities available to all, no questions asked, as a condition of the licence to trade.

    All this said, as I said the last time this subject came up, if I lived in the US, I’d prioritise healthcare, gun control and the abolition of slavery and the death penalty over this. I’d also make it a legal requirement to fit doors to lavatories that actually cover the whole of the damn doorway, lock properly (indicating whether the place is occupied) and reach to within three inches of the floor. US attitudes to toilets amaze this foreigner.

  2. Katydid says

    Laughing at the video about designing toilet stalls. The worst place I ever worked was a 7-story office building with one set of women’s toilets and one set of men’s toilets per floor. I have no idea what the men’s setup was, but the women’s room had two “regular” stalls and one “handicapped” stall…for an entire floor worth of workers.

    Using the regular stalls involved some contortions because the stalls were so narrow that an average women’s shoulders touched the walls. A huge commercial-use toilet-paper holder was stuck out from one wall, so in order to sit on the toilet, you’d have to have the toilet paper holder practically on your lap. And there were 3″ gaps between the door and the walls, leaving nothing to the imagination. The only thing keeping the doors on at all were the huge metal chain hinges on top and bottom.

    The handicapped stall was a bit bigger--for example, the toilet paper holder wasn’t directly over your lap when you sat down. And your shoulders didn’t touch the walls. But there was no way to maneuver a wheelchair or crutches, and there was the same 3″ gap between the door and walls.

  3. Katydid says

    I’ve been in office parks for training or meetings and found the bathrooms are locked and need a passcode to get into. That’s annoying when you’re supposed to be there--they say they do that so strangers can’t walk in from the street and use the bathrooms.

  4. billseymour says

    I had something happen to me a while back that was similar to what Katydid said @6, although it wasn’t about toilets.

    In October of 2014, I hosted a meeting of the ISO standards committee for the C programming language at St. Louis Union Station, then a hotel, convention center, and shopping mall.  (The shopping mall is now the St. Louis Aquarium.)  If one didn’t have a hotel room key, the only way to the meeting room was through the front door of the hotel, presumably so that homeless people wouldn’t be able to steal our refreshments (or something…I was working in the building across the street then and often had lunch in the food court in the former mail; and I never encountered any homeless folk).

    IIRC, one attendee wasn’t able to stay at the meeting hotel because the hotel didn’t have a government rate.*  If he left the hotel for lunch, he had to go with somebody else who had a room key; and each day, I handed him a voucher to get valet parking at the front door for the same price as self-parking.

    *His employer was happy to reimburse him for a government rate room and a rental car for a week even though the room rate I negotiated for the meeting and Metrolink tickets to and from the airport would have been cheaper…go figure.

  5. says

    The question is whether these toilets should be built and maintained by governments or whether private businesses should be required to be open [to] the public.

    And the answer is yes.

  6. lochaber says

    I feel like this is one of those ideas/institutions that is somewhere in the middle of a chain of dominoes, that just ties into society overall.

    The rising number of unhoused individuals has led to a higher demand/use of public toilets. Various public agencies that have to fund/maintain those toilets, don’t get the increased budgets/funding necessary to keep up with the increased use/demand, so they find reasons to close them, which then increases the use/demand on the remaining available ones. It’s like cutting a cable on a suspension bridge, or a spoke on a bicycle wheel. Yeah, to some extent, the other cables/spokes/toilets can compensate, but they take on additional stresses, and are more likely to fail, and when they do, it just cascades down the line.

    So, now, many of the previously available public toilets are shuttered, out of order, or just absolutely filthy, which leads to human excrement on the streets, sidewalks, and parks.

    On a more local note, BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), has very few, if any, publicly accessible bathrooms. I’ve run into numerous people who claim it’s due to post 9-11 “security” measures. But, I moved to the SF Bay Area twixt the 9/11 scare and the 2008 crash. I distinctly remember being able to access public bathrooms in most stations after a night of drinking and poor timing. But, during the 2008 mess, a lot of those bathrooms were closed for various reasons, and now it’s been ret-conned to “security”

    This nation is a disgrace

  7. lanir says

    People who are crabby about this topic tend to be very offputting. If I don’t really need to use the restroom I tend to just leave if they jump me about it. In most places I’ll pick up something after I’m done with the restroom anyway but I don’t advertise that on the way in. If they’re jerks and I’m feeling like I can manage to stop somewhere else, I’ll just leave.

    I’m kind of surprised Starbucks management has anything to say about this at all though. I guess somehow his “these people aren’t handing me money” annoyance got in the way of his “I must screw over these people who work for me so they know I’m in control” annoyance. I mean it’s not like he’s the one cleaning the bathrooms or like he cares about any of the people who do. Maybe management will come out with guidance requiring twice as much mopping of the floors alongside the bathroom purchase guidance so the twitchy busybody can sleep at night knowing everyone else involved got screwed.

  8. Katydid says

    @9: I think you’re on to something. Everyone’s noticed that it just seems to be getting harder to live, that there are just so many minor stresses piling atop other minor stresses, and people are just snapping under the load.

  9. says

    On a more local note, BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), has very few, if any, publicly accessible bathrooms. I’ve run into numerous people who claim it’s due to post 9-11 “security” measures.

    Security my ass. I’ve been in BART stations before 9/11, and never saw any sign of any loos. (Then again, in fairness, I never actually looked for any, because I never needed to, and because back then I just accepted that no on except restaurants ever had toilets available for the public.) DC-area WMATA tube stations never had any either. I’m sure they have facilities for their own employees, but they’re VERY well-hidden. I’m pretty sure there aren’t any public toilets in London tube stations either.

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