Saturday, December 10, 2011

“A Little Touch of Paris”? Public Toilet Failure in S.F.

[Original image by Wally Gobetz]

San Francisco Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius steps into one of the “automated, self-cleaning public toilets,” scattered around town and doesn’t like what he sees—or smells. His report pretty much jibes with my experience. Nevius reports that many of the city’s 25 self-cleaning toilet kiosks have problems or are not even operational.

Nor is the problem confined to S.F.
As other cities have found, the automated route just hasn’t provided much help. In 2004, Seattle spent $5 million to install automated public toilets. Four years later, lamenting that they had become so dirty and dangerous that even street people refused to use them, the city put them up for sale on eBay.
Nevius contrasts this with a study of the well-received supervised public washrooms in Bryant Park, behind the New York Public Library.

[Image by Irus Braverman]

That 2010 paper was written by Irus Braverman, an Associate Professor at the SUNY Buffalo Law School.

In it, she interviewed Jerome Barth, Director of Operations for New York City’s Bryant Park Corporation, who gave several reasons the public prefers facilities with attendants over the automated ones. First off, he says, “People are just not accustomed to the automated toilets.” They can be puzzling and frustrating to use.
Secondly, Barth continues, people prefer washrooms with attendants. “Beyond making sure that the place is clean throughout the day,” he says, “the attendants send a strong message that someone is in control, that this place is safe. It allows you to let your guard down.” Finally, Barth suggests that “the automated toilets are designed as functional machines, not to create an environment for real people to use. The only reason they are constructed in the first place is for advertising companies to win large bids for outside furniture.” “We had tried them and it’s very hard to keep them up, keep them clean, and we weren’t finding the right level of maintenance,” adds Lindsey Boylan, BPC’s Operation Manager, in an interview. “We would have to do a great deal more and staff it even though it was supposed to be an automated public toilet,” she adds. She says about the attendant toilets that “We really wanted something that would be an attraction for people and would bring them here. I mean, when they walk into the bathrooms they should say: ‘is this a public toilet? It feels as though you’re in a private space.’”
The last time I was on a New York subway malodor hunt with a reporter, I kept pointing out the many padlocked public restrooms in the station. I’ve never actually seen one open for use. Wouldn’t clean, well-lit and attended restrooms reduce the smell of urine and feces that plague the subway system?

As a rugged, low-tech solution, the pissoir can’t be beat. (I know, how often do I praise anything French here at FN?) It’s essentially a wall of running water, discretely hidden from view by shrubbery or a baffle wall. My favorite pissoir is the one on the Île de la Cité in Paris, located in the gardens behind the cathedral of Notre Dame. You stroll in, unzip, and relieve yourself in the fresh air, under the towering chesnut trees. What could be better?


Tania said...

There are automatic single loos in London, but I've never dared use one. My issue was with the 'automatic' part, as they apparently turn upside down to clean themselves. I wouldn't trust 'em not to do that while I was in there! It never occurred to me that they could be dirty, though.
Yes, pissoirs are great - for the penis-having amongst us. But what are we innies to do? :-)

Avery Gilbert said...


I share your misgivings about automated toilets. One time on an Air France flight, the extreme vacuum-flushing action of business class head almost pulled the glasses off my face. Close call.

And why deny yourself the pleasures of the pissoir? Pioneer olfactory researcher Max Mozell invented a “Women’s urine conducting apparatus” (U.S. Patent 4,771,484) that lets you pee standing up.

See you in Paris!