I have written often on the need for public washrooms, and why every city should have them close by transit stations, near public spaces, and along commercial streets. Every person needs to use them and it is what makes public space accessible for so many people. Kids, seniors, everyone needs to use a washroom. And yet in North American culture public washrooms are often not thought of. It’s been something that stores have been expected to provide as it’s not even an afterthought in the public realm.
But what happens today in Covid times if you are using the sidewalk to move, cycling or using public transit? Where’s the closest washroom?
In walking the Seaside Greenway in south False Creek, I looked for a “new accessible washroom” that a 2016 Council report said was going to be built near or adjacent to that area’s Charleson Park. I couldn’t find it, even though that Council report had allocated $0.4 million dollars from City wide Development Cost Levies (DCLs) that was already assigned to Parks and Open Spaces.
When I asked a False Creek strata council member where the new accessible washroom was, I heard all about the rustic fence for the dog park near the seawall, and the row of blue rental bikes installed in front of the School Green. The washroom was the “last straw”. And surprise! Apparently there was a “discussion” over location~”the engineers said one thing, the park board said something, the community said something else entirely and no, we don’t know where the $400,000 washroom is”.
An article in The Guardian by Libby Brooks discusses the impacts of lack of public toilet access. In the United Kingdom public toilet closure “is having a serious impact on wellbeing, limiting people’s capacity to exercise freely or visit loved ones, and creating a significant secondary public health risk as people have no option but to relieve themselves in the open, a Guardian survey and investigation has found.”
With many public buildings, bars and restaurants closed, the lack of public washrooms is curtailing where people can go by foot or cycle or public transit.
“For those with health conditions and disabilities that bring continence problems, the situation is even worse: some describe themselves as essentially housebound. Key workers and volunteers making lengthy round trips to deliver essentials are likewise affected.”
Opening public washrooms during Covid times in Europe has resulted in two worries: the need to balance public safety with access to facilities and the lack of clear direction from government on how best to open and manage public washrooms.
In Canada, Paola Lorrigio in The Star discusses the fact that the lack of public washrooms, once a barrier to the homeless, poor, racialized and disabled is now a barrier to everyone. In the first month of the pandemic truck drivers and transit drivers could no longer use washrooms in closed stores and businesses. And with the opening of economies, people will need to use public washrooms even though those in businesses may remain off-limits.
As Lezlie Lowe who wrote “No Place To Go: How Public Toilets Fail Our Private Needs” says “
We don’t have this tradition of on-street, accessible, paid-for-by-municipal-governments bathroom provision. What we have in Canada is, we have Starbucks and Tim Hortons and McDonald’s and the other cafes and restaurants involved that we go into”.
And there’s a difference here~these are publicly-accessible toilets, but they are really “customer” toilets, not really for the casual person walking or biking on the street.
While cities like Vancouver and Toronto installed handwashing stations and portable washrooms during the Covid pandemic, that’s simply not enough. If during and after the pandemic people are to go outside, patronize local businesses, and walk and exercise in their family groups, we need to be serious about providing clean, accessible public washrooms for everyone.
Because everyone at one time or another needs to go.