Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
It’s a simple public restroom solution that could go far.
Milan Fashion Week may have started an improbable trend last week. This time it’s not in clothing but in public transit—or at least sort of.
To meet the demands that the fashion-buying season places on its public facilities, the city of Milan has just launched an unusual type of bus. It won’t offer a smoother or less energy-consuming journey. It doesn’t boast much of a view from the windows. And the vehicle won’t get you from A to B fast, or in fact at all. Milan’s new bus is, quite literally, a toilet.
Billing itself as the first ever in Europe, Milan’s restroom-on-wheels has been christened with the self-explanatory name “Toilet Bus.” Refitted at an expense of €75,000 with generous water tanks and five cubicles with properly flushing toilets, the toilet bus is designed to make up for a lack of urban public bathrooms at times such as Fashion Week, when the city is under particular stress.
The bus is already booked for 70 outdoor events in 2016 alone. Part of the enthusiasm stems from a problem not uncommon in densely built historic European cities: finding space for public restrooms in districts where every bit of spare, accessible space is in commercial use. Neighbors can also be reluctant to agree to having a toilet facility nearby, which often makes the process of securing planning approval painfully slow.
For short-term events, porta-potties are the usual solution. The problem is that it’s rare for anyone to use even the cleanest and freshest of these rudimentary facilities without feeling that the tiniest sliver of their human dignity has been somehow shaved away.
A well-fitted, well-cleaned bus with its own water supply seems a good compromise—and Milan’s toilet bus has a 2,700-liter tank to keep things salubrious. The toilet bus is such a good compromise, in fact, that despite Milan’s claims to being the first in Europe, it’s actually been tried before. Such is the price of space in Petersburg’s city center that since 2002 the city has given up finding suitable sites altogether and parked two toilet buses in central squares.
Since then, no other European city has followed suit, but Milan’s sleeker, wheelchair-accessible model could be the one to finally get the trend off the ground. At the very least, its appearance at Milan’s fashion week means that the past few days offered one of those rare moments when you might actually have seen a member of the global fashion elite taking the bus.