How Public Toilets Fail Our Private Needs

Cities are flushing away the chance to make their public spaces liveable

Two human icons holding their genitals as if they had to pee
The Walrus

Joan Kuyek was protesting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa when she felt a familiar urge. She had to go to the bathroom. She looked past the crowds and placards and took in a familiar sight beyond the Gothic-revival architecture and the eternal flame where tourists sit for holiday snaps: no public toilets. Kuyek had never imagined herself as a campaigner for the right to relieve herself. But it hit her in that moment—this was Canada’s federal government. There were hundreds of people enjoying the right to peaceful protest, and there wasn’t a toilet to be had. She found out later that there’s a john cloistered behind Parliament’s west block. (A classic public-toilet story: I have been in and out of Ottawa my entire life, visiting and living there. I had no idea this bathroom existed until Kuyek told me.) Kuyek had lived in Ottawa for fifteen years by that time and had lobbied extensively on the Hill, mostly in her former role as national coordinator of MiningWatch Canada. She, like me, had no idea it existed. It was her legs-crossed breaking point. She knew something needed to be done. Except, she thought, “Who wants to spend their life being the toilet lady?”

Joan Kuyek, it turns out.

A few years later, Kuyek saw the plans for phase one of Ottawa’s light-rail transit system. And in them she saw a problem—too few public bathrooms. The $2.1 billion LRT will ferry 11,000 passengers an hour in each direction when it launches in late 2018. In the initial plans, there were public bathrooms only at the two ends of the new east–west line, twelve and a half kilometres and thirteen stops apart—the minimum number required under the Ontario Building Code. Kuyek put herself to the task of lobbying for more. “Low-hanging fruit,” she called it. “So obvious.”

Phase two, coming in 2021, will include extensions heading farther east and west, as well as south, and more than forty new kilometres and twenty-three additional stops, at a projected cost of $3.6 billion. The public-bathroom upshot? Three more end-of line toilets, as per the building code. Kuyek asks a salient question: What if you’re not starting at the start or ending at the end? Because, let’s face it, without enough public toilets, the lines won’t be much good to any commuter who needs to use the bathroom, which, at one point or another, is every commuter.

Fewer and fewer subway and commuter-rail stations in North America have open bathrooms. New York maintained more than 1,500 subway-station toilets in the 1940s; today, there are estimated to be around seventy-five. Toronto has eleven public bathrooms in its seventy-five-station subway system, all in fare-paid areas the general public cannot get into. Transit authorities often cite security fears as the reason for eliminating public bathrooms at station stops. But that’s a snake eating its tail—bathrooms are not checked enough during nonpeak times, they end up misused, they get closed. The cycle would stop if bathrooms were better maintained and attended to and used more. The next old chestnut is cost—during a 2015 debate about the LRT, Ottawa City Councillor Jan Harder said the city has enough budget items to juggle already, and adding public bathrooms to the mix would be too much.

Kuyek wasn’t having any of it. She gathered together nine activist friends, launched a campaign called GottaGo!, and prepared for a journey to bathroom justice. Stop one: calling bullshit on the security-risk argument. Bathrooms are often cast as hot spots for antisocial behaviour like illegal drug use, public sex, or sleeping. But instead of putting users and passersby at risk, Kuyek argues, public bathrooms bring in more people, who keep watch over public spaces. She says the real hazards are for the people using public bathrooms to sleep or self-medicate. “Someone who is shooting up isn’t going to be dangerous to me,” the seventy-five-year-old says. “They are a danger to themselves.” And cost? Sure. Bathrooms cost money. Ottawa explored charging a fee to help cover its LRT public bathrooms. The idea was pooh-poohed by members of the public, and the city backed down. Kuyek knows that, ultimately, getting bathrooms in transit stops isn’t life or death. But it is life, clearly. Quality of life. “The natural human urge to defecate and urinate,” she says, “shouldn’t be a barrier to people using different parts of the city.”

Ah, but it is.

