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"They’re not as crappy as other cities' toilets."
January 25, 2012 9:14 AM   Subscribe

Why Portland's Public Toilets Succeeded Where Others Failed. A short documentary on the Portland Loo. Official website.
posted by OverlappingElvis (65 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
Well I know it's not because they have less of a smack problem...
posted by Artw at 9:25 AM on January 25, 2012


We have public toilets?
posted by sourbrew at 9:25 AM on January 25, 2012


The story of Seattle's loos makes me sad... they were these swish cyberloos from the future, which in a fit of madness they put out right next to the cities densest population of smackheads and homeless people. Look! A tiny shelter + shooting gallery, for your convenience! I think they all lasted about a week.
posted by Artw at 9:28 AM on January 25, 2012


Do you have to bring your own toilet paper or is the dude with the bike swiping some in that pic?
posted by FreezBoy at 9:29 AM on January 25, 2012


I think I recall reading a Reader's Digest "That's Outrageous" article calling those Seattle toilets evidence that government can't do anything right and that the lower class ruins everything.

That's part of why I don't read RD anymore, even at the dentist's office.
posted by mccarty.tim at 9:30 AM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Or maybe it was some other magazine. It's like half a memory.
posted by mccarty.tim at 9:31 AM on January 25, 2012


Portland has a public toilet advocacy group, PHLUSH.
posted by rainperimeter at 9:31 AM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


FreezBoy: "Do you have to bring your own toilet paper or is the dude with the bike swiping some in that pic?"

From the comments:
I'm the guy in the picture. That toilet paper was given out as part of the inaugural First Flush on World Toilet Day. Here are more pictures from the event: http://mikevogel.com/?cat=33 (I still have that roll of TP in my office.)
posted by octothorpe at 9:32 AM on January 25, 2012


I prefer to think that the guy in the picture rolled into the stall for privacy, dropped a deuce without getting off his bike, and is now pedaling away briskly with what's left of his TP supply.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 9:37 AM on January 25, 2012


Here are some public, downtown restrooms. There are some in places like Powell's or Pioneer Place mall that are also easy to use.
posted by rainperimeter at 9:39 AM on January 25, 2012


I have a question -- the article states that the Seattle ones were problematic because one could lock the door from the inside. Do the Portland ones not lock? What is to stop someone from busting in on you?
posted by capnsue at 9:39 AM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Love the sense of openness of that toilet. I remember waiting the 7 minutes maximum cycle for one in SF, only to see a brief flash of a heroin junkie passed out on the floor before the door closed and latched for the next cycle. The person behind me went to flag down a cop, and I ran to find a restroom elsewhere.

This is, by all accounts, not an uncommon problem in SF. If I'd been able to see that there was an unconscious person on the floor, and the subsequent cop could have verified that information quickly, I wouldn't have been hopping up and down on crossed legs for nearly as long.
posted by straw at 9:40 AM on January 25, 2012


Here in Canada, we have Tim Hortons.
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:41 AM on January 25, 2012 [6 favorites]


We have public toilets?

As a tourist, I don't recall ever managing to find a public toilet in Portland—or at least on that was more than a metal cage. It took me an hour to find one in the basement of that shopping mall behind Pioneer Courthouse, and resorted to popping into a Safeways or fastfood restaurants the rest of the time. Maybe they are out there, but it really annoyed me that I had to waste time looking for somewhere to pee.
posted by Jehan at 9:42 AM on January 25, 2012


In London we have urinals which rise out of the ground. I dread to think what happens if you get caught with your pants down while it's retracting.
posted by lucidium at 9:45 AM on January 25, 2012


which in a fit of madness they put out right next to the cities densest population of smackheads and homeless people. Look! A tiny shelter + shooting gallery, for your convenience!

You know, you could look at it as homeless people ruining the public toilets for everybody, or you could ask yourself why there are people in our society for whom sheltering in a public toilet is an improvement in their lives.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 9:51 AM on January 25, 2012 [42 favorites]


In London we have urinals which rise out of the ground.

Great. It's like we are living in an anime, except, instead of fighting aliens with our transforming streets, we are fighting scofflaw urinaters. Nice work, future!
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:52 AM on January 25, 2012


You know, you could look at it as homeless people ruining the public toilets for everybody, or you could ask yourself why there are people in our society for whom sheltering in a public toilet is an improvement in their lives.

