Monday, March 8, 2021

Pay toilets and NYT: a free market microcosm

Nicholas Kristof in Sunday's New York Times asks a pressing -- often quite pressing -- question. Why are there no public toilets in America? He is right. He calls for a federal infrastructure plan to fix the problem: "Sure, we need investments to rebuild bridges, highways and, yes, electrical grids, but perhaps America’s most disgraceful infrastructure failing is its lack of public toilets."

Now, put on your economist hat. Or even put on your reporter hat. Ask the question why are there no public toilets in America? 

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I hope that didn't take too long. Answer: Because it's illegal to charge for toilets. There were once abundant public toilets in America, as there are in many other countries. And you pay a small fee to use them. A small fee that everyone in Nicholas' stories would have been delighted to pay. 

This answer is not hard to find, and indicative of the spirit at the New York Times that neither Kristof nor anyone else involved thought to find out. My first google search was "pay toilets illegal." The first three results gave the answer.  Aaron Gordon tell the story nicely. It's a classic of 1960s activists demanding that bathrooms be declared free, bemoaning inequities in who needs to use toilets more, and the inevitable result. (Interestingly  many pay toilets were introduced by railroads, who first tried to give them only to customers and employees, but then learned they could make money allowing everyone to use them.) Also  Sophie House at Bloomberg City Lab, Marginal Revolution covering the same. 

But you have to ask the question!

The absence of pay toilets is in fact a delightful encapsulation of so much that is wrong with American economic policy these days. Activists decide free toilets are a human right, and successfully campaign to ban pay toilets. For a while, existing toilets are free. Within months, upkeep is ignored, attendants disappear, and the toilets become disgusting,  dysfunctional and dangerous. Within a few years there are no toilets at all. Fast forward, and we have a resurgence of medieval diseases that come from people relieving themselves al fresco. Now let's talk about rent control. 

You will jump to "what about people who can't afford to pay?" as House did, consuming the majority of her article that should instead have been about practicalities. This too is a great teachable moment. One of the top 10 principles of economics is, don't silence prices in order to transfer incomes.  That dictum is particularly salient here because we're literally talking about quarters. Let's add: especially, ludicrously small amounts of income. Is it really wise to silence the incentive to create, provide, and maintain clean safe toilets, in order to transfer a few dollars of income to the less fortunate? 

Maybe, you say. But look how well requiring toilets to be free has worked out. Before, a person experiencing homelessness had to beg for a nickel to use a toilet. Now there are no toilets. They are worse off than if we had pay toilets and them no money. And, really, does your and my life need to be so screwed up, does the government have to interfere in a business' desire to provide a clean restroom and make a little money, and your and my desire to pay a small fee to relieve a bursting bladder, because of the problem of transferring a few dollars' income? Now let's talk about health care and insurance. 

If you wish, though, the answer is simple enough. Let us add to the stimulus bill a $5/month additional to every resident of the US to compensate them for the cost of using public toilets. Oh, you worry they'll spend that on something else? Well, we could talk about paternalism, but let's just cut to the chase and distribute tokens or bus-pass cards. 

Kristof and the Times, of course, would prefer a national infrastructure project to provide free toilets. If you've followed this over the years, you will see many efforts at government provided toilets. Costs are often hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the effort falls apart. There are some free toilets. In Chicago, the park district still had some. Without the incentive to charge a bit of money, they were typically disgusting and dangerous. Now let's talk about $80 billion dollar high speed trains to nowhere. The problems of public infrastructure are not money. (See the SF Chronicle article "$28.50 per flush" on one experiment in California.) 

Well, you might say next, ok, but the toilets of course must be built to standards, certified, regulated, inspected, licensed to ensure quality. Hmm. Now we face the inexorable tragedy of public goods. Toilets, like everything else in life, come in gradations, gradations of clean vs. cheap. Not everyone wants the same thing. Some might want $28.50 trips to beautiful refreshment stops. Some might be willing to put up with a bit of smell and grunginess if it only cost a quarter. No public allocation can bring itself to admit that gradations in quality vs. cost are desirable. So we get nothing at immense cost. 