Kuyek knows a lot of people who already don’t go downtown because there are no solid options for number two. And the new, soon-to-open LRT stations may not be adequately dousing anyone’s fear of being caught short. Imagine a commute from one of the rural communities outside Ottawa. You finish breakfast and a coffee and head out. You drive to a park-and-ride to leave your car. No toilets. You get on the LRT at one of the bathroomless stops. No toilets. You walk from your bathroomless destination stop to work or get on a bus. No toilets. Where—and when, finally—do you get to use the washroom? Toilet researchers talk about commuters “chaining” trips—you grab milk on the way home from work at a convenience store, collect your kid from daycare, and hit the bakery for morning croissants. It’s sensible, efficient errand running. But it also adds time to the trip home. And jacks up the likelihood that you will need a bathroom. Not allowing for that inevitability in an urban core is “organized irresponsibility,” Kuyek says.

Though Ottawa, to an extent, has come around. There will be extra public bathrooms added “at the request of council for passengers’ convenience,” according to Steve Cripps, the project’s construction director. That’s an extra two bathrooms on the original new line and another pair on phase two—all at major transit points where people are most likely to get on or off the system or transfer to a bus. The biggest coup, to my mind, is a public bathroom that’s being added at the far-south Earl Armstrong/Bowesville Station. It’s not required under the building code and it’s not at a high-volume station either, but it’s nevertheless been approved. Project planner Chris Swail says that “staff recommend that Earl Armstrong/Bowesville station be treated as any other terminus station and be fit up with public washrooms.” In other words: people will probably need a bathroom at that stop, so let’s go ahead and plan to put one in.

Call it a win for the livable city.

The “livable city” (and its jargon mates, the healthy city, the walkable city, and the age-friendly city) is the contemporary mantra in planning circles. Livability includes the ideas that the best cities are ones where people can easily connect with each other, people can walk or use public transit to get where they need to go, and where people can access urban green spaces for leisure and exercise. Livability can be literally quantified—an idea that originated in the 1980s as a way for corporations and governments to rate how much extra to pay employees to work in inhospitable places. It’s since done a 180, becoming a way of measuring how good places are to settle down in. Urban parks and fast, efficient public-transit networks move a city up the livability ladder; sprawl, pollution, and congestion move a city down.

Livability and an abundance of free, clean, accessible public bathrooms should go hand in hand. It’s not that those who calculate livability—journalists and researchers from publications like Forbes, the Economist, and Monocle—need to be out counting toilets. It’s that public facilities like restrooms provide an urban support structure for a good city. The ticks on the livability checklist have nothing to do with bathrooms directly but much, indeed, to do with them indirectly. Public bathrooms are all about mobility. They’re a tool that allows people to move around the city, to stay later and longer, and to go farther.

Is it the utter plainness of public toilets that allows us to so easily forget them? Kuyek tells me that when she was in the process of getting signatures for a petition to amend the original Ottawa LRT design, people were surprised that bathrooms weren’t just automatically part of the city’s plan. But a municipal councillor Kuyek approached about the matter was surprised in an entirely different way. The councillor was shocked Kuyek was inquiring about bathrooms. The city had managed without them for decades, she told Kuyek, so why bother now? Well, because every time Kuyek raised the issue at a public event, at least two people—often more—came up afterwards to thank her. “People have been living with the shame and the need for so long,” she says. “They just haven’t been able to give voice to it.”

According to Robert Brubaker, cofounder of the American Restroom Association, livability is about all the things that allow people to get out and use their cities. And it has as to do with pee and poo as it does with lighting, benches, and on-time buses. Brubaker calls public toilets part of the commons, along with street lamps, sidewalks, and roads—segments of the urban environment we expect governments to provide to every citizen using shared tax dollars.

The commons is something of an antiquated term, evoking grazing sheep and old Europe’s squares, but it connects well to modern city life. The urban commons are shared resources, plain and simple. When the commons work best, we almost don’t notice they’re there. We have places to walk where we need to walk and places to sit where we enjoy sitting and socializing. Bathrooms into which we hurry with our about-to-pee-her-pants three-year-old. Travelled spaces are lit, trash finds its way easily into bins, and swings for kids are never far. The commons are for anyone and everyone, for free. The small-scale infrastructure of the living, breathing city.

