Are public toilets a walkability issue?

Toilets for walkability

Not mentioned in Monday’s post proclaiming myself a public toilet enthusiast (aren’t you?) is the relationship between a community’s walkability and provisioning for the expected, and unexpected, bodily needs of the residents and visitors. We’ve all been there, away from home, on foot, and looking around with a grimace. We get through it, perhaps a little uncomfortably, but we make it.

However, the next time we head-out the door we might reconsider our mode of travel or the length of time we plan to be out. This concerns escalate with children in tow or if we have a medical, or age related, condition that demand regular attention.

What is the relationship between walkability and a community’s allotment of public toilets? I suspect, that in most of the world’s “walkable cities” you’ll find public toilets at the ready and the way-finding in place to leave little confusion of where they are located. In other places, something keeping them from becoming truly great may just be having public toilets at the ready.

In the lead up to the Beijing Olympics, access to clean public toilets was a major bragging point for the city authorities.  The goal, which by most measures was met, was to have a public toilet located within a 5-minute walk of any downtown location (C.Review). Having seen the before and after, I can attest, Beijing is a far better place for the effort.

Here in the U.S., as previously discussed, the norm is avoidance of the topic. We apparently prefer to subsidize the storage of people’s automobiles (MW) over providing for bodily requirements that impact everyone’s ability to be a fully functioning human. Traverse City has spent $7-$10 million a piece building two parking decks in the last decade and lacked the foresight to spend the extra clams to include public bathrooms in the structures.  An aside: what is the connection to constipation levels and a lack of clean, inviting public toilets? How does that impact driving behavior? (Yes, these are the things I think about.)

Click for full transparency.

Toilets per person

Back in 2007, the info-graphic team at Good Magazine showed the dearth of public amenities in major Cities in the U.S. Ignoring New York, renowned for a lack of stalls and where Starbuck employees recently started pushing back (NYTimes), the graphic shows our major cities failing in the toilet department. San Francisco provides 1 toilet for every 30,000 people; Boston, 571,429 restrooms per person. Beijing shows a public toilet for every 3,191.

From what I hear, Boston is a great place to walk around. New York, the same. At the same time, walking around Manhattan for a full day you quickly realize the lack of facilities. It can lead to some critical moments in search of a friendly business–hopefully, one that doesn’t require a purchase as there are only so many coffee drinks one can consume in day. Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing, introduced here on Monday, devotes much space deconstructing the human & environmental impact the lack of public toilets has in New York City.

Nature will call

I imagine a lot of Michigan towns and cities are like Traverse City. Amenities are available if you look, but they are typically dated, undesirable, not open, or simply not located near activity centers. Midwestern hospitality has led to a few establishments that openly allow use of restrooms without a purchase. However, that is less than perfect. Finding these “public friendly” toilets is difficult unless you’re in the know and then they tend to be in the back of stores which decreases the comfort level if you aren’t there to shop and the location is certainly not intuitive. Relying on private businesses to provide amenities is an added tax on them and doesn’t provide equitable opportunity for the diverse make-up of visitors to a community.

I’ll admit it again, I am a public toilet enthusiast. To encourage people to be active and enjoy our public spaces, it behooves all parties concerned to treat people with dignity and respect. Those who advocate for more sidewalks, bike lanes, better transit, more tourism dollars, better public health, a cleaner environment, and for people to stop peeing in the alleys all benefit from advocating for and supporting efforts for more and improved public toilets. Politically, it is difficult to fund public toilets. There aren’t many grants available to fund public restrooms, so local governments need to find the money locally to make them a priority.

As residents of the City, many of whom understand the desire for a more walkable community, it’s important we not look past fundamental needs for privacy, dignity and comfort for those brief moments in our days when nature calls.

Are you a public toilet enthusiast?



  • Public Toilet

    In Portland, PLUSH formed to advocate for public restrooms: “PHLUSH believes that toilet availability is a human right and that well-designed sanitation facilities restore health to our cities, our waters and our soils.”

  • Nationally, the American Restroom Association  formed to advocate “for the availability of clean, safe, well designed public restrooms.
  • And, throughly impressive, is the Australian National Public Toilet Map project run by the National Continence Management Strategy and is funded by the federal government–radical Aussies.



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  1. Bruce
    February 8, 2012 at 3:00 pm

    Are you a public toilet enthusiast?
    Aren’t’ all Gay men public toilet enthusiast’s?
    I’d bet they can hardly wait for the Clinch Park bath house to open.
    The new Bay Front will be the main attraction in Traverse City, listed in Cruising for Sex Magazine.

  2. February 8, 2012 at 8:38 pm

    I love the consideration you are giving this. Public restrooms are definitely a common and practical good that American cities have a horrible record on – as you stated. And given downtown Traverse City’s great and growing success as a backdrop for public gathering and tourism, it’s certainly time to seriously consider this practical need. Better than blowing $1mil on a crummy tunnel!!

  3. Raymond Minervini
    February 13, 2012 at 1:56 pm

    Agree with your observations, Gary. Absent any big change in road funding going to public bathrooms, I think a modest pay-for-use for clean public bathrooms is reasonable. 25 or 50 cents, maybe?

  1. March 5, 2012 at 5:55 pm

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