Nov 28, 2023
On Thanksgiving this year, Jen and I went on run. Since the morning and lunch were occupied by a non-traditional set of meals, we departed for our excursion mid-afternoon. Maybe it’s age, maybe it was too much fizzy water at lunch coupled with the runner’s jogging motion but about a mile and a half into it, I needed to pee.
There is nothing like discovering how well a city provides basic services such as bathrooms to the public when you now have a very pressing need.
Now, where we were currently situated was near Oracle Park, home to the SF Giants, along the southern piers and waterfront of the city. My mind raced with options: Is there a park nearby? Is there a Starbucks or other coffee establishment open on a holiday? Where’s a green public bathroom unit?
We kept running and diverted north towards the Ferry Building. We know there’s a public bathroom at China Basin Park/South Yacht Club behind the ballpark. It’s closed. I have the sinking feeling that because of the holiday, options were going to be slim. BUT! Lots of visitors and tourists are walking around enjoying the day and they need services right? There has to be something open, and we’re hoping the Ferry Building provides.
I remember there’s one of the JCDecaux Pit Stop units before we reach our current destination, and we make the stop. We’re walking by this point as the running only makes my desire even more pressing. It says “Occupied.” I’m doubtful. We wait for ten minutes or so (there’s apparently a 20-minute time limit before the doors automatically open), but I’m skeptical, and there are better bathrooms at the Ferry Building if it’s open. We continue and much to our dismay but also non-surprise, it is indeed closed. I look across the way to the beginning of Market Street and think of the park there. As we make our way there, one of the new “amenipods”, also by JCDecaux is there. But it is also “temporarily closed.” We walk through the plaza and by the small park and see another green unit. An older couple are posted outside clearly hoping it’s open. But it too is temporarily closed.
It’s been 40 minutes or so now. And now we both need to use the bathroom.
Amidst our proclamations of “This is ridiculous.”, “This is why the streets have poop everywhere.”, etc., we give one last hope and a prayer on the Transbay Transit Center aka Salesforce Park. It’s a beautiful above-street park, that of course is also primarily home to the bus terminal for the SF Bay Area. And lo and behold, after ascending to the park, the bathrooms are indeed open, and there are even maintenance crew working on repairs.
Post-relief and grateful, I thought about the long-ranging effects of this. That I know that it is a reason for why SF’s streets are often grungy, littered, and yes, poop-laden. Trash is one thing (let’s face it, we’re not Japan, where the lack of trash cans means citizens carry trash in their bags to dispose of properly), but it says a lot about whether we trust people in public spaces.
The lack of public restrooms in the U.S. hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2011, a United Nations-appointed special rapporteur who was sent to the U.S. to assess the “human right of clean drinking water and sanitation” was shocked by the lack of public toilets in one of the richest economies in the world. A full accounting of truly public facilities is elusive, says Soifer, but government-funded options are exceedingly rare in the U.S., compared to Europe and Asia; privately owned restrooms in cafes and fast-food outlets are the most common alternatives. According to a “Public Toilet Index” released in August 2021 by the U.K. bathroom supply company QS Supplies and the online toilet-finding tool PeePlace, the U.S. has only eight toilets per 100,000 people overall — tied with Botswana. (Iceland leads their ranking, with 56 per 100,000 residents.)
— Where Did All the Public Bathrooms Go?, Elizabeth Yuko
Of course, if you trace this all the way through history, it’s rooted in discrimination across racial, social, and economic lines.
And from the same article above:
“If you don’t have public bathrooms, what you’re saying is, ‘We do not care about anyone who doesn’t have money,’ which I think encapsulates where American politics has been going since 1980,” he says. “I hope that there will be a move toward greater acceptance of public spending and government intervention, because that’s what it’s going to take to deal with the problem.”
Even though I’ve cleaned up feces and washed away pee from in front of our building many times over the years with varying degrees of reaction (from surprise to frustration to it’s-just-another-day-in-the-neighborhood), I’ve also come to understand why: We don’t provide the very basics for those who need it the most.