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(image: unname restroom in Chicago)
Ultimately, every single person uses restrooms, either at home, at work, or in public settings. The ability to use a toilet, or urinal, to wash one’s hands or look in a mirror, to blow a nose, to change a baby or help someone use the restroom themselves, is a stunningly underrated and underappreciated practice. The past few years have seen the marked increase in personal mobile telephones and hydration devices, but not in public restroom access. It can also be argued that more people are now suffering from conditions causing frequent or urgent restroom use, such as diabetes or Chron’s disease, than ever before. Yet, the technology that has given us urinal video games and state-of-the-art hand dryers has not offered more accessible restrooms. Not that these improvements to restroom assets is negligible, as it does promote more talk and thought into restroom design, but emphasis needs to be placed on the nuts and bolts of restroom access.
The research methods and results offered by this study is an attempt to quantify the vague, discuss the uncomfortable, and include the excluded. It was an enjoyable yet difficult project, both personally and logistically. Primary data is always more difficult to acquire and analyze than second-hand data collected by others, which is what occurred far too often in similar studies and projects in the past. The role of the Geographer is to navigate across disciplines and tie together seemingly disparate subject matter to offer a unique and novel way of looking at the world around us. Hopefully, this study is only the beginning of a new way of examining public restroom access.
(image modified from:
Of the ubiquitous public assets that people have come to expect to find in public spaces, including water fountains, pay phones, trash cans and restrooms, public restrooms are the asset with the fewest alternative options. While the use of water bottles and mobile phones has become more commonplace, there is seemingly no adequate proxy for a restroom.
In a public restroom, we are reminded not only of how much we depend on public spaces and the assets found there, but also of the people we share those places with. This brings up the first question this study will address: where are the public restrooms, and how does one find them? For example, one of the nicest things to have while driving cross-country is a Wal-Mart brand US Atlas. Not only does it have all the major roads in every state and convenient tables of distances between key cities, it also has the location of every Wal-Mart along the way, which is great for on-the-go oil changes, last minute shopping, and restrooms. Wal-Marts consistently have usable, public restrooms in highly visible (easy to find) locations. While on the road, away from home, and one needs to go, there is no higher comfort in knowing exactly where one can find exactly what one needs. This study will address the first question by creating accurate, first-hand verified toilet maps for downtown Chicago.
(image: Hilton Chicago Hotel)
As a graduate student interested in both advancing my education and finding a job to pay for my education, I tend to go to a lot of conferences. Or rather, I go to as many conferences as my school will provide funding for (thanks US Education grants!). The terms are pretty straightforward; if I present my research, and the conference is based in the USA, then they’ll fund me. This is really an awesome and generous gift, and I feel well lucky to have these opportunities. Sometimes, of course, I will not receive funding, and that’s when I get to put those student loan dollars to work.
Due to the nature of my primary research, public restrooms, I get a kick out of asking restroom questions related to session talks. This catches most people off-guard, because, who asks about restrooms when discussing retail store development and planning? I did just this at the recent ICSC Research Connections Conference in Chicago. The response to my question was a simple: “No, we don’t consider restrooms in our planning process”, which was pretty much what I expected. I could have phrased the question better, but I achieved my goal of asking a question (with a microphone) in a large panel session, and getting noticed. Now I’m not one for high-power, fast-talking networking situations, but I do make an effort. This later led to conversations with other people who were curious/interested in my work. While this may not lead to a job, at least I’m putting myself out there and practicing describing (and defending) public restroom research. I’m also putting the idea in people’s minds that restrooms are both important and under-valued. People need to talk about this, by golly.
All this brings me to my next restroom and conference related point, and that is women’s restrooms. I came across a startling blog by a young woman who attend a programming conference in St Louis, and discovered, much to her horror, that the female restrooms had been converted to male restrooms, and the far-away family restroom (a single-occupant type place) had been converted to the female restroom. The rationale was that there are so many more men than women at these sorts of conferences, or perhaps at this conference in particular, that someone decided this was an OK idea. As far as I understand, there was no discussion with the conference attendees, no notice in the program, no memo, no fax, it just happened. And it happened because people do not discuss restroom politics, or at least not openly.
