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Public transport

Aug 19, 2014

Who gives a shit about public transport users?

If you want to know if a public transport system is good – if it puts the wellbeing of travellers as its number one priority – then just measure the accessibilty and quality of toilets provided for users

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Design Curial's take on "The world's 10 best public toilets"

I appreciated Fairfax columnist Lawrence Money’s witty take yesterday on that seemingly vanishing institution in the city centre, the public toilet (No relief in sight on public toilets).

He talks about public conveniences in general, but he makes an extraordinary observation in relation to public transport. Despite costing $21 million, he says, Melbourne’s new Southland railway station will not have public toilets.

Expensive closed-circuit TV but no loos – cosy accommodation for the Protective Services Officers, who undoubtedly will have their own privy, but there will be none for the passengers. Transport Minister Terry Mulder predicted that 4400 passengers a day would troop through the new station, making it the fourth-busiest on the Frankston line. That is roughly 1.6 million passengers a year who are expected to curb their intestinal machinery until they depart the premises.

I discussed the dearth of conveniences in train stations a few years ago (Are out trains going down the toilet?) and in the light of Mr Money’s comments it’s an issue worth revisiting. As I said then, I reckon the quality of a public transport system can be judged on the standard of its toilets. Good public transport systems have good toilets because good managers focus on the welfare of users. Maybe they think users who are given a good system take better care of it.

When you think about it, the idea that a major urban node like a rail station doesn’t have toilets for its hundreds, or in most cases thousands, of daily users is bizarre. We wouldn’t tolerate their absence in other public places like a school, a stadium or an enclosed shopping centre.

What’s more basic than a call of nature? If you’re travelling by train and you’ve got infants that need to be changed, or pre-teens that have difficulty planning ahead, or you’re pregnant, or you’ve been on the turps, or you’ve got an aging bladder, or you or someone in your care is feeling sick, then having access to a toilet while travelling is a pretty basic need. And with an ageing population, the demand for unexpected but immediate relief is likely to increase.

Even in Manhattan, one of the world’s great public transport oriented cities, a busy interchange station like Union Square, with tens of thousands of people passing through each day, doesn’t have toilets accessible to the public. Dense nodes of human activity are the very places that should have toilets!

Fortunately we have toilets at major CBD stations in cities like Melbourne, but many suburban stations don’t. Back in 2011, Victorian Greens MP, Greg Barber, observed that two thirds of stations in Melbourne do not have toilets for public use. Even some premium stations don’t open the toilets at all times, even when staffed. Mr Barber said there are 40 stations with more than 5,000 patrons per day that don’t have public toilets.

Lack of privacy is a disadvantage of public transport relative to the car, so managers should be working hard to minimise passengers’ fear they might be put in an embarrassing position. Travellers shouldn’t have to plan their travel around the lack of facilities for unscheduled calls of nature.

Why are there so few public toilets at rail stations? The usual answer is it’s down to issues of security and cleanliness. I acknowledge it costs money to clean graffiti, repair vandalised fittings and keep toilets clean (and were toilets opened at stations I expect users would demand a high standard of maintenance). But I reckon that’s just one of those base line costs, like safety, that just have to be  accepted – it’s the price of simply being in the business; and the core business is (moving) people.

The excuse I find really odious is that toilets should be closed to prevent druggies using them. That’s really cutting off your nose to spite your face. There are other strategies for managing this problem – the Victorian Government’s new night time security staff should help – but even if toilets are used by junkies, they should nevertheless be kept open and kept in good order so ordinary passengers aren’t punished when in extremis. In ordinary circumstances many travellers will doubtless avoid using toilets frequented by addicts, but they need to know they’re there when nature calls urgently and unexpectedly.

It’s not just about trains either; bus and tram travellers have bladders and bowels too, as do all visitors. Private facilities aren’t always accessible or attractive; there’s a need for state and local governments to lift their game. (1)

In a train system where the operators think about passengers’ welfare, well maintained toilets will be available at all stations. If you want to know if a public transport system is good – if it puts the wellbeing of its users as its number one priority – then just measure the accessibility and quality of the toilets provided for users. For that matter, sounds like it would be a good indicator of the quality of cities generally.

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  1. The City of Melbourne has a strategy, Public Toilet Plan 2008-13, but it needs revising. It says some toilets have been “decommissioned due to structural problems or the toilets were antiquated and being used for anti-social or criminal activity”. With some older toilet blocks, there’re also difficulties in providing universal access and a reluctance of women to use unattended underground toilets.

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

The Urbanist is edited by Dr Alan Davies, a principal of Melbourne-based economic and planning consultancy, Pollard Davies Consulting.

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13 comments

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13 thoughts on “Who gives a shit about public transport users?

  1. IkaInk

    @M Bourne – To be honest the Portland Loo doesn’t look particularly different to the old green loos that are still scattered around Melbourne, with the obvious exception that those had a tap on the inside. Certainly seems a fairly logical design that I’m sure is much cheaper both to install and maintain than those weird “automatic cleaning” facilities that seem to remain filthy, and frequented with drug use despite the technology that is supposed to avert these issues.

  2. Anna Power

    It is an interesting issue just with regard to the minimum requirements outlined by Australian Standards and the Building Code of Australia which sets minimum standards for building types in all matters including health and hygiene. How has this been circumvented? Nightclubs don’t get to shut down facilities just because they get untidy on a busy night….