But does it matter who provides benefits, so long as those benefits are there for whoever needs them? Some people say yes, it does. If a piece of architecture or infrastructure is in the commons, then any citizen has a right to it—but if it’s in the hands of a private enterprise, then its use becomes a privilege. Access can be granted. Access can be denied.

Public bathrooms aren’t always seen as automatic for the people. And this has everything to do with how they are defined. It seems a simple question: What’s a public bathroom? But nothing’s ever simple on this topic.

It’s all so messy—building code, depending on the jurisdiction, can work at city, state, provincial, or federal levels. It’s overlaid by voluntary standards and the sticky quirkiness of culture and custom. Jo-Anne Bichard calls public bathrooms a layer cake. “You’ve got general politics, social politics, you’ve got economics, you’ve got ability, you’ve got the sort of humanness of what we do with our waste products,” she says. Bichard is a design anthropologist who works at the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at London’s Royal College of Art. “We go to other countries, and they’ve got a different relationship with shit and a different relationship to toilets that we sometimes don’t understand.” You can’t often say the same about sidewalks or garbage cans. But instead of digging into our complex relationships with public bathrooms, instead of really looking at the place where biological need meets culture and striving to get it right, governments too often zip their lips. Planners and committee chairs sound off about the livable, walkable, healthy, age-friendly city. But, somehow, providing a comprehensive network of public bathrooms, in the way cities create spiderwebs of bus routes, parks, and playgrounds, isn’t part of that conversation.

Every time Gail Ramster opens a meaty new government report on improving main streets in the UK, the first thing she does is a control-find on her keyboard for the word toilet. And every time? NOT FOUND. I do it too—every study I pull up. I search toilet, bathroom, restroom, and washroom. Consider: Ontario’s Action Plan for Seniors. I looked at the document in 2013, when it was 7,000 brand-new words. Toilet? Bathroom? Restroom? Washroom? Nothing—even though the strategy paper touts the necessity of working toward “age-friendly communities” and addresses, among other things, transportation, civic participation, and outdoor spaces like walkways, roads, and parks. The updated version from 2017, in front of me as I write this, has one sidebar mention of a $50,000 grant given to a Peterborough, Ontario, organization that has made changes to benefit “older customers,” including good lighting, wide and clutter-free store aisles, large print signs, and—practically as an afterthought—accessible washrooms. How about New Westminster, BC’s Livable City Strategy? Nothing. The Downtown Tucson Partnership’s revitalization document? One mention in one line about a proposed outdoor-event pavilion redesign.

“It’s like, really?” Ramster says. “You know this is important, but you either didn’t think about it or you didn’t want to think about it. It’s all about hanging baskets and parking.” Ramster is Jo- Anne Bichard’s coresearcher at the Royal College of Art. The two have worked together on public-toilet projects looking at design and inclusivity and the fact that, when it comes to city infrastructure, public bathrooms are ridiculously overlooked. “Because they’re toilets, people don’t make a fuss,” Ramster says. “But if it were food, if they were cafés, you wouldn’t have any of this.” Ramster confirms my own findings—most politicians don’t love to talk toilets. And good bloody luck finding an economist willing to take on a cost-benefit calculation. The argument that people aren’t making full use of their cities—less shopping, less going to the theatre, less eating out—because there’s limited public-toilet access holds water for me, but it’s tricky to put into numbers. Much easier to add up the annual maintenance costs of public bathrooms, stick the figures in the loss column, and call it a day.

But even without the internet in our purses and pockets, all of us carry around mental maps of our neighbourhoods and of the communities where we visit, work, and shop. We know to go here, and not there, for good coffee. We know where there’s a trash bin for dog-poop bags. And we know the spots where we can find a place to have a pee. Mental maps, then, are outlines of the urban commons. Depending on the day and the need, our map controls our movements. One of the women Bichard interviewed described it to her this way: “I’m like a little animal. I always use the same tracks.”

Some researchers call this the bladder’s leash. Take away toilets and the leash gets yanked back. And as the urban commons are depleted—as green spaces shrink, as drinking fountains get turned off, and as public toilets close—our maps get smaller. We adapt: in part because humans are nimble but also because we don’t even realize we’re doing it, because the changes happen slowly over time. But all of this, says Bichard, is a harder slog for seniors, who are more likely to deal with incontinence and aging muscles and on whom the little changes can have a far greater effect. “It’s like the bench at the end of your street that you have never sat on,” she says. “Because all your life you never needed to sit on it. And then, suddenly, you get to, like, sixty-five or seventy years old and you’ve got that shopping and it’s just that little bit too heavy and, ‘Oh gosh, the bench is gone! But there was always a bench there!’” When what’s missing is a toilet, Bichard says, a lot of older people, especially women, don’t want to say anything—it’s private. “And it might also be the realization that they’re not going out as much because there aren’t toilets, and they don’t know how to blame it.”

The City of Toronto in 2013 wrote a massive strategy paper to help prepare it for the unique needs of its exploding population of seniors. The document deals with a smorgasbord of social and physical barriers to the urban world, all collected through talking to seniors and their caregivers. Control-F toilet, bathroom, restroom, washroom? Nothing.

I called Dena Warman, then policy-development officer for the city. She told me public bathrooms came up in passing during the consultation phase but “not so much in terms of the ongoing needs of a seniors’ population.” (When I relate this to Bichard, with her years of experience coaxing details from interviewees about age-friendly toilets, she tells me she suspects no one asked direct questions about public-bathroom needs, such as: Would you like this? How about this? “You’re talking about something very, very personal. We don’t all sit around talking about what we do in the toilet.”) Warman explained that the strategy started with a focus on halting social isolation. But surely, I said, having adequate public bathrooms is a key deterrent against social isolation. Warman paused. Everything in the document, she repeated, ties to pulling seniors into the wider world. She paused again. “It all makes sense to me when I say that. But when you say that basic infrastructure isn’t there, it’s like a light bulb.”

Bichard calls it “like throwing a pebble in a lake.” The range within which people will travel in their city or town starts out wide. As people age, they grow fearful of not reaching the toilet in time or of finding a toilet they have always visited shuttered. They stop engaging with their community. They stop walking in the park. They lose out on chance encounters with friends and neighbours. Eventually, they stop leaving home altogether. They don’t stand up and scream that the public toilets have all disappeared. Most don’t even share their concerns with friends. “They go on cruises instead,” Bichard says.

And, actually, Bichard’s pebble-in-a-lake comment was one of my light-bulb moments. Because that was the situation with me and my three-year-old and baby at the Halifax Common so many years before. Leaving the house was something I needed. Badly. But it was also a test of how far I’d get before something went wrong in the toilet department. The Common was only a couple of blocks from my house. Low stakes, so I was willing to risk it. But what if I felt like going for a coffee, say, which was another kilometre up the road? That was a walk and an activity I used to welcome. But not with the kids in tow. With them, I usually just puttered around the Common and headed home. The safer choice.

Start cataloguing the categories of special-needs bathroom users and it hits hard: it’s not a question of which unique groups need easy access to free public toilets in order to make full use of the city but, rather, a matter of who doesn’t need such access. Bichard has interviewed close to 500 public-toilet users in her research. She started with people with physical disabilities, then she was talking to women who were pregnant or who had young children. Next, it was teenage boys who wouldn’t use public toilets for fear of being attacked. (“They risk more violence than most people, so they are very concerned that toilets are in a safe place.”) Then, teenage girls who were nervous for the same reason. Seniors joined in, then folks with invisible disabilities like colostomies and urostomies, then menstruating women and fathers who were frustrated by missing changing tables in men’s rooms. Apparently special needs aren’t so special after all.

Excerpted from No Place To Go: How Public Toilets Fail Our Private Needs by Lezlie Lowe with permission from Coach House Books. All rights reserved.

Lezlie Lowe
Lezlie Lowe is a freelance journalist and journalism instructor based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her first book, No Place To Go: How Public Toilets Fail Our Private Needs, was published in 2018.