April 5, 2021

The Pandemic, the Need for Public Washrooms & Why Don’t We Have Them

Spring is finally here and everyone wants to get outside. The next wave of the pandemic means that restaurants can no longer serve inside, which of course also shows one of the shortages that existed before the pandemic: there’s no public washrooms.

How do you get around the city, get outside by yourself or in your “people bubble” and spend any amount of time patronizing local businesses if there are no public washrooms?

In Vancouver public washrooms availability has fallen to large stores, coffee shops and restaurants to maintain and take care of as part of their private businesses. Providing  true publicly accessible washrooms in Metro Vancouver’s business areas and along the transit routes are pretty well non existent.

There are two ways that public washrooms are provided in the public realm: they can be publicly accessible and paid for by taxpayers, or they can be privately owned but available to customers. We do the latter, and that impacts families, homeless, disabled, seniors and pretty much everyone that needs to go.

Author  of How Public Toilets Fail Our Private Needs Lezlie Lowe writes that Canadian municipalities have really left the heavy lifting of washroom availability to the private sector. During the pandemic that has been a challenge for many businesses that have had to shutter washrooms due to Covid restrictions, and also shown that while there are public washrooms in many parks, those parks are not located in commercial areas and along transit lines where people also need those services.

There’s a real equity issue with the lack of providing public washrooms, and Globe and Mail journalist Andre Picard sees it as a human rights issue. Everyone should have the access to clean washrooms and to dignity.

We’ve seen during Covid times the hardship for the homeless who no longer had the unfettered availability of public washrooms in parks, community centres or libraries to use in their daily lives.

Demographics also show that the provision of public washrooms is just the right thing to do. In 2017, 22 per cent or one in five Canadians was disabled, and 47 percent of people over 75 years was disabled. In 2014 15 percent of the Canadian population was over 65 years of age. That will rise to 23 percent or 9.5 million people within nine years.

Mobility is a basic piece in individual well-being. For people to use commercial areas and to use transit we simply must incorporate safe, comfortable and convenient washrooms so that everyone can spend time in areas and feel included. It is very much an equity issue.

There is a parity issue as well.

In a study undertaken by the University of British Columbia in 2019, women spend longer in public washroom lineups because women are wearing more clothes and are caregiving children and older adults who they assist in using the facilities. In the study if equal speed in accessing facilities is a factor, then more washroom stalls need to be installed for women, often in a ratio of two female stalls for one male stall.

Toon Dreesen in the Ottawa Business Journal identified an area of Ottawa that has the cities “traditional” commercial streets and markets  and was bounded by The Rideau and Ottawa Rivers. In this busy commercial and tourist hub there were only 16 public washrooms.

In Ottawa every new business must provide washroom facilities for the public and for staff, but the location of them often make them inaccessible for those with mobility challenges. A group called  Ottawa “GottaGo” has started a campaign to have more public washrooms created, citing tourism, an aging population and the need to accommodate people with disabilities.

GottaGo looks at London’s public “loos” as examples, where usage costs about fifty cents, as well as public washrooms in France which can cost a few dollars in the bigger cities. These washrooms are staffed and cleaned to ensure safety. Like Vancouver, Ottawa’s Light Rapid Transit system has few washrooms, and those are at only four stops. None of those stops are downtown.

Why is it that we are locating public washrooms in parks? Why are they not part of essential street furniture, located on plazas that can also offer newspaper stands, coffee bars, and be part of available amenities?

Is it time to rewrite what development cost levies can fund, the money that is negotiated from developers to be put forward for the area’s ongoing  livability and life?

The City of London takes their public washrooms or  “loos” very seriously. Rachel Cole-Wilkin leads a tour of London’s history of public toilets, and you can take a look at the YouTube video below to see some of the highlights. By the way that is a sink not a toilet plunger Ms. Cole-Wilkin is carrying to ensure that people on the tour can track where she is as they walk the streets of London.



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