Sophie House is a legal fellow at the NYU Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, where her work focuses on housing and homelessness. She is a graduate of Yale Law School, and also holds a B.A. in Economics from New York University and an M.Phil in Comparative Social Policy from the University of Oxford.
Today is World Toilet Day, a reminder of the shameful reality that billions of people lack access to safe toilets and clean water. But the failures of sanitation are not confined to the developing world. In cities around the United States, groups from pregnant women to taxi drivers and people experiencing homelessness suffer from the lack of public restrooms. One solution common in European cities—the pay toilet, which charges a small fee for use—is largely absent from the American landscape, and in fact, is banned in many cities and states.
Initially, pay-toilet bans were a triumph over sexism. But in light of advances in restroom design and the neglect of sanitation under the status quo, local governments in the U.S. should consider lifting pay-toilet bans.
In 1969, California Assemblywoman March Fong Eu smashed a porcelain toilet with an axe in front of the California state capitol, protesting the misogyny of restrooms that charged entrance fees for stalls but not urinals. She was not alone in her frustration. The grassroots organization CEPTIA—the Committee to End Pay Toilets in America—mobilized against pay toilets, putting out a quarterly newsletter (the Free Toilet Paper) and exchanging warring pamphlets with Nik-O-Lok, the leading pay-toilet manufacturer. The group won a citywide ordinance banning pay toilets in Chicago in 1973, followed by bans in Alaska, California, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey, New York, Tennessee, and Wyoming.
In the decades since CEPTIA disbanded, however, pay-toilet bans have proven to be a Pyrrhic victory. The committee’s vision of free toilets for all never came to pass. Cities have persistently refused to construct public restrooms, and existing facilities have fallen into disrepair. Citing the difficulty of keeping bathrooms safe and clean, municipalities are often unwilling or unable to pay. Even assuming that funds are available for initial construction of public toilets, the maintenance and operating costs are a deterrent.
By contrast, in cities from Europe to India to Latin America, small entrance fees help to cover the costs of keeping facilities in good condition. Creating a similar revenue stream to defray operating costs would likely make pay toilets more attractive to U.S. municipalities. For example, fees could offset the costs of hiring restroom attendants—an excellent, but expensive, way to keep bathrooms safe. Pay toilets also redistribute the operating costs of restrooms. Free toilets are, of course, taxpayer-funded, while under pay-toilet schemes, tourists who use urban infrastructure also contribute to its functioning.
And, recognizing sanitation as a fundamental right, much can be done to make pay toilets accessible to people who are homeless or in poverty. Fees should be capped, and token schemes, which already exist for food and other services, could be introduced. Getting tokens into the hands of people who need them is unlikely to be as challenging as it has been to persuade cities to invest in facilities that generate no revenue.
Cities and states should thus consider repealing their pay-toilet bans, or, at a minimum, carve out exemptions for major urban centers—as New York State has done for the city—and commit to reinvesting funds from pay toilets in the upkeep of those facilities. (New York City opened an automated pay toilet in Madison Square Park in 2008 and is planning another near Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn.)
In CEPTIA’s time, as a newspaper noted, “no one [had] yet invented (or dared to install) pay urinals.” Mercifully, that has changed. This discriminatory design flaw can be fixed by charging a fee at the restroom entrance rather than at individual stalls. Because cisgender women, on average, use the bathroom more frequently than cisgender men, charging the same fees to use men’s and women’s rooms will impose greater costs on many women. But women also suffer disproportionately from the lack of restrooms in public spaces, and the benefits of reliable restroom access might well be worth more than a few cents per visit to many. Homeless people who menstruate suffer doubly; the absence of safe spaces where they can attend to personal hygiene is damaging to both physical and mental health.
Cities that are serious about equality and inclusion can, and should, increase the ratio of women’s to men’s facilities in restrooms; provide free menstrual products, which are as necessary to sanitation for people who need them as the toilet paper already provided for free; and consider the many compelling arguments for gender-neutral restrooms. These steps would do more for “potty parity” than eliminating pay toilets has accomplished.
Sanitation is unquestionably a human right, but the abolition of pay toilets has not led to its realization in American cities. Ultimately, opponents of pay toilets won Americans a rhetorical right to sanitation without a way to exercise it. Without access to clean and safe public bathrooms, as Harvey Molotch has written, “human needs go unmet” in American cities, deeply compromising the health and dignity of our most vulnerable citizens. It is precisely because of the urgency of fulfilling the human right to sanitation that no viable solution, including pay toilets, should be off the table.