Well, I could look at it like that, but the toilets still would have been a waste of money - money that could gone straight into helping the homeless or even giving people a place to piss that wasn't going to be instantly destroyed.
posted by Artw at 9:55 AM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Here in Canada, we have Tim Hortons.

Here in NYC we apparently have the corner by my house, all summer long.
posted by elizardbits at 10:12 AM on January 25, 2012 [4 favorites]


We also have the space between subway cars.
posted by jonmc at 10:20 AM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


The corner by elizardbits's house is one of the best places to urinate. Far better than any Starbucks. I totally recommend it.
posted by grouse at 10:25 AM on January 25, 2012 [8 favorites]


> which in a fit of madness they put out right next to the cities densest population of smackheads and homeless people. Look! A tiny shelter + shooting gallery, for your convenience! I think they all lasted about a week.

It sounds like the public toilets aren't the problem, the fact that they are the best option around is. Maybe if we had safe injection sites and better homeless care, it wouldn't have had such a bad wrap.

As someone who lived on the hill near the one on Broadway, it was a shame because it was in a place that could use it (near the park, in the dead zone between the community college and north broadway), but that also meant it was used by those who didn't have anywhere else to go.

And I thought it looked like an entrance to a secret Thunderbirds lair.
posted by mrzarquon at 10:28 AM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


There's discussions on whether San Francisco is ready for public pissoirs in Dolores Park.
I'd be all for them but understandable there are questions of access/propriety/ etc...
posted by bottlebrushtree at 10:31 AM on January 25, 2012


Looking at Portland's toilets, they are designed to minimize lingering, so they are definitely an improvement over the totally enclosed and abused Seattle toilets. I've passed the Seattle toilet a one time where a guy was pissed that his buddy had nodded off with his stash inside and was pounding on the door to try to wake him so he could shoot up. Then again, the poor staff at the Jack in the Box had to deal with people passing out in their bathroom as well.

Vancouver BC has even more automated public toilets. And you know what else they have? A supervised injection site (that constantly needs to fight to stay open, maybe they should work with the public toilet proponents to prove it helps everyone).
posted by mrzarquon at 10:39 AM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


the article states that the Seattle ones were problematic because one could lock the door from the inside.

All public toilets lock from the inside, or else they would be kind of useless. The ones in Seattle had an automatic door that locked for you. It would give you a set amount of time and an alarm before opening if you hadn't opened it already. You could push reset and it would give you a shorter amount of more time. After that a loud alarm would sound off, the door would automatically open againn and again, and generally make for an unpleasant stay. From what I saw, that didn't bother the smackheads much, but I never saw anyone setting up a sleeping area or anything.

ArtW is right. though. I lived right across the street from one in Chinatown, and it was located in a park where drugdealers, drugheads, homeless, and assorted vagrants hang out at all times of day and night.
posted by P.o.B. at 10:43 AM on January 25, 2012


Sometimes this city is so progressive it's almost fucking annoying. It's like an older sibling that can do no wrong. But you still can't help loving them.
posted by gottabefunky at 10:46 AM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


In other words, mitigating problems for druggies and homeless is one thing. Setting up an enclosed area with a toilet right in the middle of where these people congregate AND is not meant specifically for them is another.
posted by P.o.B. at 10:47 AM on January 25, 2012


Why didn't they put in junkie lights? They were all over the place in Europe a few years ago. Violent lights that make it difficult to find a vein. Or do the junkies just use lighters?
posted by Diablevert at 10:49 AM on January 25, 2012


I thought it worked because they put a bird on it.
posted by birdherder at 10:50 AM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


> Why didn't they put in junkie lights? They were all over the place in Europe a few years ago. Violent lights that make it difficult to find a vein. Or do the junkies just use lighters?

