Think public toilets are icky? They’re actually an effective tool to fight viral infections — and Toronto needs more of them

Shawn Micallef
Toronto Star, Monday, May 11, 2020

Access to public toilets is on a long list of issues that existed before but have been amplified by the pandemic, as even more people are affected and the need is more critical.

“Public bathrooms are a solution to viral infection,” says Lezlie Lowe, author of the recent book, “No Place to Go: How Public Toilets Fail Our Private Needs.” “I’ve learned, talking to people during this crisis, and reading on social media, that a lot of people think that public bathrooms are a risk. A place where you catch disease, rather than quash it.”

Other than following the guidance of public health officials, one thing that’s certainly keeping people closer to home is a lack of open and accessible washrooms. When out for a walk, all the usual places to pop into are closed so our roaming radius correlates to individual liquid carrying capacity.

Lowe points out that a lack of clean and safe public washrooms, in normal times, profoundly affects homeless populations, but also “transgender people, caregivers, Black citizens, people with Crohn’s, anyone who uses a mobility device, poor people, women … a majority of people are negatively affected by poor access” Maintenance is important though, and lack of regular cleaning would give anybody the impression they’re a place to avoid.

An arborist friend has complained, pre-pandemic, how difficult it is to find a washroom as many home owners his crew is working for will not let them inside to use their precious washrooms. Essential service workers, like truckers, taxi drivers, couriers and other outdoor workers have reported increased difficulty since the pandemic.

If you think this doesn’t matter to you, think about how many people handle the goods that get to your house or store. You want those people to have access to proper handwashing facilities, right?

Yet even in the best of times, finding somewhere to go has been difficult. True public washrooms are rare here: some parks have them, but hours are limited and most are only open for a handful of months a year, as if people don’t have to go in the winter. We’ve all got a mental map of where the good washrooms are in public buildings and businesses, but let’s pray we won’t see a return of the filthy washroom-key-on-stick some cafes used.

Toronto historian and preservation activist Madeline McDowell has also noticed the problem. “There were public washrooms in various parts of the city,” she wrote to me in an email. “The last ones, located on Keele Street near Dundas in the Junction, were closed around 2001. I objected strongly at that time.”

Indeed, there are intersections around town like Queen Street and Spadina Avenue where, buried beneath the pavement, there are old public washrooms. It’s an odd omission today, as this is a basic human function, and the city relies on humans for its success.

“There was a big push in the U.K. in the late 19th century to provide washrooms for the public,” says Lowe. “And part of that was providing public toilets for those who had no or poor access at home, or for the burgeoning numbers of workers who were commuting, by public transit or on foot, and who didn’t have the luxury of chamber pots in private carriages, or loos located inside posher businesses.”

In recent years the city has installed a handful of automated, self-cleaning toilets around town. Often broken, they only serve one at a time and are very slow between uses. It’s a big crowded city: think stadium or arena washroom scale as a solution.

Places like Union Station are ideal, with a multitude of stalls, bowls and urinals. Ontario Place, in a strange limbo awaiting its provincially dictated fate, was open until the pandemic and had big heated washrooms, an exception that should be the norm all over.

Cities need a toilet renaissance. In the short term, the chair of Toronto Public Health, Coun. Joe Cressy, recently announced a series of “Sanitation and Washroom Service” locations across the city that will provide access to showers, washrooms and drinking water for Toronto’s vulnerable population, including the homeless.

Long term, we need to fund, build and staff substantial all-season washroom facilities in busy parts of the city. It’s critical to public health but something that was easy to cut in the past.

Lowe suggest cities look to Portand, Oregon, for a relatively cheaper solution that can also help, a standout because of its “Portland Loo,” an on-street, 24-hour, public bathroom that the city commissioned. They are off-grid, easy to clean, and big enough to fit a bike inside.

“I love the idea that the Portland Loo incorporates potable water outside the toilet,” says Lowe. “It allows people to access drinking water easily and promotes hand hygiene.

“I think in terms of toilet access, I hope this makes municipalities across Canada take note of the dire need among those on the edges of social safety. We need more public bathrooms for everyone.”

Shawn Micallef is a Toronto-based writer and a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @shawnmicallef