Legalize Pay Toilets!

Image result for CEPTIAPay toilets are common in Europe but uncommon in the United States. Sophie House writing at City Lab explains why. Pay toilets were made illegal in much of the United States in the 1970s:

In 1969, California Assemblywoman March Fong Eu smashed a porcelain toilet with an axe in front of the California state capitol, protesting the misogyny of restrooms that charged entrance fees for stalls but not urinals. She was not alone in her frustration. The grassroots organization CEPTIA—the Committee to End Pay Toilets in America—mobilized against pay toilets, putting out a quarterly newsletter (the Free Toilet Paper) and exchanging warring pamphlets with Nik-O-Lok, the leading pay-toilet manufacturer. The group won a citywide ordinance banning pay toilets in Chicago in 1973, followed by bans in Alaska, California, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey, New York, Tennessee, and Wyoming.

The logic seems to be if we cannot sit for free then you cannot stand for free. House calls the pay toilet ban a triumph over sexism. Is it so hard to understand why urinals are cheaper to operate and more difficult to lock than stalls?

In any case, CEPTIA was remarkably effective. In 1970 there were some 50,000 pay toilets in America and by 1980 there were almost none. The attentive reader, however, will not be surprised to learn that smashing the pay toilet conspiracy did not result in an abundance of free toilets.

In the decades since CEPTIA disbanded, however, pay-toilet bans have proven to be a Pyrrhic victory. The committee’s vision of free toilets for all never came to pass. Cities have persistently refused to construct public restrooms, and existing facilities have fallen into disrepair. Citing the difficulty of keeping bathrooms safe and clean, municipalities are often unwilling or unable to pay. Even assuming that funds are available for initial construction of public toilets, the maintenance and operating costs are a deterrent.

By contrast, in cities from Europe to India to Latin America, small entrance fees help to cover the costs of keeping facilities in good condition. Creating a similar revenue stream to defray operating costs would likely make pay toilets more attractive to U.S. municipalities. For example, fees could offset the costs of hiring restroom attendants—an excellent, but expensive, way to keep bathrooms safe. Pay toilets also redistribute the operating costs of restrooms. Free toilets are, of course, taxpayer-funded, while under pay-toilet schemes, tourists who use urban infrastructure also contribute to its functioning.


I thought American readers might be amused to know that the "average" pay toilet, in a permanent facility, seems to cost about 30p (40c) here in the UK. Quality is fairly consistent; clean and functional and well-lit if not luxurious. An attendant is usually mopping about.

We have public "free" toilets as well, but the quality of those is a lot more variable! The best ones are at motorway service stations, but elsewhere you take your chances!

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No. I've traveled through much of Europe and parts of Asia, and I have never felt that toilets are harder to find in the US. Rather, there are many locations where in the US there would definitely be a free toilet (major tourist attraction, e.g.) while in Europe it is paid. I realize that this is anecdote, but convenience has an affective aspect to it. I have never felt as in need of a toilet as when the only toilet is a pay toilet and I have no coins.

I had the same experience recently in Europe. I often expected free toilets (by analogue to the US) and was only able to find pay toilets. And in general toilets were harder to find, especially at big tourist attractions.

I suggest a reasonable compromise: no pay toilets at publicly owned facilities.

So Starbucks can keep their toilets private, if they want, but the toilets at the Statue of Liberty or the library or courthouse are still free to the public.

In Portugal, my impression is that pay toiletes (including pay urinols) are very rare and usually associated to coffes and restaurants, in the system where what you pay for using the toilets is discounted in the price of the meal/coffe (in practice, you only pay if you will use only the WC without buying anything).

Tabarrok is risking a charge that he is sexist for supporting pay toilets. But what's next for the gender police, a ban on sales tax on tampons. I can't resolve the gender difference when it comes to tampons, but I can resolve the gender difference when it comes to toilets: ban urinals and lifting seats. That way everyone has to sit. Of course, we all know that even today without the ban on lifting seats many women don't sit, which has a negatively affects accuracy. I suppose one could resolve that problem with larger toilet bowls or a mandatory class in how to achieve near perfect accuracy while peeing. Libertarians would likely oppose all of these attempts to avoid gender war, but they must make a choice: war or pees.

Either Rayward doesn't get out very much or he doesn't use men's restrooms. For most of us who do not enjoy a toilet seat sprayed with urine, banning urinals and lifting seats is a horrible idea.

Australia has just scrapped sales tax on tampons actually.

I am from Moscow. And I find the idea of inability to find either free or paid toilet in a 1km radius to be very wild and quite inhumane. I have not seen any problems with condition of free bathrooms in Moscow, while I have seen some with toilets in other cities (however they still have some free-standing ones and always a lot near malls and other places of higher human concentration).

It is different. Russians have cared about toilets for decades. Stalin famously ordered Khruschev to supply Moscow with more public toilets. Lenin famously wanted workers to have golden toilets.

There are places in the USA where there are no BUILDINGS within a 1 km radius. Or a 10 km radius. Or more. Some of our national parks and public lands (BLM-managed lands), for example, are truly enormous. You're not going to find a toilet anywhere in those areas.

In towns, cities, and the like? If you can find a gas station, you can find a toilet. I've traveled and worked across the Continental USA, and have only run into one or two cases where that wasn't the case.

San Francisco! Under enlightened Dem leadership, you're never more than a sidewalk away from a "free toilet".

I have a Russian toilet story (I speak no Russian, I'm a Greek). In St. Petersburg, I paid a small fee to use a public toilet that looked like a "kiosk" (or Port-A-John). When I got in, I took a massive #2. And boy was the woman operator mad! Wow. She even banged on the door and opened a small trap door (like a small window) to signal to me while I was still inside. I think what happened is that I paid for a #1 (she had said something in Russian and I just nodded my head an paid her a ruble) but took a #2, which apparently must have a different fee. I just walked away and told her in Russian "I don't speak Russian" (the only phrase I know). St. P btw was a nice city, I went there during the long days of July.

Bonus trivia: I almost forgot: Toiletgate (informal, chess) A 2006 controversy around the World Chess Championship, in which Vladimir Kramnik was accused by his opponent's manager of visiting the toilet suspiciously frequently during games, with implications of cheating. (Big Vlad won btw despite forfeiting a game over some petty dispute).

Ray, I'm not sure I'd ever want you to visit my house, but I'll be damned if you're not consistently one of the most amusing commenters on here.

Best to be safe. He might do an enormous #2, wherever.

They a actually employ toilet operators to man these things? No wonder it is so expensive.

It's nice to see someone from Russia openly commenting as a Russian. And in very good English too. Welcome.

( It's a nice sign that people in Russia feel comfortable commenting on Enlish-speaking message boards for fun. )

Hey; some of us Putin bots have been commentating on your message boards in good English for some time now!

Urinals are almost as massive and complex as a toilet. About the same maintenance. No, they are not necessarily less costly and there is no reason to coin operate stalls over urinals.

The real problem is that men can pee anywhere as a bit of downtown stench will tell you.

Urinals don't have toilet paper (an ongoing and substantial cost) .

And they consume much less floor space per unit.

And less water per flush...

Some consume NO water per flush--they are designed to not allow urine to stick to the material (hydrophobic coverings on the ceramic, I think). This makes the urinals nearly maintenance-free, so long as they don't get clogged and the drain pipes don't burst.

envision Australia;
what are the 2 things they have they we don't have?
a lotta weird sex
in clean public bathrooms

our model suggests theres probly gonna be less hepatitis fever
back pain icterus pale yella stools
and weird dark urine

also probably gonna be less vomiting

probably not so many itchy intestinal worms
like these

why can't the sex bots also clean the public bathrooms
its win win

our model suggests
the australian sex bots make the best cleaners

Yeah but then we get the Blade Runner scenario when they make a run for freedom.

Or even worse the unmanned drones get disconnected from their command network and make decisions on their own as in Keith Laumer's classic "The Last Command".

It's a lot easier to substitute making use of a urinal for making use of ... well... anywhere really vs. making use of a stall.

It seems especially easy for those who are less inclined to pay.

"Vespasienne" in Montreal, Canada, 1930
Vespasian imposed a Urine Tax (Latin: vectigal urinae) on the distribution of urine from public urinals in Rome's Cloaca Maxima (great sewer) system. (The Roman lower classes urinated into pots which were emptied into cesspools.) The urine collected from public urinals was sold as an ingredient for several chemical processes. It was used in tanning, and also by launderers as a source of ammonia to clean and whiten woollen togas. The buyers of the urine paid the tax.

The Roman historian Suetonius reports that when Vespasian's son Titus complained about the disgusting nature of the tax, his father held up a gold coin and asked whether he felt offended by its smell (sciscitans num odore offenderetur). When Titus said "No", Vespasian replied, "Yet it comes from urine" (Atqui ex lotio est).[2]

The phrase Pecunia non olet is still used today to say that the value of money is not tainted by its origins. Vespasian's name still attaches to public urinal in France (vespasienne) and Italy (vespasiano)." --

So that is what America has become: a 21th Century Rome!!

The Dutch are following the Romans:

Nothing new under the sun, I guess.

In a captive market pay toilets will not be clean toilets. They will just be pay toilets. Example: Israeli central bus stations - people pay and the toilets are horrible.

So local taxpayers could access tokens at a discount while tourists would have to pay a very full price :-)

What the fuck is wrong with you? I have been to America and I have never experienced a lack of free toilets. They are ubiquituous. To the hammer everything looks like a nail I guess.

It depends on where you go. Many people haven't realized that the US is a rather large place.

It is basically impossible to find a toilet - pay or free - on the Appalachian Trial, or on most of the beach at a National Seashore like Assateague. But then, there are those that don't recognize that much of the US has such a low population density that the need for public toilets is essentially nil. Oddly, that tends to be the European attitude for a number of places too, almost as if something other than legal differences are in play.

The lack of public toilets in much of Maine is pretty much based on the lack of there being any buildings at all.

It's a little unfair to talk about rural and wild places in a conversation about pay and attendant toilets. The urban and rural scenarios are wildly different.

FWIW when the public lands authorities get tired of concentrated poop in the bushes around trailheads and pull-offs, they put in a pit toilet. Then they institute a site user fee to pay for it, which spreads the cost across all visitors, sightseers, picnickers, hikers, and campers.

Normally I quote the text being responded to, Which, in this case, was this - 'Many people haven't realized that the US is a rather large place.'

That line does not make it a bit unfair to talk about rural and wild places, particularly when the comment was dismissing someone else's observations.

yes perhaps I should have put my reply with that original post

Would not peg "end free, effective public conveniences" as a small step toward a much better world.

Hopefully next in our oasis of efficiency we can institute 20-cent fees for public parks and 15-cent fees for water fountains.

Sometimes the libertarians forget to leave out the interim step where we are no longer able to do things we once did with ease (why?); if you mentally put that back in, then you can more easily regard a proposal such as this as that small step toward a better world.

Well of course, taxpayers (who own the public lands) are asked to pay again to visit them via user fees and passes, even for undeveloped and limited development areas.

This "pay twice" ethos does not seem to apply to mining, logging, and oil & gas extraction, in terms of royalties, road building , and remediation. Or to publicly funded research into commercial uses of forest products.

Few people are aware that only something less than 10% of the entire USFS budget goes to operating trails and campgrounds. Half now goes into the massive firefighting boondoggle, but the rest goes somewhere besides trails.


Yes, boondoggle. The coast of protecting wildland-interface homes is spread across the entire county. And subsidizes the status quo, preventing sensible building/zoning codes, etc. It was a system designed to protect timberland assets, and is being used as a fire protection for mountain homeowners. There is of course a need for the services, but they need to be restructured, and costs need to be shifted to reflect homeowner/community choices.

it is also most certainly a boondoggle in terms of its profiteering and contractor structure. I would think that on a libertarian blog, the audience would be familiar with what can happen when billions of dollars of emergency public spending are unleashed.

The companies pay a lease and then pay taxes.

It is generally agreed that the companies do not pay market rates for their leases, and the fees do not cover the cost of support (i.e. road building in particular).

That may or may not be true. I’m not a BLM expert.

But your point was that people pay twice and corporations do not.

In fact they pay leases and then pay taxes on the income derived from operating on the land. So they in effect pay twice.

Generally agreed by who? Those leases are often unprofitable, as demonstrated by their abandonment and the government’s frequent lack of bidders.

Most of the companies I've worked for (as a consultant) that have worked on BLM land have had to pay out the nose to do so. Most are smart enough to use existing utility ROWs, so costs are minimized, but there's still substantial costs associated with environmental concerns. These often include donations of land to the BLM in perpetuity, reconstruction of wildlife refuges (wetlands mostly, in my experience), or other remediation/revitalization activities. See any EIR/EIS for details. Fair warning: These documents are generally thousands of pages of highly technical language. I'm increasingly convinced that environmental regulations are little more than textbooks examples of regulatory capture, means of limiting competition; the cost of drafting these documents alone is more than the net worth of most small- and medium-sized businesses.

Yes, certainly the environmental regs morph into a barrier to entry. Which cuts twice, because the large firms not only have the staff to do the paperwork, they have the juice to weaken the regulations themselves and enforcement as well. Leaving mainly just the paperwork itself.

[This is of course not an argument to abandon regulations wholesale]

Nevertheless, despite the paperwork and attorneys enriched, in general the public ends up subsidizing the extractive activity. Road building for logging being an egregious example. Below market royalties of course. And the bankruptcy of mining/drilling concerns leaving remediation bills for the public to absorb, well in excess of the modest bonds.

"What the fuck is wrong with you?"

Fucking in toilets should cost extra.

Anecdotally, I've generally found the US toilets to be second to none. The Normandy American Cemetery is well represented as a bathroom facility oasis in a terrible French toilet desert. I've also found the babushka attended toilets in Russia to be kind of meh. Sure, they're not disgusting, but that's about it.

A knock against the US, though, is toilet facilities and access in lower rent neighborhoods. I've been there, and it's not pretty.

But that's true of almost everything in low-rent neighborhoods, not just toilets.

Sometimes it seems that though Europe is more left-wing than US it has fewer left-wing crazies. Is that true? If so why?

Because a lot of things presented in the U.S. as being right or left wing actually aren't?

And also because we seem to have substantially different definitions of what constitutes the baseline role in a civilized affluent nation in terms of public services and infrastructure.

'in terms of public services and infrastructure'

Or lack thereof, in the U.S.

What is lacking?

We have very high quality free toilets in the United States. They're called "Starbucks"

And "McDonald's".

Most of those have locks and codes to get in, only for customer use.

I've been to a lot of McDonalds and Starbucks and have never seen that in my entire life.

Oh, no, they don't. I have used scillions of McDonald's toilets and not one of them had a lock and code.

As others have said, no, they don't. I've been to McDonald's all across the USA, in the biggest cities and smallest towns, and not one has had a lock or code restricting access.

There are plenty of McD's and Starbucks in the NYC area where you need to be buzzed in or be given a key, and being let in will depend on the store's "customer only" policy or how the employee is feeling at that moment. McD's also vary widely on letting people just sit for extended periods.

For years I had a route job around NYC where I needed to know the location of accessible restrooms. It got tougher as Starbucks got mugged by reality, but the Bloomberg regime kept usable a surprising number of toilets in small parks and playgrounds.

Must be a local phenomenon. I have not encountered that in the Las Angeles Valley, anywhere else in CA, anywhere in Nevada, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Michigan, the Carolinas, the Virginias, Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee, Louisiana, Oregon, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, the Dakotas, or Utah. I have worked in inner cities and in rural areas in all those states (plus a few more that I'm forgetting), and have never once encountered such a mechanism on McDonald's restroom--or that of any other fast food joint, for that matter.

To extrapolate from New York City to the whole of the USA gives a very distorted picture of the nation.

You're very right -- just like the red/blue political map, the urban/rural divide is very clear on the accessible toilet issue.

I'm only speaking for NY and maybe it's true of other big-city centers such as Boston. I'm speaking from more than 10 years of having to plan my work routes with the issue of where to pee hassle-free being a serious concern. Especially if I was out in the boroughs rather than near Grand Central

Just one example: NYC Starbucks were largely no-questions asked before 2010 but many have tightened up their access since then.

