Why is it so hard to find a public bathroom in the U.S.?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

Graphic for 360 on the scarcity of public bathrooms
The problem of finding a public bathroom is especially acute in the U.S. (Getty Images)

What’s happening

We’ve all been there. You need to go to the bathroom, or maybe your child does. You try one business after another. Finally you end up buying an ice cream cone at a grungy gas station so they’ll give you the access code.

Public potty panic is something of a universal human experience, but it’s a problem Americans deal with a lot more often than people in other countries.

According to the Public Toilet Index, there are about eight public restrooms for every 100,000 Americans. That’s less than half as many as there are in Canada and a seventh of the rate in Iceland. Toilets are even harder to find in many major American cities.

Bathroom access is about more than providing a convenient place to pee. It’s also a public health issue, especially in places with large homeless populations. San Diego has dealt with two separate deadly outbreaks of hepatitis A that have been at least partially attributed to lack of clean bathrooms. There are also potentially serious criminal consequences for anyone forced to relieve themselves in public spaces.

The U.S. hasn’t always been so bereft of public restrooms. In 1970, there were an estimated 50,000 public bathrooms across the country that anyone could use for a small charge. But coin-operated toilets essentially disappeared over the next decade in response to a campaign opposed to the idea that anyone should have to pay to meet their bodily needs. The problem, in many cases, is that nothing came in to replace them.

Why there’s debate

At the most basic level, the lack of the public restrooms is the result of cities not making them a priority.

One of the biggest hurdles is cost. As is the case with many infrastructure projects, building bathrooms costs a lot more in the U.S. than in other nations. And there are ongoing janitorial costs to ensure that the facilities are stocked and sanitary. Some cities also struggle to find locations to put them, often from a combination of restrictive local building codes and opposition from nearby residents worried that the facilities will become filthy or dysfunctional or will bring undesirable activities to the area.

Many experts say the roots of the problem run much deeper and are really the result of how American society has outsourced core services to the private sector (perhaps your local Starbucks or McDonald's).

What’s next

A number of American cities, big and small, have launched recent initiatives to install more restrooms in their public spaces. Philadelphia is calling its new toilets the “Philly Phlush.” It remains to be seen, however, whether these new projects can overcome the challenges that caused many previous plans to go unfinished.


Americans have lost their belief in the public good more generally

“The lack of public restrooms in the United States isn’t just an inconvenience. It’s a sign of America’s failure to invest in communal necessities for the collective good.” — Katrina vanden Heuvel, the Nation

It was a huge mistake to get rid of pay toilets

“It may seem cruel to make people surrender money for something our bodies compel us to do several times a day. But we don’t expect farmers or supermarkets to provide us with food for free. If we did, we would soon be munching grass and tree bark. Price controls invariably keep supply below demand, and mandating a maximum price of zero does that in spades.” — Steve Chapman, Chicago Tribune

Local governments have outsourced their duties to private companies

“The urgency (and I do mean urgency) of installing proper public facilities in every park, or on every fifth street corner, the way a modern city ought to, has been pushed off the agenda over and over for the simple reason that we let Starbucks and its corporate kinfolk worry about it.” — Christopher Bonanos, New York magazine

Crime and vagrancy mean many public restrooms are basically unusable for most people

“The real problem in adding public restrooms to urban centers today is not a lack of funding, but a civic leadership class that is unwilling to address blatantly anti-social and often criminal activity. If every city tackled that, it wouldn’t take much money to start making major improvements in the public realm in areas like public restrooms.” — Aaron M. Renn, Governing

It’s far too expensive to build something so simple in the U.S.

“Not a bad idea on the face of it. It’s nice to have a restroom available when you’re in the park, particularly when you’re there with your kids. Every parent knows what I’m talking about. But then you realize that each one of the toilets could end up costing city taxpayers (that’s me and you) $1 million.” — Tom Wrobleski, Staten Island Advance

Public restrooms would be clean and safe if we gave vulnerable people other places to go

“One way to get out in front of the issue of drug use and vandalism in public restrooms is to have far greater infrastructure for supporting people experiencing homelessness than we currently do, as well as safe injection sites. … In order to get public bathrooms back, we have to be willing to create more space for those who are suffering.” — Quinn O’Callaghan, Philadelphia Inquirer

Many Americans don’t appreciate bathroom access as a basic human right

“Like food, water and shelter, access to safe sanitation is a fundamental human right. While private companies can certainly choose to provide public access to restrooms, it is the government’s responsibility to ensure sanitation for all. And it’s time we held our political leaders accountable.” — Catarina de Albuquerque, Los Angeles Times

The U.S. has abandoned its duty to provide for the most vulnerable

“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.” — Peter Baldwin, professor of history at the University of Connecticut, to Bloomberg