Opportunity Lies Where the Toilet Isn't
How increasing the number of public toilets per capita could increase trust in government and provide an easy on ramp to more government-provided services.
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Using the restroom is the great human equalizer. No amount of money or power can free you from the necessity to go. As a human common denominator, it rivals only breathing in its lowness. And yet, it’s inconceivable for air to be made as publicly inaccessible as restrooms.
The United States has just 8 publicly available toilets per 100,000 people. This ranks the US 31st out of the countries for which there is data, tied with the likes of Botswana and Georgia.
The need for bathrooms is universal and the consequences of not having access to one are dire, uncomfortable, and as you’ll read below, potentially criminal. This dearth of dumpers, while an issue, also presents an opportunity for the Biden administration to build bi-partisan trust in government and, by way of providing an immensely needed human service, create an easy onramp to wider public acceptance of state-owned utilities such as railroads, internet, and energy. Here’s where I propose the federal government embark on a nationwide program to provide public toilets.
Give the Public Some Sips of Trust Juice
Since the 1960’s, public trust in government has dropped significantly. At the highest, 77% of the US public trusted the government. Today, the number hovers near 20%. Historical precedent proves this number can be improved.
As demographics go, there are few larger than ‘those who urinate’. Resolving the scarcity of bathrooms in public spaces wouldn’t just benefit those of all political affiliations, it could also help invigorate trust in government from marginalized communities who are typically barred from participating in all aspects of public life, such as those who are homeless or disabled.
What’s the problem with not having bathrooms?
The unwillingness of federal, state, and municipal governments to provide access to places to pee leaves most to employ invisible networks of places to use the bathroom (eg: Starbucks, gas stations, restaurants, etc.). Basically, most of us are at the mercy of private companies willing to let us use their loos. As we’ve seen with Starbucks’ recent reconsideration of its open-door restroom policy, public reliance on private goods can leave us all in perilous positions.
Aside from the inconvenience, there’s a public health issue at stake. Lezlie Lowe, author of the book “No Place To Go: How Public Toilets Fail Our Private Needs,” reports that a lack of bathrooms increases the spread of infectious diseases like hepatitis A and shigella, both of which spread via feces.
Those of us caught with no other option but to relieve ourselves in public face criminal repercussions like fines and in some extreme cases, registering as a sex offender. For instance, from 2016 to 2021, Chicago Police issued 29,000 tickets for public urination and defecation. This would at least make some sense if it were a way for cities to generate government revenue à la parking and traffic violations, but these tickets are given mostly to people who lack the resources to pay them.
On the face of it, this might just appear like a public health issue. But, according to the World Health Organization, it’s also a detriment to productivity:
The return on every dollar invested in safe sanitation is estimated to accrue at least six times over, due primarily to lower health costs, increased productivity and fewer premature deaths.
Increased productivity! Business-friendly Republicans and railroad strike squashing Democrats alike love to hear those words. All this increase would take is accommodation of one of our most basic human needs.
A Noble Solution from Your Noble Author
Should the federal government use tax dollars to implement public bathrooms nationwide, it would solve two problems at once: increase public trust in government, and improve public health. Yet if solving the problem were enough, everyone would buy ibuprofen instead of Advil. To make this proposition gain support and stick, we need branding, which means a lot.
To that I say: Each new toilet and urinal implemented by the government needs to come equipped with the ability to display via a bathroom-proof screen— either in the bowl of the toilet or the back of the urinal—any elected official of the federal government. Without getting too into the details, the toilets would have searchable databases with each officials’ name and picture, current to each election.
These features would help reinforce the bipartisan need for relief. Although implemented by a Democratic administration, the fact that any elected official, regardless of party, can be displayed via toilet should eliminate any concern of party bias. Plus, each time someone made use of these new bathrooms, they’d be looking directly at an elected official and subconsciously reminded it was the government and their own tax dollars which provided this toilet for them.
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P.S.: The jingle from this commercial plays in my head at least once a week. Even more so while writing this. I hope it does for you what it’s done for me: