Public toilets: Seattle’s failed experiment

City leaders in Seattle went “gaga” over high-tech public super-johns, but the plain old-fahioned kind would have been best.

A word of advice to anyone visiting our fair city, said The Seattle Times in an editorial. If you have to go to the bathroom, plan ahead. You see, we don’t have public toilets anymore. Back in 2004, Seattle spent $1 million apiece on five high-tech public johns to assist pedestrians who had to answer nature’s call. City leaders went “gaga” over the automatic doors, the self-cleaning interiors that washed the floors and toilet seats after every use, and the computerized female voice that gave instructions in English and Spanish. But the German-made loos were “gold-plated mistakes from the start.” They soon became scarred with graffiti and filled with trash, and often broke down, so they stank. Drug addicts and prostitutes used them to conduct transactions, get high, or have sex. Starting Aug. 1, all five units will be sold on eBay—but it’s hard to believe anyone will buy them. “I used to smoke crack in there,” said one homeless woman, Veronyka Cordner. “But I won’t even go inside that thing now. It’s disgusting.”

When you gotta go, said Christopher Maag in The New York Times, you gotta go. Unfortunately, most cities are finding it extremely difficult to provide relief that’s safe, clean, and free. San Francisco has 25 automated toilets, but they require daily maintenance. To subsidize repairs on their privies, many municipalities plaster them with advertising. Other places have given up on installing expensive, self-cleaning models in favor of “cheaper alternatives that would be cleaned by human attendants.” One prototype will be unveiled in Portland, Ore., next month. To discourage illicit activity, it will have open gaps so people’s feet and head can be seen. “Given that lesser privacy, it is unclear how popular such a toilet might be.”

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