Opinion | ‘Appalling Lack of Public Toilets’ in the U.S.

To the Editor:

Re “U.S. Isn’t Made for Functioning Human Bodies” (column, March 7):

I found Nicholas Kristof’s column on the lack of public bathrooms in the United States to be very much on point as he shined a light on an annoyance for some and a great difficulty for others that has been largely ignored.

But as a world traveler like Mr. Kristof, I must have spent time in different places than he has, particularly in Europe. He mentioned that virtually all advanced countries have more ubiquitous public sanitary facilities than we do in the U.S. My experience, again particularly in Europe, is the opposite — it’s been a continuing annoyance to me to search mightily for a place to pee in virtually all European countries I’ve visited.

In my experience, whether in France, Norway, Spain or Italy, for example, finding a place to relieve yourself generally requires buying something, especially in a smaller place. In fact, it’s been my experience that it’s easier to find public bathrooms in the U.S.

Roy Christianson
Madison, Wis.

To the Editor:

I know this problem well as a visiting nurse. Whether traveling miles between patients in rural settings or blocks in urban ones, nature calls.

Home care nurses know the location of every Dunkin’ Donuts in their area. In pre-pandemic times, they have been obliging in use of their bathrooms — unlike the time, with no Dunkin’ near, I was forced to ask to use the restroom in a bank.

“We don’t have one,” said the teller. “Really, where do you go?” I responded. Only after loudly proclaiming, in the presence of a roomful of customers, that I had several accounts in this bank, was a visiting nurse and needed a restroom did a manager come out and guide me to the bathroom — two steps away on the other side of the door. The crowd applauded.

Janice Malett
Somers, N.Y.

To the Editor:

Thank you to Nicholas Kristof for publicizing this important issue. As a board member of the American Restroom Association, I am used to explaining — in the face of bemused guffaws and follow-up questions — the importance of public restrooms: serving public health, alleviating historic inequities affecting minorities and women, keeping tourists happy and spending in downtowns, and more.

The American Restroom Association endorses single-occupancy restrooms as the gold standard of public restrooms. These provide more privacy for everyone. They also help parents with children of different genders; caregivers for elderly or other people; and women waiting in a restroom line while men’s restrooms go unused.

But even if you don’t care about any of that, why would you want to smell and hear what your bathroom neighbors are brewing?

Brad Polsky
New York

To the Editor:

As an architect I see both sides of the debate regarding public restrooms. When traveling (or just walking in my hometown), I have many times had the need to use the facilities.

Seattle has tried the public restrooms route before. We’ve experienced too many examples of vandalism and misuse of the facilities. The privacy afforded by the stalls allows illegal drug use and sexual misconduct.

The social contract in other countries, especially Japan, calls for respect of public facilities. But that doesn’t extend to the United States. So we labor to find places to pee.

John Lemr
Seattle

To the Editor:

Not only is America not made for “functioning human bodies,” it really isn’t made for female bodies in particular. Women stand in long lines while men stand in no lines. Every woman who attends a theater or sports event knows the quickest route to the toilets so she’ll be ready for intermission or halftime in order to be close to the first in line, often getting up from her seat early.

We not only have inadequate toilets in public — we have toilet equality when we actually need toilet equity. More public toilets, and even more public toilets for women, I say.

Natalie Krauss Bivas
Palo Alto, Calif.

To the Editor:

A San Francisco resident, I’ve smelled urine on streets, stepped in excrement on the sidewalk, reported waste outside my building to the city’s cleanup hotline, and witnessed men not-so-discreetly relieving themselves outdoors. Pre-pandemic, I’ve ducked into hotel lobbies and Starbucks downtown for bathrooms-of-last-resort. More recently, I’ve peed into a cup in my car more times than I care to admit.

As many of us stay comfortably sequestered within our homes, many others who lost housing or perform essential delivery services don’t readily have access to public bathrooms. With sanitation and hygiene’s increased importance during the pandemic, San Francisco expanded its Pit Stop program, with many facilities staffed, self-cleaning, accessible or open 24/7.

Everyone has felt the urgency of needing to go. And don’t you want your delivery person to be able to wash their hands before handing off your dinner?

Andrew L. Chang
San Francisco

To the Editor:

Thank you to Nicholas Kristof for his essay on the appalling lack of public toilets in this country. He mentions Japan having “what may be the world’s most civilized toilets.” Not only are their restrooms clean and well maintained, but they also are extremely family-friendly.

In the women’s restrooms (I can’t speak to the men’s rooms), they have baby seats attached to stall walls, where Mom can safely put her infant or toddler so that she can pee without worrying her child will crawl away. Some restrooms have wee-sized urinals for wee-sized pee-ers. And their toilet seats often come with an extra smaller seat to accommodate the tiny bum.

They say that you can judge a civilization by how it cares for its dead. I say you can judge a civilization by how it handles public restrooms. Japan is the height of enlightenment. The U.S. lies in the gutter.

Therese Mageau
Montpelier, Vt.

To the Editor:

Regarding Nicholas Kristof’s plea for an infrastructure plan that addresses bladders and bowels, I agree wholeheartedly, but suggest amending that plea to specify a plan that includes all bladders and bowels. Access to public restrooms is a continuing problem of equality for disabled people like me, even when public toilets are available.

Many public bathrooms fail to accommodate users of wheelchairs and walkers, despite requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act. To quote the disability rights activist Judy Heumann, “If I have to be thankful for an accessible bathroom, when am I ever gonna be equal in the community?”

Dot Nary
Lawrence, Kan.
The writer is an assistant research professor in the Kansas Disability and Health Program, University of Kansas.

To the Editor:

Several years ago I was driving from Philadelphia to the New Jersey coast, where I lived. Crossing the Pine Barrens in the late afternoon, miles from any rest stops, I had to go. So I pulled over, put my blinkers on, and got out and headed for a protective tree.

A state trooper pulled right up behind me. “Any problem, Ma’am?”

“No,” I said, “but there will be if you don’t let me walk quickly into the woods.” He looked embarrassed, said OK and got back in his car.

Margaret Thomas Buchholz
Harvey Cedars, N.J.

To the Editor:

Nicholas Kristof’s column reminded me of the story my father, the journalist Stewart Alsop, told about interviewing Abbie Hoffman, one of the Chicago Seven, over lunch at the staid Metropolitan Club in Washington, D.C.

After a bibulous meal (those were the days), my father asked Hoffman to name the one action he would take to make the world a better place. To my father’s astonishment, Hoffman jumped up on the table, raised his fists high in the air and shouted, “Abolish pay toilets!” Needless to say, his pronouncement was greeted with a stunned silence.

Elizabeth Winthrop Alsop
New York

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