Or more accurately, as you say, the NY-Not NY divide.

I'm not saying you're wrong in your description; my argument is that what you're experiencing is very non-representative. Which, to be fair, is to be expected--the continental USA is on the same scale as Europe, and look at the variations in cultures there! The astonishing fact isn't that there's dramatic differences in local culture, it's that there's so much unity within the USA in terms of culture.

In Denver, on the 16th Street Mall, the McD's requires a token. This street has lots of panhandlers and homeless people present, so you can also find classical music being played loudly outside some stores to repel undesirables.

Yes, free lounges too.

Nothing is free.


Heinlein rocks!

Kidney stones?

Well at this point it would be Grave Stones. Or maybe Rolling Stones...

More seriously, I'm sure that would-be pay toilet operators would be happy to operate pay toilets for both men and women, charging the cost of maintaining a woman's bathroom as the cost for both. The cost would probably still be easily affordable for most Americans.

But what will happen next is advocates for the homeless and other leftists looking for something to complain about will begin to say that pay toilets are unfair, racist, unaffordable for low-income Americans, etc. They will pressure local governments to make the toilets free. And the toilets will either go away entirely or maintenance will drop off so much that only the most desperate will use them.

I just haven't found a problem with a lack of toilets in the U.S. All public buildings have them. The same goes for parks and recreational facilities. During events, large numbers of free porta-potties are brought in. In cities areas, the worst case is using a toilet will cost as much as a cup of coffee (or whatever's the cheapest item on the menu). Elsewhere, where crowds and urban social problems don't exist, gas stations and fast food places really don't care if you stop in to use their restrooms without buying anything (they're not locked and nobody keeps track).

I agree the bans are dumb, but even so I've never found access to free, clean toilets in the U.S. to be much of a problem.

'All public buildings have them.'

And for free, at least in my experience. Almost as if public buildings are there to serve the public, which likely sounds outrageous to someone of Prof. Tabarrok's bent. Admittedly, DC and Northern Virginia are full of public buildings (like the entire GMU campus), possibly creating a distorted view of other regions.

Public buildings. Well sure after you clear the metal detectors. So don't be in a hurry.

GMU buildings do not have metal detectors, neither do libraries, DMV offices, or various office buildings where you find government offices.

Admittedly, federal buildings have become a little like bastions of the old East bloc. Courthouses can be a bit of a mixed bag - not all of them require you to go through a metal detector before being able to use the bathroom.

As a kid I remember stopping at the state-run public rest areas for a bathroom break when travelling the interstate highways. I almost never have to do that anymore. In my part of the US, the large private gas stations/truck stops are much better options and so much more frequent.

My experience, too. Where it is difficult to find toilets is in old city centers. Downtown Boston is a b*tch.

One big-city option is to swoop into the lobby of any nice hotel. Just be somewhat presentable and act like you belong.

When road tripping, as I just did for Thanksgiving, I prefer the highway rest stops since it's usually a quicker stop than having to exit and deal with surface street traffic. I'm just old enough I can recall when many highway rest stops had only noisome no- privacy outhouses which left one forever grateful for the invention of the flush toilet. Those pretty much don't exist any more, except maybe on back roads in the boondocks.

I thought this was an illustration of the law of unintended consequences. but I guess my mind works differently than the average MR commenter. Liberalism, recently repainted as "progressivism" (again), is devoted to ignoring results and pretending that good intentions are everything.

In Texas, all you have to do is look for the Sign of the Beaver.

What is their motto? "Toilets (or was it urinals) so clean we should put a mint in them".


Some of the paid facilities in Italy are a joy - many seem to be run by families - decorated and kept clean by them.

This page about the loos of Capri -

I agree with Alex that as to pay toilet revenue, it's important to establish a strong stream. One must also ensure that it is properly directed and regularly disposed by trusted custodians, as it would create a public stink if the process were to be blocked, or if the pool of funding were to overflow.


Drug abuse on public spaces is not a major issue where I live. Even addicts incapable of speaking a single word behave well, no violence. Anyway, you may encounter addicts shooting themselves or just sleeping on free toilets while near zero addicts on pay toilets. The coins make a difference.

