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.