According to Steven Chapman’s column in today’s Tribune, Alderman David Moore has sponsored a measure in response to a “toilet emergency” at a Subway, in which a constituent needed to go so urgently that she couldn’t wait the time it would take to make a purchase first.
His measure would compel any licensed business that provides “public toilet facilities to its customers” to open them to all “individuals who have an emergency” without demanding a purchase or charging a fee.
Of course, such a measure would raise all sort of questions: how is a business owner or employee to determine whether an individual has an “emergency” or not? Would businesses near popular locations, or at events like parades, be compelled to serve as public toilets, unable to even reasonably serve their own customers, and would they shut down for those special events because the burden would be too great? Chapman notes that the city has plenty of restrooms in El stations, but they’ve been locked up for decades.
But there’s an easy solution: pay toilets. They’re the norm in Europe, at least in my experience, whether it’s a bank of toilets where you pay into a vending machine to get through the turnstile (kids small enough to walk under the turnstile get in free), or a cleaning lady who stands guard, and either posts a specific cost or expects tips. The cost is typically something like 50 cents, sometimes more, sometimes less.
And the system works. Sure, you have to be sure to have your “pinkelgeld” (pee-money) on hand (though in the year 2017 I’m sure there could be all manner of high-tech ways to pay), but you know you’ll be able to find a restroom, and that you don’t have to worry about whether you’re a paying customer, though in some cases, you’ll pay at the toilet and then get a voucher for a reimbursement if you then do make a purchase, or be able to get a voucher for the restroom when you’re at the register. And the restrooms are generally clean and sufficiently-equipped, some even have an automated cleaning cycle after each use.Now, I have a vague memory that such restrooms used to exist in the U.S. as well, and a quick web search produced an article, “Why Don’t We Have Pay Toilets in America?” which says that pay toilets did indeed disappear due to a public campaign against them in the 70s, and, indeed, my vague memory is that of my parents giving me the impression, “this place is so bad you have to pay for the toilets.”
In fact, another hit reports that Chicago banned pay toilets in 1973, as the first major city to do so, and links to the Chicago Tribune article from that date, which further reports that “some aldermen . . . feared a toilet crisis because many establishments may refuse to offer free facilities.” And, of course, they were right.
Imagine, for instance, that the CTA contracts out the task to an outside vendor, who re-opens the restrooms which Chapman says exist, or existed, in its stations. Or consider the Forest Preserves in suburban Chicago, with restrooms which, last time I tried, were locked, or had the water shut off in the middle of the summer – it would surely be a benefit to re-open these, if the consequence of no-fee toilets is no toilets at all.
Would this mean that cities would take toilets which already exist, for free, and add a charge for them? I suppose it all depends on the degree to which they’re willing to anger the public — but that’s no different than the ongoing issue, in Chicago in particular, of taking away free on-street parking, or hiking its cost dramatically.
So, ladies and gentlemen of Chicago, it’s time to end the pay-toilet ban!
Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/doctorow/2141048886; Creative Commons license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/