But this is a place with a very low crime rate, what would happen in public toilets in the US with not so friendly addicts?

This should be easy to answer: the USA has a LOT of bathrooms available to the public (not "public" in the sense of government-financed, but still open to the general public), and a lot of drug users.

My anecdotal evidence, for what it's worth, is that there really aren't many problems. I've been to some rough gas stations, ones that make me glad I stand to pee, and where I was probably the only person not high at the time (including the employees). Didn't have any trouble. The drug users wanted to use drugs, and I wanted to pee; our goals didn't interfere with each other, so we ignored each other.

Lots of people overdose in bathrooms in libraries and fast food restaurants in the U.S. It's a significant problem

This topic strikes me as an edge case, where the current US solution, is better than the European solution. The transaction costs in pay toilets are substantial enough to make the current model better. It's possible the current model leaves the market under served, but if so it seem to be a marginal amount.

If it's not broke, don't fix it.

If you limit your assessment of "free toilets" to only those operated by a government entity, sure, you'll find there are practically no free toilets in the USA. The reason is simple: we don't, by and large, consider it the government's job to provide them. Private businesses have done so. Gas stations, for example, often have free toilets--most of us make a small purchase to ensure they make some money off it, but many don't require it. They treat it as advertising, since most people do make small purchases.

Maybe the rest of the report makes up for it, but the quoted section is fatally flawed in my opinion. To not take cultural differences into account during a sociological study is simply incomprehensible.

It is not right for the government to charge me to use a toilet, while making it illegal for me to urinate in public.

There is a musical, "Urinetown," about pay toilets. In fact, due to environmental concerns, no one is allowed to excrete anywhere except in officially-sanctioned pay toilets. These, of course, have come under the domination of the crony-capitalist firm "Urine Good Company" (note the pun), which charges extortionate pee fees in order to finance their lavish vacations. Naturally, the pee-oppressed people revolt.

I hear New York has Magnificent facilities.

I've been to the Metropolitan Opera's, and they are not magnificent. They are small, which may work for one act operas like Das Rheingold, but don't work so well for handling the between act crowds of Goetterdaemmerung.

Only in New York City would it cost up to $500,00 to install a self-cleaning toilet and $40,000 a year to maintain it.

Donald Shoup's next book: The High Cost of Free Pooping

Seems to me the problem needs to be broken down into components to solve it.

- Local governments that don't want to/can't pay for anything boring like public infrastructure, unless it is a marquee boondoggle that enriches cronies.
- Men who can't/won't aim their pee.
- Homeless people and street drug users who have no other place to use drugs/bathe/sleep.

FWIW. This country can, um, piss away a stunning amount of money on all sorts of waste, fraud, cronyism, and the like, yet is utterly unwilling to devote comparatively modest funds to simple everyday structural jobs, like paying someone to clean public toilets or buy a supply of toilet paper.

Seattle tried in Pioneer Square.

I believe within a week they were used to shoot up heroin and for streetwalkers to take their clients.

Sounds like they only solved two of the three sub issues.

I think you're getting ahead of yourself. The real question is: Is there a problem to be solved? Do the people in these areas consider the lack of government-funded toilets a significant problem? If not, there's no need to break down the problem as there is no problem to break down. And in many places, there simply isn't a problem--gas stations, fast food joints, coffee shops, and other venders have provided the service, reducing or even obviating the need for government-financed solutions.

In areas where there is a problem, the fact that the private sector can't or won't provide solutions suggests that there's something more serious than tax payers merely not wanting to pay janitors. What that "something" is needs to be established prior to any proposed solutions, public or private.

Well of course.

However, I do pay a "tax" for use of gas station toilets, in the form of buying bottled water and snack mixes I don't necessarily want or need. Or buying a cup of coffee at a coffee shop or drink in a bar. Just to use the toilet. Which is part of the generally unwritten code for use.

However, as a middle class white male, I have never been challenged or faced hostility for using toilets. So I don't know the threshold below which the current system isn't available to all.

"However, I do pay a "tax" for use of gas station toilets, in the form of buying bottled water and snack mixes I don't necessarily want or need."

I wouldn't call that a tax, for several reasons. For one, it's voluntary; for another, it's not the government issuing it. Calling it a tax is akin to calling tipping a tax.