Last I heard, folks figured out if they used a highlighter to mark the vein before they went in, it would be even easier to find in under the light.
posted by mrzarquon at 10:50 AM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Junkies are basically The Tragedy of the Commons x10000, and anything for public use that is within range of junkies should be designed with that in mind or it will be destroyed. Seattle should have thought about that and gone the Portland route then invested the extra money in homeless shelters or supervised injection sites, however they did not, because they were stupid.
posted by Artw at 10:52 AM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


They also should've probably had a top end for how much they spent. I'm not sure who thought a cool million per commode was reasonable, but I'm guessing it was the same person who picked out the spots.
posted by P.o.B. at 10:54 AM on January 25, 2012


I used to walk past one of the Seattle toilets on my daily route. It was always occupied, even when nobody was out walking around. I think we should just make attractive private spaces for shooting up, and then maybe the junkies will leave the restrooms alone.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 10:56 AM on January 25, 2012


Looks like public urination and/or defacation has been problem associated with city living which has not been resolved at least since the days of Pompeii. A sampling of graffii from the walls of Pompeii.

III.5.1 (House of Pascius Hermes; left of the door); 7716: To the one defecating here. Beware of the curse. If you look down on this curse, may you have an angry Jupiter for an enemy.

V.5 (just outside the Vesuvius gate); 6641: Defecator, may everything turn out okay so that you can leave this place

Herculaneum (on a water distribution tower); 10488: Anyone who wants to defecate in this place is advised to move along. If you act contrary to this warning, you will have to pay a penalty. Children must pay [number missing] silver coins. Slaves will be beaten on their behinds.
posted by Gwynarra at 10:56 AM on January 25, 2012 [7 favorites]


I'm curious to hear from some from the Portland people though. I find it hard to believe those things are not frequented by drug users.
posted by P.o.B. at 10:56 AM on January 25, 2012


This is still my favorite outdoor public toilet
posted by Mchelly at 11:04 AM on January 25, 2012


Portland's have succeeded where other IN THE US have failed. Our three automated toilets in Calgary have been a success. They're not paradise but they have done their job and have done it beautifully.

Tomkins Park and two on the East Village Riverwalk near the public square in front of the Simmons warehouse. More to come.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 11:04 AM on January 25, 2012


These definitely seem more similar to the traditional Parisian vespasienne aka pissoir than almost any other design I've seen, although unlike a street urinal a No. 2 is also possible.

All public toilets lock from the inside, or else they would be kind of useless.

Well, sitting down has a higher privacy requirement, but if you're making them for just male urination you can go the vespasienne route and just provide a curved privacy screen. For lots of reasons, including sexism, that's pretty much passé.

No reviews yet of the NYC automated toilets, though? They seem similar in principle to the Seattle approach.
posted by dhartung at 11:08 AM on January 25, 2012


Sure, but if it was just up to allowing men to have a spot, most males would admit all they need is about a minute of privacy in an alley.
posted by P.o.B. at 11:16 AM on January 25, 2012


My daughter has used behind a drape at the Sheraton Seattle Hotel as a convenient spot for a "nature pee". Not sure that's for everyone though...
posted by Artw at 11:20 AM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hey, if you gotta go...
posted by P.o.B. at 11:25 AM on January 25, 2012


Hmm. These are great for what they are. In certain high-traffic areas, though, I'd combine toilets with other things, maybe several toilets, at least one all-night store, a bank machine, a real live toilet attendant, and a police box, all under one roof.

If you needed something in the middle of the city -- toilet, cash, convenience store, cops, etc. -- you'd be safe going there any time of the day. Homeless people would know where to go for actual toilet activities (safe and clean for them, too) but maybe not for other activities, not with a cop near the door and always within yelling distance.

And I'd combine free and pay toilets, where the pay toilets only take credit and debit cards, but the thing is given a quick inspection and wipe down after each use by an attendant who will add a service charge to your card if you do something stupid like barf on the walls or crap on the seat. The money would also pay for the same attendant to clean the free toilets and report any observed trouble to the cop in the police box.

There are times when people who are not homeless and not poor would be happy to pay for a guaranteed clean, safe, private toilet in the middle of the city, and they would be even happier if they knew their money was also employing an attendant and paying to keep toilets available for the homeless. (Also, Republicans could stop whining about the cost if you made the pay toilets, bank machine, and store space pay for the free toilets.)
posted by pracowity at 11:48 AM on January 25, 2012 [5 favorites]


I thought it worked because they put a bird on it .

I'm pretty sure it worked because they didn't make it like Seattle.
posted by FatherDagon at 11:59 AM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


In London we have urinals which rise out of the ground.

