Starbucks Shouldn't Be America's Bathroom

Starbucks was thrown into the limelight for access to its bathrooms, but the bigger issue may not be theirs to solve. (Photo: Mark Makela/Getty Images)

A year ago we wrote about how the United States needed a major infrastructure investment in public washrooms, noting that "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." The events of the last few weeks have shown this to be true, once again. In their 2010 book "Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing," Harvey Molotch and Laura Noren wrote:

In New York City, Starbucks has been called "the City's bathroom." According to one study of Manhattan Starbucks' restroom use, the great majority who go into the restroom are not customers; they come and go without buying anything. Company policy gives Starbucks discretion over who they will allow tho use the restroom.
Protest at Starbucks, Philadelphia
Protest at Starbucks in Philadelphia. (Photo: Mark Makela/Getty Images)

The problem — as we recently saw in Philadelphia when two African-American men were arrested after asking to use the bathroom — is that discretion doesn't always work. Molotch and Noren noted the problem:

... we have in the toilet an instrument and institution that both reflects how people and societies operation and also reinforces the existing pattern. Precisely because the toilet operates somewhat in hiding, those who plan, manage and control its use often act on their own, without a public to which they must provide detailed and explicit accounts of what they are doing. The toilet thus operates irresponsibly.

Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz noted that managers will no longer have this discretion. He is quoted in the Washington Post:

"We don’t want to become a public bathroom, but we’re going to make the right decision a hundred percent of the time and give people the key," Schultz said, "because we don’t want anyone at Starbucks to feel as if we are not giving access to you to the bathroom because you are less than."

But who should be solving this problem?

Four seasons restaurant
The nicest washroom I ever saw in the Four Seasons Restaurant. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

I personally find this disturbing, because private companies shouldn't have to become a public bathroom; it's a public responsibility. There used to be lots of public washrooms in New York subways, but as Molotch notes in a recent article in the Washington Post, "Anxieties over vandalism and public sex led to their demise, along with resentment at having to pay routine janitorial costs. In effect, because of fear of what some people might do, everyone is made to suffer."

The situation is only going to get worse as the population ages (baby boomer men have to pee a lot), but there are also people with irritable bowel syndrome, pregnant women and others who simply need a bathroom more often or at less convenient moments. Authorities say providing public washrooms can't be done because it would cost "hundreds of millions" but never have a problem spending billions on the building of highways for the convenience of drivers who can drive from home to the mall where there are lots of washrooms. The comfort of people who walk, people who are old, people who are poor or sick — that doesn't matter. Molotch concludes:

Ironically, Starbucks has probably been more attentive to public needs for clean and accessible restrooms than any other national business. That there is so often no way to satisfy a necessary bodily function is symptom of the larger callousness — of ignoring basic human needs. The trouble is a dearth of civic responsibility. We don’t need just a better restroom. We need a better country.
public toilet vienna
Pretty impressive public toilet in Vienna. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

In many cities in Europe, in Japan or Singapore and parts of China, there are public washrooms everywhere. Some of the nicest and cleanest I have been in were in China, because every one of them had an attendant who cleaned the counter and checked the toilet after every use. It puts a lot of people to work.

The supply of clean water and the removal of sewage and human waste are two of the most important functions government provides for its citizens, but the working ends of each system, the water fountain and the toilet, are apparently no longer public responsibilities. Water is now sold in bottles, and Starbucks has become the public bathroom.

That's wrong. This why we pay taxes — for public services that meet human needs.