Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Bladders Full to the Brim; Shortage of Public Restrooms Blamed

The dreadful shortage of public restrooms in London, England is causing all sorts of problems for that progressive country.

Elaine Gennard-Levy spent 20 minutes searching for a bathroom while shopping on London's Oxford Street. She decided it would be easier to build her own.

``I said to my husband, there must be a better way,'' Gennard-Levy said. ``The loos are awful in this country.''

Not only is there a massive shortage, but the ones they do have are simply awful!

In December, she opened a luxury ladies' room on Oxford Street, Europe's busiest shopping area. Use of the toilet and powder room at the facility costs 5 pounds ($10).
The facility, called WC1, is helping to fill the gap left by a decline in public bathrooms in London. The number of toilets dropped 40 percent from 2000 to 2005, leaving 415 to serve a population of 7.5 million, government figures show. That's not including the 28 million people who visit the U.K. capital each year.

Well, good on her for recognizing the need and using market forces to supply a product to consumers!

Local authorities say they can't afford to maintain and modernize restrooms. Many have been sold to property developers, who convert them into more profitable uses, including apartments and nightclubs. Those that remain often are so dirty or rundown that they're mostly used by drug addicts and homeless people.

Oh, the humanity!

In Beijing, where the average salary is a 10th of London's, there are 7,700 toilets, or one for every 1,948 people. China's capital plans to renovate 3,700 in time for the 2008 Olympics. London, which will host the 2012 games and has one toilet per 18,000 residents, has no such plans.

See how the brave and noble Chinese have sacrificed for the sake of bladders and bowels!? One wonders where all the Chinese drug addicts and homeless people are currently "residing". How fortunate that they will soon have public restroom facilities to use at their leisure!

Guidebooks including ones from the TimeOut and Cadogan series recommend that visitors look for restrooms in department stores, pubs and shops. The proliferation of Starbucks Corp. cafes and other coffee shops makes buying a latte in exchange for lavatory use a popular strategy.

This is certainly a strategy I employ when I am in downtown Vancouver. Often times I will use the lavatory and not even purchase anything from the Starbucks. A vile and dishonourable act to be sure, but it solves the most pressing issue of the moment.

Still, it's not an option for everyone. Sean, who has been driving a black cab for 10 years, keeps a plastic bottle handy in case he needs to urinate at an inconvenient moment.

``A lot of the public toilets shut at night and the shops don't like you using theirs unless you buy something,'' he said, declining to give his last name. ``It's just what cabbies have to resort to these days.''

Clearly the cab drivers in London never take any breaks of any kind during the day. Good on them for working through their lunch hours and coffee breaks. That's the spirit!

Others take more drastic steps. Research by ENCAMS, an environmental charity, showed 95 percent of Britons had urinated, vomited or defecated in public because no toilet was available.

The stats speak for themselves! You can't go anywhere in downtown London without stepping in vomit or feces. It's terrible.

The shortage belies London's history as an exemplary provider of public toilets. Its first public lavatory was built in the 12th century at the site of what is now the Royal Bank of Canada's offices. During the Victorian era, public bathrooms multiplied, and often boasted mosaic tiling and copper pipes.

It's funny, because I've never thought of London as a shining beacon for free restroom service. Who knew that it was at one time their legacy to the world. I guess it's a history Londoners can be proud of?

Such facilities have sometimes fallen afoul of new laws. The Disability Act, which came into force in 2004, requires that public toilets be accessible to wheelchair users or have suitable alternatives nearby. Rather than invest in ramps and elevators, some authorities have shut or sold older restrooms.

But no one is going to question the need to remove the very laws that created the problem in the first place. Oh, no. Just give us more of your money.

The use of toilets by drug users, prostitutes and the homeless has also made maintenance more difficult. Some local government councils have fit bathrooms with blue fluorescent lights that obscure the veins to discourage heroin addicts.

Wonder how that strategy is working out?

Gennard-Levy's luxury loo on Oxford Street cost 1.25 million pounds to build. After starting with a flat price of 5 pounds, it now charges 1 pound for use of the toilet only and 5 pounds for a ``pampering'' that includes a hand massage or touching up makeup.

``I would have been happy to pay the full price,'' said Catherine Snow, a book publisher leaving WC1. ``I've had to run into horrible pubs and hope they didn't see me.''

The shame! The horror!

The hilarity.