  3. intotecho

    Metro Trains Hong Kong (The parent company running the trains) are very proud of the well designed toilets in the Hong Kong Metro.
    I am sure they could provide an unsolicited proposal to introduce them here.

    http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2014-05-05/in-hong-kong-its-a-privilege-to-pee

  4. Tom the first and best

    9

    That does not sound very nice. Having the taps out in the weather would be bad in cold weather (especially when it is windy). It has a certain prison architecture vibe to it.

    The automated loo concept that is increasingly common for automated loos in Melbourne is far superior to that. The taps are in the private section of the loo allowing jackets to be taken off and placed on a hook before using the loo and then put back on after the washing of the hands in complete security and hygiene.

  5. M Bourne

    The “Portland Loo” is a concept worth exploring. Taps are outside the toilet (ie, in full public view), you enter the stall from the street (or platform, in this case), and there are bars instead of walls for the bottom and top portions of the stall. The idea is less privacy and comfort makes the toilets more likely to be used only for their intended purpose. Not perfect, but much better than nothing.

  6. David Sanderson

    I’m amazed that public transport users tolerate the abysmal level of toilet provision at railway stations. In Sydney the great majority are locked, if in dire need you may be able to find a staff member to unlock it but that is a humiliation in itself. How is Sydney Trains able to get away with pretending that its ‘customers’ don’t have bodily needs?
    I acknowledge that this is a difficult responsibility because of the extent to which public facilities are abused but that does not justify shirking their responsibilities. Now that the Opal system has been introduced new methods of controlling and monitoring access to these facilities are now potentially available. I would even be prepared to tolerate video monitoring (not of the cubicle, but of the ‘common’ area)if it meant that the facility was readily available.
    The provision of public conveniences has actually deteriorated and, as this article points out, it has reached an intolerable level. Councils in my area close toilets as early as 4pm because it suits the convenience of the Council, not the convenience of the public. It seems likely that this is also class-based discrimination as higher class people are more likely to have access to various kinds of private facilities.

  7. Fiona Moore

    Having Irritable Bowel Syndrome, a lack of readily available toilets sucks.

    I was even willing to pay the 50cents or 1 euro to get in a Germany because I knew they were open and clean.

    Hell give me a public toilet with no toiletr seat over nothing.

  8. suburbanite

    Since the idea of fairness, equity and “society” are passé why not just charge for the use of toilets? That way at least there would be a toilet accessible for those who can pay and jobs could be generated cleaning them and collecting the money. Why should people unfortunate enough to use public transport not be able to exercise their market preference by purchasing convenience – it’s in vogue for just about everything else.

  9. Jacob HSR

    A solution could be to have cameras take photos before and after each use. So if a criminal vandalises a toilet, the photos will clearly show that it must have been him doing the damage.

    The cameras would automatically turn off when the cubicle door is closed.

    Solid jail terms are needed for train and toilet vandals.

  10. michael r james

    Paris was the first city to tackle this problem with the first modern auto-cleaning public toilets. In the early 80s. Just like with the free share-bike scheme (Velib) introduced in 2007 and subsequently copied around the world, the auto-toilets (Sanisettes) were part-funded by the outdoor advertising company JCDecaux. From Wikipedia:

    [The city of Paris rents Sanisettes from a subcontractor for about €1200 per month. There are some 420 Sanisettes in the city, and they are used about three million times a year. The city pays some €6m per year to the JCDecaux company to operate and maintain the Sanisettes.]

    JCDecaux maintains 3,229 automated toilets worldwide.

    During her campaign last year now-mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo promised an extra 200 public toilets for Paris.

    Only the biggest Metro stations (the bigger interchanges) have public toilets, so these Sanisettes were a partial solution, and obviously a public health measure and public amenity.

  11. Peter Logan

    Two comments:
    As a former local govt councillor, I can tell you we had a devil of a job locating a new toilet in Fitzroy St, StKilda. Residents wanted one for the obvious reason but then the site selection was fraught, because nobody wanted the best positions for the toilet to get maximum use. I was voted out because I voted for the St Kilda Triangle development, so never saw if the toilet was resolved.
    Secondly, I experienced and two and a half hour journey from Lilydale to Melbourne three weeks ago, as a storm had stopped the trains. Apart from being wet in the rain waiting for buses, the lack of toilets (one at Croydon Station bus stop was padlocked at 4:40pm!) was a pain in the bladder.
    Lesson learned:
    Toilets are essential for people to walk the streets as well as for public transport.

  12. Tom the first and best

    1

    Automatic lavatories at stations is a good idea. I think they were even around when Kennet de-staffed the system and should have been installed at unstaffed stations then.

    They can be built inside most stations and that is where they should be as they are primarily for passenger use.

    Also, anybody with a Myki, with a non-negative balance, can touch on, use the them and then touch off with no charge if they are in the paid area of the station for less than 15 minutes.

    They would also be cleaner, better maintained, more up to date and generally nicer than many of the existing facilities, including those at premium stations.

  13. Austin M

    I have noticed exeloo and other highly vandal proof and self cleaning public toilets have been installed by local councils in many parks and other locations.
    http://www.exeloo.com/
    It would be interesting if PTV could have a program where they offer to install these types of toilets facing towards publicly accessible spaces on the outside of stations (i.e. outside the ticketed space) on the proviso that council then take care of the ongoing cost of maintaining and cleaning these facilities. Obviously council would need to nominate they would like these facilities.
    I suspect that a number of councils would nominate due to strong demand from local residents and rate payers who would be the primary users. They would also be incentivised to keep them clean to make a positive impression on PT visitors to their municipality. But most importantly they already have localised cleaning contracts or crews for other toilets within the municipality which could easily be expanded to include the additional facilities.

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