Besides, most of the time I can find something I want/need at a gas station. They don't just sell drinks; they sell snacks, toiletries, and other conveniences. As long as the restroom is being maintained, I see no problem paying for the service. (If it's not, I tend to go somewhere else anyway.)

Someone, somewhere, somehow has to pay to install, maintain, and operate the toilet. If the price for doing so is purchasing a cup of coffee, I consider that to be pretty low.

Yes, it is fundamentally illiberal to ban a business model that does no violence to anyone. For that alone, pay toilets should be legal.

That said, the opportunity cost of applying energy to this argument defies wisdom. The US marketplace of ideas has chosen to cross subsidize toilets and, from a utilitarian view, it arguably works better than the European model. In addition, or rather subtraction, this will further alienate your fellow travelers on the left who will see this as another heartless attack on the homeless.

If pay toilets do start preempting semi-public and public toilets, I think it is reasonable to expect more than a few utilitarian losses in terms of human waste in semi-public and public spaces.

So, morally, you are dead on right. Pragmatically, I think you are wasting your energy.

As a European (Dutch) I have to reply: one of the few things the U.S. does better than Europe is the access to and quality of sanitary amenities. As almost always Tabarrok you are fully of sh*t, here literally!

As an American in the Netherlands, I originally disliked pay toilets (which I can vaguely remember from my childhood in the 70s), but now prefer them. They are numerous and clean.

The truth about Red China and America:

Whole issue strikes me as a bit of a crapshoot..... :)

"The logic seems to be if we cannot sit for free then you cannot stand for free. " And, if we don't have the space to install a wheelchair-accessible stall then no one can have a stall.

BTW, I always wondered why the ubiquitous "Bathrooms are for customers only" policies couldn't morph into "They're pay toilets only if you're not a customer."

In any case, places where it's legal to pee can be difficult to find in American cities. Apparently there were once toilets in the NYC subway, but they were removed eons ago because they acquired a reputation of being a good place to get mugged. At least if your child is male you can usually find a dumpster or something for him to pee behind.

For that matter, there was once a time when most popular-price restaurants had jukeboxes, but today they seem to be rare (and when available, don't seem to get used much).

"BTW, I always wondered why the ubiquitous "Bathrooms are for customers only" policies couldn't morph into "They're pay toilets only if you're not a customer.""

The cost of installing facilities to ensure payment is higher than the losses incurred by people not obeying that policy. It's cheaper to lose a few cents worth of water/sanitary sewer payments than to spend thousands of dollars installing new technology or, in some cases, completely renovating bathrooms. It's not just installing a new lock on the door--there's the infrastructure to run it (computer programs, electronics, even a simple lock takes time and money to install), AND the fact that you're inviting the inspectors to poke around. That can mean tens of thousands in additional renovations.

The alternative is to say "These are for customers only; all others will be charged $1". The reality is that this is the same concept as is currently operational (ie, trusting the customer to be honest), and can be worse for the business if people are already buying something with a profit margin above what they'd charge to use the restroom.

I strongly disagree about being unable to find a place to legally pee in American cities. Every fast-food joint, most gas stations, and many other facilities have sanitary facilities. Sometimes you have to ask, and courtesy demands you offer a token payment, but I've never had trouble finding a place to use a toilet in a major US city.

Has nobody here been to San Francisco? The free toilets are called sidewalks, and the city employs a large number of people to pick up the poop and, one hopes, hose down the pee.

IIRC, some years ago the city contracted for the placement of a bunch of inexpensive pay toilets (French company?) that looked like round closets on the sidewalks, but these were removed because they attracted prostitutes and people wanting privacy to inject drugs.

"Cities have persistently refused to construct public restrooms, and existing facilities have fallen into disrepair. Citing the difficulty of keeping bathrooms safe and clean, municipalities are often unwilling or unable to pay."

Surprising. Absolutely. Nobody.

Except CEPTIA, I guess.

I would suggest that the standard of pay toilets in Europe, and perhaps other regions, was driven by the scarcity of the water and sewage infrastructure. That was never really a problem in the USA.