This needs to change. I might get a kick out of being novel, but it shouldn’t be that way. Why is something that everybody does so off the discussion table? Why not plan for people to change their babies and carry out normal bodily functions? I don’t have to text and play Words With Friends, yet everyone is so excited by mobile application development. But I do have to go to the bathroom, and while I see the excitement there, I see no restroom agenda. At least, not yet. I’m hoping to change that.
(image: Thrift Store in Crescent City, CA)
I always find it hard to believe when places say they have no restrooms. Downtown Chicago is literally littered with signs saying “No Public Restrooms” or “Restrooms for Customers Only”, as if no one understands that most businesses will require you to patronize their facility in order to fulfill a basic human need as fundamentally important as going to the bathroom. Of course, I understand that these businesses do not want people to just walk in off the street and use their bathroom, but the feeling of seeing all those signs is mighty depressing.
However, not all businesses operate this way. During a conversation with a coworker the other day, the topic of fast food restaurants came up in an unlikely positive light. It goes like this: most fast food joints have front doors and side doors, with the side doors located close to the restrooms. This placement seems to encourage people to just pop in and use the restroom, then continue on their way without becoming an actual customer. I don’t know if this is the real reason for the side door, or if it serves as an easy exit option, but it sure is handy.
One solution would be to adopt restroom policies as seem on the West Coast and in Europe, where there are 24-hour, free-standing restrooms open to the public. Some of these are pay-to-play, but having the ability to just go to the restroom instead of becoming a “customer” and buying something just to, again, fulfill a basic human need, seems much nicer.
I welcome your comments or thoughts on the matter, and would love to hear if you have a great restroom story, or an opinion on the best places to go when you gotta go.
Restrooms are awesome. Fact. In college, I once lived in a house with seven other people in five bedrooms, all sharing one bathroom. Somehow, there was never a problem, except for this one time during finals week, but that’s not important now. What’s important is what was in that bathroom. It had everything one could hope for; from a shower tub to a sink, bathroom mat, window for ventilation, plenty of lights, a good mirror and a washer/dryer unit. It was also larger than my first Chicago apartment. Now the washer and dryer are not all that relevant when discussing public restrooms, I just wanted to add that in so you got the picture.
So the question is, what do you want in a public restroom? I’ve been asking this question for a while now, and I’ve gotten a variety of answers. What’s interesting is that different people care about different things. Myself, I’m never happy with single stall restrooms unless they’re of the unisex, single-shooter, variety. I don’t want to be the only one doing number two. That may sound weird, but I prefer the company of others so that I cannot be singled out for doing my business. I also prefer paper towels over hot air dryers, unless the dryer is the sweet new Dyson type and I’m not in a rush. Paper towels are nice because you can dry at your own pace, and you can always take an extra one or two with you. I like do-it-yourself type faucets and soap dispensers, as the automatic ones rarely function properly. I once saw an automatic soap dispenser at a fancy hotel in San Diego that was improperly aligned or something and would continue to shoot out soap as you rinsed your hands, leaving a slimy ooze pool all over the side of the sink. The last thing I would add is stall doors that go all the way to the floor, and dividing walls at the urinals. This may not be great for cleaning the restroom, but it is great for feelings of privacy and safety. There’s a rest area off I-64 in West Virginia that’s nailed this concept, and I used to stop there every chance I got.
Please feel free to leave a comment, or your answer to what do you want in a public restroom. I think there’s not enough user input into what should be there, or how restrooms should be designed. Importance is placed on price (make it cheap) and capacity (urinal troughs) rather than comfort and safety. Perhaps if there was a more active voice advocating public restroom policy, somebody would care.
A recent article in Chicago’s free daily newspaper, the Redeye, caught my eye this morning. The article is about how the restrooms at the Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel are being nominated for the America’s Best Restroom award by Cintas, the organization that gave last year’s (2011) award to the Field Museum. This reminded me how restroom culture is treated here in the United States. Far from the techie pop-culture way restrooms are treated abroad, as seen in Japan, here restrooms are treated for the most part with mild disdain. The New York Times recently published an article that encapsulates most people’s feelings about public restrooms: gross.
Of course, all this changes when people start thinking about truly remarkable restrooms. And businesses are listening. There’s even a YouTube video about awesome restrooms in Chicago, where it seems some bars are using restroom design to lure in customers, and keep them coming back. It makes sense. Places with good restrooms, especially businesses like restaurants and bars, get known for how comfortable it is to go to the bathroom there. This means you’ll be more likely to linger at their establishment instead of pressing on when nature calls.
