Adam Feibel: Public toilets are a public good and should be publicly funded

Ottawa Citizen, January 11, 2016

Though it looks as though the City of Ottawa is moving toward making significant improvements to public toilet access in the city, the thought has slipped right down the tube.

The city’s finance committee viewed a staff report last month that presented options for building and maintaining public washrooms for light rail transit users in the Confederation line’s Bayview and Hurdman stations. Mayor Jim Watson wasn’t pleased that the report didn’t include an option for pay toilets, as he had directed.

The monthly maintenance costs will “burn money,” he said.

When it comes to citizens’ comfort and livelihood, washrooms ought to be considered a public good and a worthwhile expense. Public toilets are a solution to a problem, and the problem is that a transit rider may board the city’s $2.1-billion rail system and end up in one of the most discomforting and humiliating scenarios of adult life.

For a publicly-funded facility designed to meet the demands of routine bodily functions to ask for payment from people at their most desperate should not sit well.

It comes at a time of increased lobbying for more public toilets in cities across Canada. This summer, Crohn’s and Colitis Canada launched a campaign called GoHere, which asks business owners and municipalities to post a decal letting those people know they can use their toilet without asking for permission.

(There are 233,000 people in Canada with these diseases, also known under the category of inflammatory bowel disease.)

Lacking access must also be well known to the roughly 20 million Canadians with digestive disorders, the 6.7 million with irritable bowel syndrome, the 110,000 with Celiac disease, and people with other medical conditions that require easy access to a bathroom, such as bladder disease, colorectal cancer, prostatitis and congenital kidney disease.

Then there are the even more common needs of seniors, children, pregnant women and women who are menstruating. For all these people, and any others who just happen to be caught by an unexpected call from nature, a nearby washroom can save a great deal of discomfort, awkwardness and embarrassment.

City hall has shown some interest in the issue. Councillors Rick Chiarelli and Jeff Leiper have proposed that the city publish data regarding its public restrooms for use in a third-party washroom-finder app. The report specifically mentions seniors’ toilet access, one of the key strategies outlined in the city’s 2015-18 older adult action plan. Catherine McKenney and Tobi Nussbaum have also been supportive, citing public washrooms as the “top citizen concern” at the 2014 budget consultations.

But to this day, Ottawa’s budget discussions about public toilets have been “hammering the poor and people with fixed incomes,” as Joan Kuyek expressed to the Citizen last month. Kuyek chairs the GottaGo! Campaign, which has been lobbying the city for more public washrooms, especially at LRT stations. The practical usability of coin— or card—operated washrooms aside, why should someone be forced to pay to urinate or defecate in a facility already paid for by their taxes?

In 2016, as the city moves forward with its public transit plans, it should give serious consideration to how their decision-making affects residents and visitors. We should be publicly funding toilets that people who live, work and visit Ottawa can depend on.

Some may not agree that municipalities are obligated to provide such a facility. They’d rather nix the toilets and save the tax dollars, or make them coin—operated to offset the costs. Maybe they’ve gone their entire lives having never urgently needed a public toilet, so they don’t feel they’re important. May they always be so fortunate.

Adam Feibel is a Toronto-based journalist who lived in Ottawa for 24 years.