Public Washrooms

You’re out, maybe with some friends, downtown. You’re having a good time nowhere in particular, bouncing between bars and venues as the mood strikes you, when something else strikes you. The need to pee. 

It hits hard, as it often does when alcohol boosts your need and lowers your ability to recognize or care about it; you only realize you need to pee when you need to pee now

Where to go? You know the businesses in this area don’t let people use the washroom unless they’re a customer, and you don’t fancy buying a $9 mojito just for the right to piss in dignity. Besides, it would only make the problem worse. 

You look for a public washroom, but alas. There’s only around 400 in Ottawa, Canada, for example, and half of them aren’t even open. There’s none around, and your bladder is getting increasingly frantic. 

But mercy! A bush! Around a corner, with room to scoot in behind and shield yourself from public eyes. Sweet relief. 

At least until you turn around and see a Montréal bylaw officer, ticket in hand. There’s over $300 gone.

It is absurd that peeing in public is a bylaw violation in some cities, and completely illegal in others, when there is a distinct lack of public facilities to pee in. Imagine if sneezing in public were illegal, and most businesses had a “customers-sneezing-area only” sign, and were only too happy to call law enforcement on strangers wandering in to sneeze. Most of us would be pretty damn frustrated at getting a sneezing citation, especially if it were a few hundred dollars, and would object. “It’s not my fault I had to sneeze. It’s not optional, and sometimes I’m going to be out in public and have to sneeze. The only way I could never have to sneeze in public, if there’s nowhere to sneeze, is if I stay at home, which is insane.” 

Public washrooms are part-and-parcel to public living. I’m all for markets and private interest handling things, and I’d be happy to see the city take competitive bids to build and maintain public washrooms. But one way or another, lack of access to public washrooms is absurd, at least so long as public excretion comes with financial penalties. 

It’s pretty easy to understand why many think it should be illegal to urinate or defecate in public. It’s gross. I don’t want to see anyone doing it, and if we’re out in public I don’t want to have to see that. I can look away of course, nobody’s forcing me to watch, but I’d rather not have to be around it, in general. Most people can probably agree on that. 

The problem is, the reaction was to say “that’s gross and shouldn’t be allowed,” without consideration for the broader implications of that. Urination and defecation aren’t voluntary, and aren’t always predictable. Various conditions can limit or defeat your ability to predict when you’ve gotta go. Like being a child, for instance. 

Part of it is a privilege factor, of course. For some of us, $300 is a nuisance; for others, it’s their food budget. And not all of us have equal ease accessing non-public washrooms. As a white, middle-class male, I don’t doubt I have a much easier time than others walking into a restaurant to use the washroom. Accessibility in a more literal sense can be a problem too; if I were in a wheelchair and every business on this street only has stairs, I’m out of luck. 

So we’re trying to ban a non-voluntary, necessary behaviour. That’s a problem, for obvious reasons.

Ok, fair, everyone’s gotta go. But why can’t you do it at home? Or at a restaurant? Why can’t we still ban public urination and defecation? 

We can, if we provide the means for people to avoid it. Private property is not  public property; you don’t have the automatic right to go in and use their facilities. “That’s absurd,” you might say. “What’s the big deal for a restaurant to just let people in?” 

Well, many restaurants and businesses already don’t let people use their washrooms as if they were public facilities, and even public institutions like libraries often require you to get a key from the front desk to use the facilities. If you’ve really got to go, whether because it snuck up on you or because you have a condition, that might not be an option.

Some say the solution is to force private companies and businesses to let the public use their facilities. I don’t agree. First, that’s acknowledging the problem, and the public responsibility for it, but kicking the burden to private businesses. That’s unfair and unreasonable. It may not seem like much for restaurants to be forced to let randoms in to use the facilities, but on a busy Friday where they’re already packed to capacity, it could be a significant logistical problem for them (both in a capacity and maintenance sense).

And, you are probably thinking of restaurants, because we already tend to think of them as at least semi-public places. But they aren’t, not really. They’re private businesses and private property like any other. 

Would we force restaurants alone to open their bathroom doors? All businesses? Grocery stores, coffee shops, gas stations, restaurants, clothing stores, marketing firms, hairdressers, dry cleaners? 

If we’re willing to acknowledge that it’s a public problem, why does it make sense to push it onto the private sector? 

As long as pissing in public is illegal, a lack of public washrooms is absurd. One has to go. 

Photo from TVO.

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About the Author: Connor Lynch

Connor is a professional journalist from Ottawa, Canada. He is the Editor in Chief of Speaking Liberally and a contributor.

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