It’s one of those messages that you don’t want to see at a moment of crisis: “Sorry, no public restrooms.”
Although the discomfort of finding yourself in urgent need of a toilet is often fodder for comedians, getting caught in that situation is no laughing matter. When you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go, but the number of publicly accessible toilets in Honolulu has been rapidly dwindling as businesses have restricted previously available facilities, citing the high costs of maintenance, and neither state nor county governments have stepped up to address the resulting problems.
Legislators haven’t responded either, perhaps because of the stigma associated with public discussion of toilets. This year, a bill has passed the State House and is awaiting action in the Senate extending a 2004 law making it illegal to urinate or defecate in public anywhere in the downtown business district despite the fact that publicly accessible toilets are hard to find, while another bill that would have required businesses to open existing toilets to the public died without a hearing.
Honolulu’s bus system doesn’t provide public toilets even at major transfer points, despite its reliance on several long-haul routes, and transit planners have pointedly stated that they have no intention of building restrooms into stations along the proposed new rail line.
So with businesses locking their toilets, a dearth of public facilities, and laws against emergency stops in public, this can be a very serious issue. My wife points out that even planning a simple shopping trip requires taking into consideration available rest stops, and the challenges are more serious for those with special needs, including families with small children, pregnant women, those with medical conditions, the elderly and disabled. For them, as well as many of the rest of us, a long commute, a shopping trip, or any other excursion away from home can lead to embarrassing and uncomfortable incidents.
The American Restroom Association, a Washington-based education and advocacy group, views the lack of publicly available toilets as a serious personal and public health issue in the U.S.
Association president Robert Brubaker, in a November 2007 interview, called for Americans “to start talking about restrooms and speak up for them just as they do for streetlights and sidewalks.”
Brubaker attributed the lack of publicly accessible facilities both to Americans reticence to openly discuss toilet use, and to a policy gap in laws at the federal, state, and local levels.
Federal labor regulations protects the health of workers by requiring employers to provide a minimum number of bathrooms depending on the type of business and the number of employees, but there’s no requirement that they serve the public. The federal Department of Health and Human Services, which should be serving up laws and rules to provide sanitation facilities for the general public, has failed to act on proposals for public restroom standards. For the most part, restroom access has been governed by state and local regulations.
Most local governments, including here in Hawaii, have adopted provisions of the Uniform Plumbing Code, which sets out standards for the required number of toilets in most buildings. The UPC also requires that those toilets be accessible to all “occupants”, meaning that if a building or business allows the public to enter as customers, they must also be provided access to the building’s restrooms.
Those restrooms available only to employees aren’t counted by the UPC when determining whether a building complies with the requirement.
But a funny thing happened here in the islands. Although the City and County of Honolulu adopted most of the Uniform Plumbing Code, the sections dealing with toilet facilities were deleted and do not apply, or “may be used as a guide only.”
Similarly, the State Department of Health has adopted provisions for “sanitary facilities” in auditoriums, churches, theaters, “amusement places”, and “buildings of public assembly”, along with schools, dormitories, and bars. But DOH regulations covering restaurants, markets, and other businesses “do not include the
provision for public use,” again failing to serve the broader public interest, and those applying to office buildings and other retail businesses are absent.
What can be done? In Portland, Oregon, a community advocacy group calling itself PHLUSH (Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human) has pushed the city to explore options for meeting the need for public toilets. In one report, PHLUSH reviewed a number of urban options, including automated restrooms that clean themselves after each use, portable toilets, freestanding restrooms supported by advertising, and even storefront rest stops that combine toilet facilities with community services, perhaps offering free space to social service agencies in exchange for managing the public toilets.
Working with students and professors from a local university, PHLUSH initiated a study of existing facilities and needs, and has worked with city officials to find innovative solutions to what is really a basic need. Similar cooperative efforts to address this public health issue here at home are long overdue.