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Why is it so hard to find a public toilet in the US?

“The 360” shows you various perspectives on the most important stories and debates of the day.

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What is going on

We’ve all experienced it. You need to go to the toilet, or maybe your child does too. You try one company after another. You end up buying an ice cream cone at a nasty gas station so they give you the code.

Public potty panic is something of a universal human experience, but it’s a problem that Americans deal with much more often than people in other countries.

According to the , there are about eight public restrooms for every 100,000 Americans. That’s less than half the number in Canada and one-seventh the number in Iceland. Restrooms can be found in many major US cities.

Bathroom access is about more than providing a convenient place to urinate. It’s also a problem, especially in places with large homeless populations. San Diego has experienced two separate buildings attributed at least in part to a lack of clean bathrooms. There may also be opportunities for anyone who is forced to defecate in public space.

The US hasn’t always been so devoid of public toilets. In 1970, it was estimated that there were facilities all over the country that anyone could use for a small fee. But those coin-operated toilets were a response over the next decade to a campaign against the idea that everyone should pay to have their bodily needs met. The problem in many cases is that nothing has come to replace them.

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Why there is discussion

At the most basic level, the lack of public toilets is due to the fact that most cities do not prioritize them.

One of the biggest hurdles is cost. As is the case with many infrastructure projects, more bathrooms are being built in the US than in other countries. And there is an ongoing cleaning fee to ensure the facilities are stocked and sanitary. Some cities also have difficulty finding locations to place them, often due to a combination of and opposition from local residents who fear the facilities will become filthy, stop working, or bring unwanted activity to the area.

Many experts say the roots of the problem go much deeper and are really a result of how American society has outsourced core services to the private sector. (Maybe your local Starbucks or McDonalds.)

What’s next

A number of , and , have launched recent initiatives to install more toilets in their public areas – calling its new toilets the ‘Philly Phlush’. However, it remains to be seen whether these new projects can overcome the challenges that posed many previous plans.


Americans have lost their faith in the common good in general

“The lack of public toilets in the United States is not just an inconvenience. It is a sign that America is failing to invest in common needs for the collective good.” — Katrina Vanden Heuvel,

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It was a big mistake to abolish pay toilets

“It may seem cruel to make people trade money for something our bodies force us to do several times a day. But we don’t expect farmers or supermarkets to provide us with food for free. If we did, we would soon be chewing grass and tree bark. Price controls invariably keep supply below demand, and imposing a zero price cap does that in spades.” —Steve Chapman,

Local governments have outsourced their tasks to private companies

“The urgency (and I mean the urgency) of installing good public services in every park or fifth street corner, as a modern city should do, has been pushed off the agenda time and time again for the simple reason that we Starbucks and its associates are concerned about that.” – Christopher Bonanos,

Crime and vagrancy make many public toilets virtually unusable for most people

“The real problem with adding public toilets to urban centers today is not a lack of funding, but a class of civic leadership unwilling to blatantly crack down on anti-social and often criminal activity. If every city did that, not much money would be needed to make major improvements in public space, for example in the field of public toilets.” — Aaron M. Renn,

It’s way too expensive to build something so simple in the US

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“At first glance, not a bad idea. It’s nice to have a toilet available when you’re in the park, especially if you’re there with your kids. Every parent knows what I’m talking about. But then you realize that each toilet could end up costing the city’s taxpayer (that’s me and you) a million dollars.” —Tom Wrobleski,

Public toilets would be clean and safe if we gave vulnerable people other places to go

“One way to address the issue of drug use and vandalism in public restrooms is to have a much larger infrastructure to support people who are homeless than we currently have, and safe injection sites. … To get public toilets back, we must be willing to create more space for those who suffer.’ — Quinn O’Callaghan,

Many Americans do not consider access to the bathroom a basic human right

“Like food, water and shelter, access to safe sanitation is a basic human right. While private companies can certainly choose to provide public access to toilets, it is the government’s responsibility to ensure sanitation for all. And it is time we held our political leaders to account.” — Catherine de Albuquerque,

The US has abdicated its duty to care for the most vulnerable

“If you don’t have public restrooms, you say, ‘We don’t care about someone who doesn’t have money,’ which I think is a good summary of where American politics has gone since 1980.” — Peter Baldwin, professor of history at the University of Connecticut

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