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There’s a very good chance that some time during the coming day you’ll need to use the toilet. There’s also a fair chance that you’ll have to use a public toilet at a railway station, department store, at a bar or on an aircraft. Depending on where the call of nature hits, it could be a pleasant experience or it could be truly horrific, leaving you splashed, embarrassed, infected and far less than relieved. There’s also a very real possibility that, despite your desperate searching, there’ll be no facility at all and you’ll be making some very difficult decisions.
This column frequently covers the ongoing war on travel (the obtuse regulations, the short-sighted cost-cutting, the bad service, passengers who should have their passports shredded); occasionally it covers the war on trees, as developers and cities choose to plant fewer mature oaks and zelkovas (and even chop down handsome maples) because they’re expensive to maintain and pose health risks. Today, it’s time to address the secret war that’s being waged against public toilets and its impact on a needy public.
It’s hard to say who is responsible for closing the lavatories after passport control at Heathrow’s Terminal 5, why public loos have been forgotten from a considerable chunk of the Crossrail infrastructure in London or why big grocery stores don’t make toilets readily available for their customers. As developed economies see their populations age (and bladders become more needy and bowels more irritable), smart businesses and governments should be doing more, not less, to make toilets readily available rather than treating them like a secret, or a luxury reserved for a chosen few.
If you’re lucky enough to spend time in Japan, you’ll know that its public toilets are more of a right than a privilege. More often than not, you’ll find proper toilets at the entrance to pocket parks in major cities, on railway platforms, every 75 metres along an airport concourse, on all floors of a department store, at points along major highways (Japanese rest-stops are particularly elaborate) and in convenience stores across the country.
In fact, Tokyo’s bountiful supply of public toilets played a key part in the city’s Olympic bid (and subsequent win to host the 2020 summer games) as the organising committee argued that clean, readily available toilets were an essential part of welcoming the world and making them feel comfortable. A vote winner if ever I’ve heard one. I have no proof that Japanese businesses have conducted a study on the relationship between supplying tidy toilets and subsequent transactions, but I am sure they have: why else would they put toilets front and centre at branches of convenience stories such as Lawson and 7-Eleven, rather than hiding them?
On a recent visit to a branch of Lawson in Tokyo, I noted that not only was the toilet in that particular store well used, but also that every person who came out then purchased something. A woman bought an umbrella and some gum, a young gent bought four cans of beer and a magazine and a mother (with two kids in tow) purchased a pack of animal crackers and some cosmetics. While Japanese consumers have gone beyond feeling guilty about using these facilities, there seems to be an unwritten contract that you’ll buy something if you use the toilet. Or it might be as simple as 24-hour businesses feeling that it’s a necessary convenience that they should offer to a shop-happy nation. It’s surprising that retailers elsewhere haven’t done the same thing.
Last weekend I met a gentleman from Paris who said his family’s company was the biggest operator of public toilets in the world – a claim he seemed rightfully proud of. He was passionate not only about the essential service he was offering in cities around the world, but also about the technology his colleagues were developing to offer better, cleaner and safer facilities.
As we chatted, I thought about the need for a new global standard for public facilities to address issues of privacy, hygiene and safety. Given the regulation surrounding more mundane daily functions, why shouldn’t there be a rethink on those saloon-style toilet doors in the US and Canada that offer next to no privacy and put users’ panties and boxers on display? Couldn’t it be standard to have modesty audio playing in multi-stall lavatories? Why not have proper hooks or shelves for bags and coats at urinals? And what about bringing back attendants in places where security is an issue, rather than just closing down public toilets?
Bill Gates is doing admirable work on improving sanitation in the developing world. There’s room for our gentleman from Paris to make a tidy business out of improving the lot for the world’s wealthier (yet still suffering) economies.
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine
More columns at ft.com/brule