Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
What a peer-to-peer, pay-to-pee service says about the lack of public restrooms in Western cities.
Whether you're in a new city or your hometown, it doesn't matter—if you're out and about and have to pee, you're often in a loo-scouting quandary. Is there a library around? A department store? Maybe you just hustle into the nearest cafe and pretend you're meeting someone. Goodness knows the odds of a bonafide public restroom being nearby—let alone one you'd remotely want to step into—are long.
It's for these knee-knocking moments that two New Orleans-based developers offer Airpnp, which is exactly what it sounds like: a peer-to-peer, pay-to-pee mobile and web service—like Airbnb, but just for a bathroom stay. Got a shotgun-style house close to Bourbon Street (or anywhere in the world), they ask? Rent, if you dare, your bathroom, at whatever price you want, and under whatever conditions. Need to tinkle/go #2/change a tampon/avoid a regional vomiting fine? Airpnp wants to ease your anxious potty search.
Launched in beta in March and since revamped, Airpnp has loos listed in places all over the globe. Some listings are really reaching, asking more than $,1000 a whizz. Many are a more reasonable $1 or $3, with smiley-faced notes such as "three minute maximum, please." Lots are $10, $20, or $100, likely designed to lure users during sea-of-humanity-type events like Mardi Gras or a marathon.
I can see the merits of Airpnp, especially in that last scenario. There have been certain, desperate times, amid crowds or endless lines, that I'd have happily forked over $15 to use someone's clean, safe, quiet john. The simple law of supply and demand would have justified my choice.
But while San Francisco, Portland, Austin, and New Orleans all boast multiple pay-to-pee options on the app, Washington, D.C. (where I live) has only one: "Do Your Business at a Full Service Creative Agency," for $100. While the ADA-equipped, Metro-adjacent facility comes with a luxurious 20-minute maximum, I don't think I'll be ponying up that much cash on any old day—especially when there are no-cost museums all around me. Indeed, Airpnp should make a point to list free public toilets somewhere on its app rather than relying on the handful of good Samaritans who've posted the odd city park bathroom or Barnes and Noble.
Doesn't it seem so American, capitalizing on private restrooms? Compared to places like Japan, where good public facilities are widely available, Airpnp's existence does say something sad about the lack of municipal restrooms in most Western cities. Public johns don't need to be universally free, but they should definitely be far more available than they are—as well as clean, safe, and accessible to all. Most American cities (and many major American subways) fail to meet this standard, citing cost or safety reasons. Portland, notably, has managed to design a free public toilet that minimizes splash, time use, and unlawful activity. They need more of them, but they're a great start that, happily, other cities are looking to re-create.
But until all cities do better on this front, toilet advocates are thrilled about Airpnp. "It offers hope, happiness and relief to those who are desperate for a restroom," says Kathryn Anthony, Professor of Architecture at the University of Illinois and an active member of the American Restroom Association. "It helps make our cities more family friendly. With appropriate quality control on both ends, from restroom host to restroom guest, it can be a win-win situation for all."
Thanks also to John Oldfield of WASH Advocates.