Gotta go pee ! (again)

So, the CBC this morning was featuring another story on our lack of public washrooms. So I thought it worthwhile reprinting this Feb.2015 story about public toilets. I think the potty solution from Portland would fit very nicely in Dundonald Park.

As a society, we have a major aversion to acknowledging that people gotta go pee. Or poo. And that this happens when people are outside of the home. Like at transit stations. Or touristing in a city.

In lieu of public WC signage, we are reduced to looking for the Golden Arches of M, where there is always a toilet. Although in many cities I have come across restrictions to accessing the WC, such as having to enter the code printed at the bottom of your food purchase receipt. Or paying a fee, that is then redeemable at the sales counter:

europe 2013 800b


I am well aware that there is a risk in providing municipal washrooms, in maintenance, competition for use, etc. But our current denial of provision is akin to privatizing the issue and hoping it will disappear. It doesn’t.

Instead of passing the buck, perhaps we should pass the toilet paper.

The early models of street toilets had some dubious characteristics, but were better than nothing:

old european street toilet

I think that a major part of the problem is that there are so few public washrooms, the ones that can be found get overused. In Europe, I found there was a franchise operation (see Sanifair logo above) that operated washrooms in highway gas stations, restaurants, and some tourist sites.  And at the Golden Arches. The fee was always minimal. Children went free. The washrooms were well maintained, less stressful to use. They were accessible.

In Paris, there are some streetside public washroom kiosks. In the hubris of early high technology, these washrooms were self cleaning and had other amazing gizmos. All of which drove up the cost and were subject to breakdown and vandalism.

edmonton toilet

Some North American cities have tried curbside toilets. The early French automat toilets didn’t work out well. Partly it’s the vandalism, and partly its over use. Because they were expensive, few were installed, and lacking a critical mass of installations, the first few become a critical mess. They were overdesigned, over complex, and aimed at what the educated elite wanted in washrooms.

Another problem is that many of them were installed in “problem” areas where the homeless congregated. It seems to me to be a sort of looking for a  “machine fix” for street people. Let’s be conspicuous about helping the homeless, solve a general problem too, all while not having to actually acknowledge individuals or their needs.

Sometimes people “moved into” the toilets as shelters, others were used for curbside sex or prostitution. Many WC’s have blue lighting, since that prevents drug users from shooting up, or something in that vein. Large one-way glass windows (viewable out) make middle class users very nervous potty users, but apparently don’t always discourage inappropriate activities by others.

Pay toilets collect funds for maintenance. In roadside rest stops, the volume of users is such that a paid attendant or franchisee can make a living offering clean facilities.   Because someone can make money from public toileting, there is every incentive to actually increase the supply. Classic free market solution.

That is not the case curbside.

Every time I go to Paris, the curbside washroom designs have changed. Hi tech transitions to low tech. Pay per use convert to free to use. Toilet paper supplied; bum fluff optional. But at least they are trying. And if they get a great solution, there should be a worldwide market.

Sometimes exterior materials aren’t what you expect.  I once (rather nervously) used a Dutch public toilet,  located in a park,  with all clear glass walls. Fortunately, the glass was “smart glass”. Insert a coin, and the walls go opaque. After a set time, a little alarm reminds you the walls are about to go transparent again … talk about performance pressure!

But all of these are better than nothing.

When in Portland last summer, I discovered this latest- update curbside washroom, the famous (and patented) Portland Loo:



This installation was right in downtown Portland. A local equivalent location might be Albert at Lyon. The grillwork top and bottom provides lots of light inside, and reduces privacy to the minimum required. Note the bottom grill slants downwards and inwards. There is an exterior potable water dispenser mini-tap (no sink) visible in the above picture on the right corner.



Here’s a ready-to-go view:


There is hand sanitizer, but no sink, which apparently reduces maintenance a lot and discourages certain uses. No mirror. The large-drain pipe will swallow a whole roll of toilet paper in one flush, straight down to the sewer below,  even though this paper is locked to the wall rack. These facilities gotta be tough. And the design is simple and attractive inside and out. They cost about $60,000 each.  US$.

Here’s a link to more reading on the Portland Loo (cummon now, take a load off your feet, it’ll just take a few minutes to read):  The key seems to be simplicity, toughness, and making the user nervous enough to use it and leave it.

During the Downtown Moves study, aimed at making Ottawa more livable by 2020 or something, I brought up the subject of WC’s. Everyone agreed we need them. No one wanted to provide them, or investigate how to provide them. I suggested that a radically increased supply might help. No takers. Our planners exhibited maximum anxiety to get on to the next topic.

So Ottawa will continue to promote itself as a major tourist destination. A tourist friendly destination. Just don’t bring your crap with you. And leave little Billy or Suzy home, because if they gotta go pee, you’re outa luck whether in downtown Ottawa or en route on our fancy new LRT system. That goes for anyone over 50 too, because in Ottawa you gotta be ready to go  hold on forever.

[BTW, did you know each one of our nice red Bombardier Talent OTrains  has an on-board washroom? It’s in that always-locked room with the bright red plastic exterior. I used one once, on a Talent train in Germany. It worked fine. Just don’t try this at home.] [editor’s note: those Bombardier trains are now parked somewhere out in the southern suburbs and we use the equally toilet free and somewhat slower moving new Lint trains]




6 thoughts on “Gotta go pee ! (again)

  1. I agree 100%. Finding public washrooms in Ottawa is a pain. I have a carefully memorized list of useable loos – libraries, shopping malls, certain chain and grocery stores, certain coffee shops, hotel lobbies, certain office buildings.
    The best cities for public bathrooms in my experience are in Seoul and Busan, in South Korea. Why? EVERY subway station has large, modern and CLEAN facilities. You do have to bring your own toilet paper (or rather, a package of tissues) but other than that they are great. Apparently there are often cleanliness competitions between stations.

  2. What kind of facilities will be at the LRT stations? Convenient clean washrooms encourage public transit usage. If you are in a car you’re always within a couple of minutes of a good restroom in case of emergency. But if you’re on foot or waiting for a bus, getting to a restroom in time can be a real issue. Do you try to hold it until you get to your destination or do you take the uncomfortable trek to the nearest public facility and potentially miss your bus? Waiting for a transfer at Lincoln Fields isn’t the middle of nowhere, but it feels like it when you’ve got to go.

  3. Japan has figured out public washrooms. They are everywhere, well marked, clean and well maintained. Most of them even have the fancy japanese style toilets. I don’t ever recall paying either

  4. I like the idea of granting franchises to the private sector, along the Sanifair model. It avoids the city’s whining about investment and upkeep – Just make the space available, and let private companies build, maintain and operate the washrooms. Win-win!

  5. “During the Downtown Moves study, aimed at making Ottawa more livable by 2020 or something, I brought up the subject of WC’s. Everyone agreed we need them. No one wanted to provide them, or investigate how to provide them. I suggested that a radically increased supply might help. No takers. Our planners exhibited maximum anxiety to get on to the next topic.”

    In other words… no one gives a crap? 🙂

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