The ban on pay toilets is only part of the problem. As the articles or basic commonsense make clear, the key to clean safe bathrooms is attendants. Real, human attendants. This is not a fun job. It is well suited to new immigrants, especially who don't speak English, are not well attuned to American culture, and have little education or training. We have quite a few of those.  But now ask, will this work if the attendants need to be regular employees, paid $15 an hour, with 8 hour schedules, rest breaks, health insurance, retirement plan, overtime, e-verified immigration status, and the full rest of US labor regulation? How will it work if in addition they are unionized government employees? That's pretty much where the $28.50 per flush went. Doesn't everyone deserve such a decent job you say? Indeed they do. Everyone deserves $50 an hour. But at $28.50 per flush, you won't have pay toilets. And the immigrants will not have any jobs at all. 

Like so many problems in the US, this one can be solved with one simple policy: Get out of the way. Allow businesses to build, maintain, and charge for toilets. Allow people to pay for a service so dearly needed. If we can't free a market for a service that literally costs 25 cents, heaven help the rest of the economy.  Now let's talk about housing. 

Indeed, a good place to start would simply be to let restaurants, bars, gas stations, or even retail stores charge for the restrooms they have now. The current system (legal or no) that you have to buy something to use the restroom dramatically raises the price -- now you need to buy $10 of something you don't want, instead of 50c for the thing you do want. And most stores just don't let people use restrooms at all. 

I keep waiting for America's libertarian moment. We'll know it has arrived when pay toilets return. 

Update: Emperor Vespasian introduces pay toilets to Rome. He also coined the phrase "“Pecunia non olet” (Money does not smell), an important lesson for these guilty times. Thanks to a correspondent. 

Another aphorism, arising from a twitter exchange: Regulation to transfer incomes by tipping the scales of bilateral negotiation always has unintended consequences. Much (most?) economic regulation attempts to do that -- to privilege workers, renters, car buyers, tow truck customers, and so on in bilateral negotiations, thereby to transfer income or "surplus" of the bargain to one party or the other. And now, to privilege toilet-users vs. toilet providers, in the transfer of a trivial amount of income. It often destroys the provision of the service over whose rents we squabble, and the lost consumer surplus far exceeds any rents one side may have gotten, especially with free entry. 

45 comments:

  1. San Jose California had pay toilets when I lived there ten years ago.

    https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/San-Jose-Follows-S-F-s-Example-With-High-Tech-2974198.php

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  2. It astounds me that a person as influential as Nicholas Kristof couldn't figure this out.

    I was pleasantly surprised to find that they had pay toilets in London.

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  3. Regulations, especially the ADA, are also obstacles. Separately, I thought that everything in Europe was supposed to be admired. (Trains, small cars & apartments, "free" health insurance, etc.) Somebody ought to let out the secret that pay toilets are common in Europe.

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  4. I remember my first trip to Europe as a teenager, and being astounded (AGAHST!) that the toilet in London (I think) that I was wanting to use required me to pay a small fee. Felt down-right extortionary!

    But I think that, like many things, it comes down to the choice of what services we want provided by an unrestrained free market and what services we want provided by tax dollars. I can certainly see externality arguments for provision of bathrooms by tax dollars. So let's not ignore that.

    Unfortunately, the US has ended up in the worst possible state: neither private nor publicly provided!

    We should also recognize that this is definitely a big-city issue. If you live in the suburbs or a small- to medium-sized city then I don't think this issue has crossed anyone's mind much.

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    1. The externality argument would be more relevant in cultures where people feel uninhibited about openly defecating in public. If anything, "gouging" would be more plausible (though unrealistic) in emergency situations. But even with gouging being a lousy business strategy, it would still be an improvement over no restrooms at any price.

      I could see low- and high-end facilities cross-subsidizing each other, like airplane sections. The masses could have cheap, but clean and functional facilities -- and maybe a "pro membership" could guarantee high-end Toto toilets with extra privacy or something.

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  5. Here's a good example from my own backyard: city of Seattle is replacing existing restroom building with a new one in the same location. New restroom facility will have the same footprint, will reuse existing water and power connection. It will have a total of 3 (three) stalls, which probably would better be described as minirestrooms, as each of the stalls will have its own sink, baby changing station etc. The building will have 240 sq ft in total.

