Here’s a Great Public Infrastructure Investment: Public Toilets

This is the kind of infrastructure America needs. (Photo: PeterDargatz/Wikipedia)

The president of the United States is proposing a trillion dollar infrastructure plan, noting that “rebuilding roads, bridges, airports and ports will pay dividends both now and in the future.”

But there is another kind of infrastructure that is desperately needed: public toilets. Health reporter André Picard, writing for the Globe and Mail from Montreal, notes that public facilities are common in Europe, but almost nonexistent in North American cities, where people depend on the private sector, primarily stores and restaurants, to provide relief. But they do not admit everyone, and they cannot meet demand. Picard believes that public toilets should be infrastructure investments, and are as important as bridges and airports.

Why is building and maintaining roads for cars considered an unquestionable necessity and legitimate expense, but having public washrooms is deemed a superfluous luxury? The answer is not to refuse to build public bathrooms, it is to value and maintain them as any other public infrastructure.
restroom for paying customers only
But I have to go!. (Photo: Aranami/flickr)

There is another reason to invest in public toilet infrastructure: demographics. The population is aging, and when people (particularly men) age, they have to pee more often. As many as 50 percent of men over the age of 50 develop "benign" prostatic enlargement, or BPH, that makes them need to pee at least every two hours, often much more often. It can make them need to pee suddenly with little notice, sometimes creating a bit of panic. They often need to pee twice in short order. (This is not a disinterested description, it's an autobiography.) Some men stop going out to public places; others plan their trips like Amundsen or Scott planned their food cairns in Antarctica, checking out where every public washroom is on their route. There are apps for your phone like Got to Go that tell you where to wee, but it mostly points to restaurants and private facilities that can’t possibly meet demand.

This is a big and growing cohort of men with big and growing prostates. There are 75 million baby boomers in America, and about 25 million “silent generation” seniors. That's one hundred million people, most of whom elected Donald Trump and the Republican congress, most of whom are men in this demographic too. Let’s say half of those 100 million are men, and half of those have BPH. That’s 25 million American men looking for a place to pee. They need an investment in public pissoirs and they need it now. It's infrastructure payback time.

public toilet vienna
Pretty impressive public toilet in Vienna. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

One problem with modern public bathroom infrastructure is that it is really expensive; they are often designed to be self-cleaning. These toilets I saw in Vienna had a door that opens up automatically after a few minutes and then it automatically hoses itself down. It is all electronic and stainless steel and indestructible.

Urinal in Vienna
Straight-forward urinal in Vienna. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

But the urinal portion of it, the part that men need to pee in, is simple, straightforward and sort of open. I did feel a little exposed using it but on the other hand, there is no way to really do anything that you shouldn't be doing in it. Urinals are relatively cheap; the cost of a single high-tech public washroom (about $300,000) could pay for a plethora of pissoirs.

A urinal in Hamburg Germany
A fancy new pissoir in Hamburg. (Photo: GeorgHH on Wikipedia)

Others will rightly complain that women need to go too, and the government should not be just investing in the needs of boomer men. But that misses the point that government pretty much always invests in the needs of boomer men first. Look at the Senate; it pretty much is made of boomer men, looking after their own interests, looking forward to the next break to go hit the loo.

After President Trump’s inauguration and the Women’s march, the Washington Post ran an article on how the “portable toilet industry is flush.” A commenter complained:

I can only imagine that in the near future the lefty loon protesters will declare that porta pottys are a "right" and should be provided for free by us, the taxpayers and worker bees. Oh, yes.

Well, call me a lefty loon, but a place to pee is a human need, as much as a place to walk. And while boomer men have a particular interest in the subject, the reality is that everyone should have access to a toilet. It’s an infrastructure investment that would pay big dividends, and I suspect that with a growing demographic bulge of boomer men with bulging prostates needing to pee, that it might just happen.