On a recent visit to Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park in California, my girlfriend and I experienced first-hand the difference well-designed restrooms make. After one night of rather pricey camping, our visits to the clean and well-lit restrooms and showers there made us decide to spend another night camping instead of moving on to another park. While these restroom examples all stem from pay-to-play environments and not true public restrooms, it is good to note what others are doing right, and how we can improve public restroom access for all.
So I just got back from two weeks in Oregon, which is one of the most beautiful states I have ever visited. Between the forests and mountains and deserts and lakes and the coast along the ocean, not to mention the amazing people and cities, this was a totally dissimilar experience that what goes on here in my flatter, farmier, Chicagoier, Illinois. Which isn’t to say that Illinois and Chicago aren’t great places to be, it was just a huge change of pace.
My girlfriend and I travelled the entire state, from Portland to the Redwoods, putting a little over 1500 miles on a sweet little Chevy Cruz rental. Of course, whatever we went, I always kept an eye out for public restrooms.
The first thing we did was meet-up with Carol and the fine folks of PHLUSH, and take a tour of the brand-new Portland Loos. These are free, free-standing, 24-hour public restrooms in downtown Portland. There are about 6 of them now, with a very simple design, available to everyone, rich or poor. The walls do not go all the way down to the floor, so while people feel protected from onlookers while doing their business, they are encouraged not too dawdle or get to engrossed in their books or phones while they’re in there. Also, the “handwashing” station is located on the outside, which is a huge boon in the fight against public restroom germs: you no longer have to fear the door handle, because you wash your hands afterwards anyway. The only issue is that there is no soap, only a water spout. I’m not 100% sure on the reason for this, but perhaps this will be upgraded in the near future.
As awesome as the Portland Loos are, and many congratulations to PHLUSH for getting these installed, the restrooms in Oregon have other things to offer the public. For one, all restrooms in Portland seem to come equipped with multiple coat hooks, probably to place the obligatory rain coats on during the rainy 7 – 10 months out of the year. Luckily, this was not an issue for us. The other thing of note was their signage and pride in their restrooms. Restroom signs were noticeably visible in public, making the restrooms themselves easier to find. A cashier at a smallish supermarket downstate not only directed us to her store’s restrooms, but stopped us before we left to ask how we enjoyed our time there. Evidently they were designed by a local artist, and were the pride of the store, if not the town.
All in all the restroom culture of Oregon much reflects the people, and culture, of Oregon: friendly, open, and relaxed. I’ll try to post some restroom pictures up here soon. Please shoot me an email and share your restroom stories! Until next time…
Well, my last blog here got picked up by PHLUSH (Public Hygiene Let’s Us Stay Human), which is an awesome restroom research and advocacy group out in Portland, OR. Here’s a link to their website: http://www.phlush.org/
Shout out to Carol and Abby for making that happen, and special mention to my research partner (and girlfriend) Stephanie for the loads of help with the restroom mapping in the field. Also I’d like to thank my thesis committee for believing this to be a worthy research project: Drs. Block, Bouman and Mulugeta at Chicago State University.
I haven’t written here as much as I would have liked, especially considering the fact that I’ve been independently researching public restrooms for practically my whole life. Here I’d like to give you some history as to why I have this passion, urge, and necessity to better understand this ofttimes unmentionable topic.
A few years back, in what seems like another life, I was mapping utility lines. This involved driving around in a Jeep Wrangler, following various electrical, cable, telephone and fiber optics lines wherever they went, and marking them on a map using GIS software. The areas include: busy downtown city centers, remote rural landscapes, and people’s backyards. I did this for an amazing company called VentureSum, based out of North Carolina. Later on, I became a regional manager, and my territory was: West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana and Michigan. Beautiful parts of the country, to be sure.
The problem with driving for a living is that there’s no bathroom in your office. Instead, you have to rely on public restrooms along the way.
The day starts with the hotel lobby restroom. Often I’d be sharing a hotel room with a coworker, whatever city/state we were working in that week, and the morning bathroom time is a special time that sometimes requires a bit of planning. Thus I discovered how underused hotel lobby restrooms were, and would usually plan my morning schedule based on its availability.
