Monday, February 1, 2021

No Place To Run To No Place To Go


What is it with Vancouver, and practically every other major city in North America, that they can't provide enough decent public toilets? It's a universal human need that has existed since humans started living together yet it's been systematically ignored as if it will somehow just go away. But it's not going away, and every day we put off addressing the issue only adds to everyone's frustration as they try to hold it in.

The deteriorating homeless situation in Vancouver magnifies this problem with thousands of people now living in makeshift camps, tents, and doorways that of course have no washroom facilities. This means they end up using playgrounds, private gardens, parks, or the streets and alleys to relieve themselves.  An absence of public toilets means an absence of hygiene. 

The Vancouver Parks Board does have a variety of public washrooms in most but not all of its parks but they aren't open 24/7 and they are geared towards people using the parks themselves. Some are more appealing than others both in terms of appearance and cleanliness but most are in need of a serious upgrade. Their average age is over 60 years old and their outdated design offers poor accessibility, comfort, and safety to anyone using them.

The public transit situation is even more shocking. There are more than 50 stations along the rapid transit route alone and not one has a public washroom and, of course, there are no toilets on the trains themselves. With rides that can easily last over an hour this can make for a very uncomfortable situation for some passengers but clearly Translink doesn't care about its customers either.

The cost of maintaining public washrooms is often cited as an excuse for doing nothing and lately there have been some efforts to bring in automated self-cleaning toilets that even offer advertising as a way of offsetting the cost. But the high cost of these overengineered toilets ($500,000.00+) and the fact they were too comfortable and thus attracted people wanting privacy for doing drugs and engaging in prostitution was one reason Seattle got rid of the ones they had originally purchased. 

Another solution (at least as a temporary one) would be to install a network of Porta-Potty or Honeybucket style chemical toilets throughout the city and at every Skytrain station. Self contained units that don't require any plumbing connections, they can be placed just about anywhere and the contractor is responsible for all the cleaning and emptying of the sewage tank. However, at approximately $200.00 per day per toilet the cost is quite high.

Enter the Portland Loo. This simple, indestructible design that discourages it being used for anything except what it's meant for, prevents crime, is easy to clean and maintain, and is inexpensive to operate. For these reasons it's catching on with cities everywhere. At approximately $100,000.00 each we could have two of these at every Skytrain station for $10 million and for another $10 million spread 100 of them around key locations in the City which would more than double the public washrooms we have now.

The Portland Loo is just one example of how the lack of public toilets could be addressed and maybe it would finally get the politicians to say to the people that it's worth adding say 1% a year to the property tax bill to pay for something we all need. For larger facilities we could even have a design competition that added more esthetics and style. But whether it is a utilitarian solution or something grander we can't stick with the status quo where there's no place to go.