John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
All the news that's fit to print about toilets.
Welcome to the latest in public bathroom news:
The Bay Area was recently paralyzed by striking unions who want a better contract with the BART rail system. Might San Francisco's MUNI operators be the next ones to mutiny, this time over a more basic demand – a decent place to pee?
The city's approximately 2,000 rail and bus drivers haven't reached the walk-out stage yet, but they are speaking in firm tones to the city about their lack of restrooms. It can take an hour or more to complete a route, and they say they're unfairly expected to either dash into gas stations, restaurants or city-approved porta-potties or else grimace and bear their aching bowels. (Other options like peeing in a bottle or out the window seem mostly practiced by the passenger class.)
The transit agency has traditionally paid local businesses a yearly fee ($4,000 and $5,000 per establishment) for the right to access their facilities. But the MUNI's has managed to get the city to start building more bathrooms on public spaces near transit stops. These primo commodes are up to 10 feet high and have about 90 square feet of leg room; at $170,000 each and with 36 planned, they would cost more than $6 million. Oh, yeah: They are also private, meaning if you're not wearing a MUNI uniform forget about seeing the inside of one.
Last week, San Francisco's Board of Supervisors asked the union to "try to whittle" the cost down, both to protect the municipal budget and scarce sidewalk space. But so far the MUNI workers are sticking to their guns. "We refuse to be treated as second-class citizens in regards to using a restroom while serving the public and the city," said a representative of Transport Workers Union Local 250-A, according to the SF Examiner. "If there is a concern about a restroom costing $170,000, I have to ask how much does it cost for the city in workers' compensation costs for renal failure of an operator? I think it's a lot more than $170,000."
If built in full, the exclusive commodes would make MUNI employees some of the most pampered transit operators in the nation. New York's drivers still rely on the bathrooms at restaurants, 7-Elevens and a ferry building, for instance, and Chicago's operators sometimes use restrooms at municipal garages that they've described as "unsanitary" or moldy "hell holes."
• Getting people to wash their hands after handling their unmentionables in the public restroom can be hard, as noted earlier in Toilet Tuesday. But making the male sex – who are really the ones who need prodding – reach for the hot-pink bathroom soap could get easier if businesses were to install the $590 "Stand" plumbing fixture. Colored with the pleasant pastels of a baby nursery and employing the sleekness of Latvian design, the rejiggered urinal has a little sink up at the top so men can conduct their business, zip up and wash up without moving an inch. It's even eco-friendly, inventor Kaspars Jursons told NPR: "You are washing your hands in the sink on top of the urinal, and the same water that's running is also used to flush."
• Seattle is considering retrying an experiment in public lavatories after its last one ended in a notorious, drug-and-prostitute-filled failure. After spending $5 million on five automated toilets that offered users a fair degree of privacy, the city was forced to remove them in 2008 after they became trash-filled hovels for vagrants and tweakers who would camp out behind their locked doors. Now, however, the city once again hopes to install a bathroom in the still-sketchy Pioneer Square. The difference is that this time, a developer would pay all the costs, reports KIRO-TV:
Urban Visions wants permission to build an apartment building next to Occidental Park that's 10 feet higher than current zoning allows. In return, it will purchase a $100,000 toilet made in Portland called the "Loo" and install it for the city. A neighborhood group, the Alliance for Pioneer Square, will then maintain the toilet....
The Alliance for Pioneer Square said a public toilet is badly needed. "If the majority of the people in your neighborhood are poor to the point of not having even pocket change, they cannot go into Starbucks and buy a cup of coffee to use the restroom," said [Alliance's] Executive Director Leslie Smith. As a result, many relieve themselves in alleys.
• Headline of the moment: "Snake Appears From Toilet, Bites Man's Genital Area."