After this, I would drive to my work area, wherever I left off the day before, and keep in my mind the location of the nearest public restroom while I worked. I kept this mental restroom map in my head based on what I saw as I drove to my area, places like a Walmart or Target were the best, because you knew where in the store they were located (and where the back-up locations were, such as by the auto care area in Walmarts). Also, you didn’t have to talk to anybody. I was never a customer on a restroom break, so places like gas stations and fast-food restaurants were second in terms of priority, because usually you had to ask for a key, or at least felt watched as you walk in and out without buying anything. Sure, this isn’t a big deal for some people, but when you do this every day, sometimes several times a day, it becomes an issue. The two reasons I always knew where the closest restrooms were are: 1) not wanting to waste time driving around when I should be working, and 2) not wanting to waste time driving around when I really needed to go. In rural areas, this was less of an issue as I could find a spot to do number one (and rarely number two), but in a city you run the risk of getting into trouble, and that would be both awkward for me and my company.
The wildcard in public restrooms is of course the supermarket (or grocery store). They have restrooms, but they aren’t always in the same place. People rarely use supermarket restrooms, especially in smaller stores with poor signage, so it’s a safe place to be in once you get there (e.g. not crowded so you get immediate access). However, depending on the store and size, they can be found: near the front entrance, near the bakery, near the dairy, near a little café, or even back by the meat counter in what looks like an employees only area, but is actually a public restroom AND an employees only area, a bit of a grey zone. Walking the perimeter of the store will usually yield the restroom’s location, but sometimes you have to ask somebody, which can mean more time.
Overall, this constant keeping of restroom maps in my head ingrained the idea in me of how important public restroom access truly is. Sure, parents always say to use the bathroom before you leave the house, and from an early age people are obsessed with our various bodily outputs, but when you’re at home or school or work in an office, the restroom is just obvious. You know where it is, what to expect when you get in there, and worse case you have to wait a few minutes. This all changes when you’re out and about in public. Some places charge you to go to the bathroom, some places are unsafe or unsavory or do not have the amenities you require (e.g. baby changing stations). Some places lie to your face and say they have no restroom, or tell you the truth and say they do not want you to use it because you’ll probably poop everywhere.
If any of this strikes a chord with you, feel free to contact me with your own restroom story or ideology. Alright then, until next time.
Whenever people ask me how I came up with the idea for my master’s thesis, I refer them to the seminal work by Taro Gomi, “Everybody Poops”. This usually gets a few laughs, after which a real discussion can begin. I employ much the same method when doing my fieldwork. Walking around downtown Chicago mapping public restrooms may seem a strange occupation to some, but the issue is very real, and very important. However, it requires the right approach. Internationally, much work has been done to create accurate maps of restroom locations, most notably the National Public Toilet Map of Australia (http://www.toiletmap.gov.au/) and England’s Toilet Map (http://www.toiletmap.co.uk/). Some work has been done in the United States as well, but they are often found to be inaccurate (e.g. https://www.sitorsquat.com/).
My research concerns public restroom access in downtown Chicago. Some of my research questions are: where are the public restrooms, why are they there, and how do restroom assets differ between men, women, and the handicapped? My approach is to venture forth in the city with a female research partner (usually my girlfriend, bless her heart), armed with a map and survey forms, and attempt to go to the bathroom in as many places as possible. We take down information such as number of: stalls, handicap stalls, urinals, children urinals, sinks, soap dispensers, paper towel dispensers, hot air hand dryers, baby changing stations and tampon machines. We also record how the restroom is accessed (e.g. stairs, elevator, escalator), and a subjective rating about safety and cleanliness.
I have been working on this project since the Fall of 2011, and so far have mapped over 200 restrooms, and been refused at only two locations. Most people are open to the idea, either because of the novelty of studying public restrooms, or the feeling of unity they get when they really think about going to the bathroom in a public space. And yet, this is not a subject that is widely discussed. Sure there are any number of rants on YouTube where people talk about how much they hate public restrooms, and there is talk of an upcoming walking tour in Chicago visiting prominent female restrooms, but no one is really asking where the public restrooms are, and why are they there? The fact that the ratio of baby changing stations is nearly 2 to 1 in female to male restrooms (from preliminary results of my study) isn’t all that surprising, but is that right? How do single fathers feel about that? How come there are still public restrooms with NO handicap accessible stalls? Why do zero hotels offer baby changing stations in their lobby restrooms? These are all good questions, and I hope to find some answers, however unpleasant the truth may be.
Welcome to my restroom blog.