It is kind of an odd perspective we get from economists -- though clearly the lenses they see through. I think most would see advancement of society and technology as seeking to remove scarcity, at least in a relative sense if not an absolute sense. Here the argument is we should start creating a form of scarcity by imposing (or creating incentives to do so) pricing on what is currently offered "for free". The reality is that these are not free and merely show in the overhead costs in most cases. It's not at all clear that allowing fee toilets would reduce total pecuniary costs so not clear that would drive to a superior equilibrium in the markets.

A lot of cities more or less tried to dump the problem of providing toilets on to private establishments, requiring that public establishments make their restrooms available regardless of payment. Of course, it's one thing to pass that law, another for it to be practiced in reality.

It was an eye-opener when I visited New York City recently. Times Square has huge crowds and a big subway station, but there are no public restrooms.

Until the smartphone took over there used to be payphones everywhere -- was that considered exploitative, sexist or classist?

It's pretty funny watching all the old 5-0's and seeing how often Danno, Duke and Chin have to stop at payphones and shovel in the coins to get in touch with the boss. (Pay toilets have fortunately not come up as an issue)

Only to people without arms.

I will point out that Superman has not been spotted since

The fundemental question that seemed to have been mostly avoided here is in terms of public toilets in crowded areas is: who is providing the service to who?

Is a cafe owner providing a service to you by reducing the amount of human waste in his alleyway? Who benefits most from providing access to homeless people for a bathroom?

This is of course a question with all public services, but strikes me that the benefits are pretty tangible in this case.

I am happy to pee next to a dumpster or poop in a thicket. Store owners should pay me not to

There are both carrots and sticks. Your reputation mgiht suffer if other people catch you peeing on dumpsters and pooping in thickets. Women might find you less attractive.

More importantly it’s illegal.

Store owners can call the police and have him arrested.

My reputation for thrift would be enhanced though. Along with my principled refusal to pay ransom for my bodily functions.


Liberals’ stance on pollution versus literally defacating all over the street and private property is one of the strangest things I’ve read this year.

There’s a bigger cultural divide than I had apparently realized.

One side demands the right to shit on your property. The other side says you can’t declare carbon dioxide a pollutant by fiat, but must instead be a bill passed into law.


Indeed. If McMike is entitled to a free toilet, why is Duke Energy not entitled to a few place to dispose of nuclear waste?

In my country not only are public toilets free, but if I provide my own truck I can pick up as much free human biosludge as I want. Huzzah for poop communism!

As other commenters have noted, the alleged shortage of public toilets in the US is a myth told by economists to justify their theoretical models: the Fable of the Pees.

It's amusing how even after the ban, many California businesses have locked restrooms and policies that only paying customers of the business can use them -- thus effectively charging a fee while still either complying with the law or getting away with breaking it (depending on how one reads the law).

The real point of such policies, of course, is not to be cheap or coercive, but to prevent the bathrooms from getting frequently broken or dirtied up, as one would expect if the homeless, or badly behaved teens, were allowed in them.

The reasoning of CEPTIA, though, seems to me of a piece with some of the worst parts of supposedly pro-equalist laws, such as the ADA regulation (already postponed multiple times) that says all hotels must close their swimming pools unless they have wheelchair lifts installed. Such laws are never going to give any segment of the public more or better facilities -- they always just amount to petty bureaucrats saying, "if you won't play MY way, I'll take my ball and go home!" This is why we can't have nice things.

So paying customers never include men who don't aim well, women who clog facilities by flushing sanitary napkins, and people who have a disastrous #2 accident? In my misspent youth I worked in a popular nightclub. You had to show ID and pay cover to enter. So in effect the restroons were limited to paying customers . But they were anything but pristine by the end of the night.

This is not a good look for libertarians

Thanks, Alex, for solving what has long been a mystery to me: why does socialist Europe have pay toilets while free market US does not?

Unsurprisingly you want the US to fit its own ideology, but as someone who has spent a lot of time all over Europe, my observation is that a lot of those pay toilets in Europe are not in all that good shape. And as someone who has had several kidney stones with the resulting impact on my ability to hold it, I find myself very much appreciating the availability of free toilets, which also do not seem to be all that scarce here in the US.

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