Man, I hope they play the TARDIS noise as those things rise and descend.
posted by yoink at 12:02 PM on January 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


And then, of course, there are the Amsterdam Public Urinals.
posted by Comrade_robot at 12:26 PM on January 25, 2012


Our three automated toilets in Calgary have been a success.

They'd be better if the manufacturer informed the city that "self cleaning" doesn't mean that the toilet paper replaces itself. Also, The last time I went to use the Tomkins Park one, there was a dude fast asleep in it. I had to go pretty badly, so I decided that if he felt it was okay to sleep in a toilet, he would also feel it was okay if people took a shit in his bedroom.

I'm starting to look more favourably on the European pay toilet scheme, much like pracowity outlines, assuming they are actual decent toilets cleaned on occasion.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 12:54 PM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Hi, I've shat in one of those! I think they're pretty great, as far as a public shitter goes. Big enough to not be a phone booth, but not a dank brick enclosure like most of the (generally shuttered) older public restroom buildings in the city. They don't send the "really, you're gonna go in there?" vibe, which is pretty important.

And then, of course, there are the Amsterdam Public Urinals.

Also pretty great, though obviously a lot more niche in who they serve (men and maybe some dextrous or gadget-assisted women who want to have a quick piss). I pissed in one like the green grated ones in the second pic back in 2004 when I was headed to Munich with some friends. It was nice having a dedicated spot that says "no, really, please urinate here, it's alright" when walking down the street after a few beers, certainly better than sneaking behind a tree or down a side street.

As a tourist, I don't recall ever managing to find a public toilet in Portland—or at least on that was more than a metal cage.

These cages are new, and I can't remember finding a public toilet outside open in town outside of a park (and even then they seem usually to be closed and/or scary and your real option is likely to be a more-or-less permanently homed Honeybucket).

That said, my experience in town of retail establishments is they don't really give you the evil eye for popping in to use the restroom if you're not setting off any red flags otherwise. Not that that's great news for folks already in sort of dire straits on the street, or course. So: public restrooms!

I was really struck by restrooms in Germany; there are public restrooms but you're expected to pay to use them. At a train station? Drop fifty cents in the turnstile at the entrance or to get into the actual stall. (Or be clever and cheat in on someone else's coin.) At the park? Drop a coin or two in the basket being manned by the grumpy matron, or find out that she can in fact look even grumpier. I thought it was very weird, but the restrooms were also generally really clean and well-maintained.

Except for one actual unattended dank-concrete-structure restroom out on the street, that I found while needing to pee when we were headed to a train in Munich. No attendant, no gate, and it was honestly the worst restroom disaster I've ever been in. Worse than what I think of as a poorly maintained bathroom in the states. Take a sort of gross highway reststop bathroom and crank it up by an order of magnitude. Clogged ceramics, shit smeared on the walls, etc. I was surprised I didn't find a corpse. I held it. So, okay, charge for restrooms, Germany.
posted by cortex at 1:01 PM on January 25, 2012


I was in Paris and needed to go to a pay toilet (which looked pretty clean from the outside, and I think it was self cleaning), but didn't have exact change. I went to a McDonald's and boy did I regret that. I carried a bunch of small coins for the rest of the trip.
posted by desjardins at 1:20 PM on January 25, 2012


In the absence of decent public restrooms I would gladly pay up to a dollar for the use of a clean restroom. The things I have seen in women's restrooms have filled me with so many dark thoughts:

1) I feel sad that as a woman I have to sit to pee
2) I am enraged at women who "hover" and can't fucking hit their mark
3) flush, you fucking asshole!!!
4) memories of terrible things I cannot unsee

Only in public bathrooms do I ever feel so much hostility at people who I've never seen, heard, or known.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 1:20 PM on January 25, 2012 [4 favorites]


I used to be a cashier in a gas station near the highway, and one of my jobs was to clean the restrooms (accessible only by an outside door). Where do people on the highway stop to find a free restroom? That's right. You have never seen such horrible sights.
posted by desjardins at 1:24 PM on January 25, 2012


Not much help for the ladies or Number Twos, but Sydney, Australia has some fancy new pissoirs they're trying out in "high public urination areas" like Kings Cross that would be of no use to junkies. Somewhat ameliorating the sexism of male-only facilities is the fact that it's almost exclusively males who are pissing in public (and it's mostly males getting absolutely bladdered in the bars).

