When nature calls, one needs to answer. This, however, might be a conundrum in a big city where you have no idea where the nearest bathroom may be. Knocking on a stranger’s door and requesting five minutes in their bathroom is not a really an option and, unless you order an item off a restaurants’ menu, be prepared to be denied entry as businesses are becoming unwelcoming to nonpaying customers.
The only choice left is heading to a public restroom used by thousands before you. And while that idea is not exactly appealing, even that is becoming less and less an option as public bathrooms in the world’s cities are are either nonexistent or disappearing.
To go or not to go? The global question
Aidan, who lives in Michigan, recalls a 30-hour trip he took to Wyoming. “I would stop every four hours or so to go to the bathroom,” he says. “American public bathrooms are fairly clean on the highways that lead to big cities. They have seat covers, tissues and water to wash your hands and that is all I need,” he adds.
Natalie, who moved from Richmond, North Yorkshire to London almost a year ago, says that she has used one few but that she has spotted “very few” of them. “They weren’t particularly clean but they were clean enough to use.”
Ahmed, a 27-year-old who lives in Cairo, explains that there are very few public restrooms in the city and even if there were more of them, he would not dare go. “I have seen two; one in Falaki Street and another Abdel Moneim Riad Square [both located in Downtown Cairo],” he says, pointing out that he was discouraged to go by the people sitting outside asking for money.
Ahmed explains that, unlike public toilets in Europe – which are easy-to-identify “metal-boxes” – both of the restrooms he went to in Cairo were underground. “The toilets were so dirty,” Ahmed continues. “I just decided to use the one in the mosque. It was cleaner than the ones in the street but not as clean as the one you would use when you go to a mall in New Cairo or the 6th of October [both upscale neighborhoods in Cairo].”
Chandler, an American living in Cairo, says that he was “stunned” when he first saw a man urinating in the street. “That was three years ago, now, it has become a normal scene.”
India has a similar problem with people defecating out in the open and, according to the UNICEF, almost half of the population, around 595 million people, do it. The sanitation problem is so big that the UNICEF decided to lead a social media campaign named “Take the Poo to the Loo.” The campaign included a pop song to encourage proper sanitation. In Western India, authorities pledged to pay citizens who use public restrooms 1 rupee (US $0.015).
Why are public toilets so hard to maintain?
Public toilets are owned and maintained by governments but with ailing global economies, the hygienic state and maintenance of public toilets have become less of a priority.
In the UK, over 1,700 public toilets were closed during the past decade alone. The British government has no legal obligation to provide public restrooms, which makes shutting them down an easier task, as many UK cities have seen, while other local councils have drastically reduced spending on their cleaning and maintenance.
The BBC has also reported that some public restrooms have been converted into restaurants, bars and pubs. In order to do so, however, the owners of the made-over restrooms have to offer their toilets for unsuspecting nonpaying patrons, as a rule.
“If someone comes down, unsuspecting that it’s a wine bar – and this happens every day – we let them use the toilet. That’s what we have to do. And it works,” a bar owner explains to the the BBC.
In New York, the sight of a public toilet is rare despite the city being a touristic spot. Around 10 years ago, 20-automated public bathrooms were promised to the city but only four have been installed.
What to do when you have to go?
Despite the disappearance of public restrooms, some are still keen to identify their locations to residents and visitors.
In Australia, the Department of Health has launched a National Public Toilet Map. The map finds nearby toilets and can help users identify public toilets on the road if they are taking a trip. Similar maps are available in Britain, New Zealand and Italy.
Meanwhile, entrepreneurs around the world have taken the disappearance of public bathrooms as a new urban business opportunities. New mobile applications, such as Maznoq, Toilet Finder, Flush, Susuvidha and SitorSquat, integrate mapping and crowdsourced reviews to help those who need to go find the best option around them.