They have an older one, from the 1880s, under the Sydney Harbour Bridge at the very end of The Rocks neighborhood, which I have used as a tourist. That back side of The Rocks is a pretty interesting place to stroll around that a lot of tourists miss out on. A few pints at the Hero of Waterloo should provoke the need.

Another advantage of pissoirs is that they don't cost several million bucks each and break down every ten minutes, like the Seattle ones did.
posted by Fnarf at 1:41 PM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


The ____ of Justice writes: The things I have seen in women's restrooms have filled me with so many dark thoughts

As part of my duties in a restaurant that shared toilets with a nightclub, I had to clean them both, and I can attest that the women's was always MUCH worse than the men's. Truly shocking stuff I found in there: excrement smeared on the walls (big clumps of it), excrement in the sinks, piss on the seats and floor, toilets plugged with articles of clothing, piles of candy bar wrappers on the floor surrounding the toilet, broken wine bottles, smashed towel dispensers, you name it. All the men ever did was piss on the floor a little.
posted by Fnarf at 2:11 PM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


You forgot sanitary napkins and tampons shoved into every conceivable nook and cranny or just left on the floor.
posted by desjardins at 2:16 PM on January 25, 2012


There is nothing like the smell of multiple used "feminine products" after 10 hours without air conditioning.
posted by desjardins at 2:17 PM on January 25, 2012


God. So horrible! In my totalitarian fantasy world people who don't respect public bathrooms would be the only ones shot. I'm against the death penalty, except for these miscreants. Yes, the issue makes me a tad...unhinged.

Or maybe the public should just be allowed and use THEIR bathrooms.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 2:24 PM on January 25, 2012


totoiletarian fantasy world, you mean.
posted by elizardbits at 3:05 PM on January 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


And this is why I don't live in metropolitan type places anymore. Consider this: A person who is paid to take care of a public toilet. A person who is there will deter the bad behavior, they don't have to do anything but be present to actually deter. A robot option does nothing. Oh of course that person would have to be paid, with medical and dental, etc. but please, what is really more costs more?
posted by Belle O'Cosity at 3:46 PM on January 25, 2012


I laughed my (metaphorical) ass off when Seattle paid $600,000 for -five- 'automatic' toilets. How many years of honey-bucket servicing would that buy??

Meanwhile, they fail to satisfy a couple years later, and are scrapped-out for a few thousand dollars. Money to burn.
posted by Twang at 4:04 PM on January 25, 2012


what is really more costs more?

Washington state minimum wage is $9.04, so 24-hour coverage would be $79,190 for a 365-day year. Assume a fringe benefit payroll load rate of 33.4% and it costs you $105,640 per toilet per year. This article says Portland plans to buy new attended toilets for $50,000 each. So looks like you would spend a million dollars per toilet in present dollars in less than ten years.
posted by grouse at 4:13 PM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


I find it interesting that the technology/architecture/planning around toilets in general is really so primitive, when you think of our advances in just about every other arena of human life. I've never fully understood why this is the case. And I especially don't understand human behaviour around public toilets, a la desjardins and Fnarf's comments.
posted by amusebuche at 4:41 PM on January 25, 2012


Ughhh. Robot toilets. Here is the main problem with automatic cleaning toilets. EVERYTHING IS WET! I don't care if it's sanitized bleach water. I do not like using a bathroom where everything is wet (I'm looking at you France).

My vote is for McDonald's, anywhere in the USA.
posted by raccoon409 at 6:20 PM on January 25, 2012


Here in Canada, we have Tim Hortons.

Yeah, but they have purple (UV?) lights in the washroom AND you have to be buzzed in.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 10:53 PM on January 25, 2012


OK, new plan. Everyone wears diapers.
posted by dhartung at 12:23 AM on January 26, 2012


And adult changing stations.

Great. Then there'll be sanitary napkins, tampons, and adult diapers shoved into every conceivable nook and cranny or just left on the floor.
posted by pracowity at 5:06 AM on January 26, 2012


I don't know if anyone is still reading this thread, but last night I serendipitously came across an article about public toilets in Vancouver with an emphasis on their role in providing the homeless with some human dignity.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 2:56 PM on January 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


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