    What's the cost of the project? $638,000. Yep, no kidding, for a 240 sq ft building containing three small bathrooms.

    https://www.seattle.gov/Documents/Departments/ParksAndRecreation/Parks/AlkiBeachParkComfortStationOpenHousePresentation_20190330.pdf

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    1. Here is a link to a copy of the construction/design specification for new public washrooms acquired by The City of Vancouver (British Columbia, Canada).
      https://vancouver.ca/files/cov/public-washroom-design-and-technical-guidelines.pdf

      Judging from the document, it is evident that public washroom design and construction costs will be higher today than in the past, and higher than the cost of constructing a bathroom in most new private houses and apartments on a per square foot basis.

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  6. Ever since Starbucks made it official policy to allow anyone, regardless of if they are a customer or not, to use their toilets for free - doesn't that mean we have about 8,000 free public toilets?

    Obviously Starbucks could change the policy at anytime, or not implement it on the ground, but for now it seems to be a lot of free public toilets for those in need. And they get cleaned regularly and don't cost local/state governments anything. I was in a CVS and someone asked for a toilet, and the cashier said "Starbucks, next door."

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    1. Pretty soon we'll have no Starbucks. Get woke, go broke.

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    2. The market disagrees with you. Not just about Starbucks.

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    3. looooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooool

      okay, chief mcedgy edgerton

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    4. Starbucks has greatly reduced their dine-in outlets.Billed as “COVID” but started before that.

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    5. "doesn't that mean we have 8,000 free public toilets?" You have to be kidding me, free? nothing is free.

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  7. on the contrary, most metro areas in the US *do* have paid public restrooms, available for the cost of a cup of coffee

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    1. That suffers from the problem the author described: you have to spend $3 to buy a cup of coffee you don't want instead of 50¢ just to use the toilet.

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  8. Most on the left consider the paucity of 'pay' toilets a human rights success.
    https://psmag.com/economics/dont-pay-toilets-america-bathroom-restroom-free-market-90683

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  9. Actually there are lots of free toilets that are open to the public - many fast food places, large stores and government buildings (libraries, hospitals and universities). Currently these places are closed due to COVID, byt they will be back. This is a case of positive externalities. It may be that this means pay toilets would not be profitable.

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    1. In the homeless sanctuary that is the SF Bay Area, library restrooms are bathing and residence halls. UC Berkeley required library cards for access to prevent their libraries from becoming the same. The toilets in parks have been redesigned using hostile architecture to prevent the same, but it doesn’t always work.

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  10. Perhaps it is an idiosyncratic feature of NYC? As a frequent visitor and traveller throughout the Pacific NW region, I've never encountered an issue finding a public toilet or a private washroom in a private business that was operating in a 'public accommodation'-designated industry (e.g., fast food and grocery stores). Several municipalities in the region provide restrooms for travellers at no cost; the rest rooms are open "7/24". After some reflection, I don't recall there being an issue in western Montana or Wyoming either.

    [Must be an 'Eastern' problem.]

    As a private business venture, in the West, it would not be 'top-of-mind'. Ergo, if such conveniences are to be provided, they are provided by municipalities as those organizations usually have a more compelling reason to advance an acceptable business case for undertaking the capital investment and supporting operating costs necessary for the provision of those facilities as adjuncts to their other public goods production (parklands, civic centers, community halls, etc.)

    Specialization is also a 'free market(er's)' doctrine. And, just as we frequent grocer's as customers for the time and cost efficient provision of foodstuffs, so we frequent municipal facilities for the provision of public goods and services that municipalities can supply more efficiently than private capital can at the margin.

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    1. No Mr Eagle Eye, it isn't an "Eastern problem". Your personal experience is inadequate to count as data.

      Starbucks in San Francisco, WA, OR often shut their restrooms to customers, as staff apparently tire of cleaning them.

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  11. And the reason Tokyo has lots of free public toilets is...

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    1. No homeless, no drugs, no crime, 100% politeness rate?

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    2. Right. I hate to say it, but people in the Asian Pacific are better citizens.

      Governments in the Asian Pacific tend to be "pro (domestic) business" for better or worse. Government and business work hand-in-hand (being pro-business is different from being pro free markets).

      I suspect the Asian Pacific nations will eclipse the US within a few decades, and already have in terms of quality of life in many regards.

      However, due to the contentiousness that defines American politics, I don't see how the Asian Pacific model can be used in the US. And how can we make Americans into better citizens?





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    3. Japan has avoided many of these western-world problems by making it next to impossible to immigrate there.

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    4. There are loads of homeless people in Tokyo. Petty crime is a thing. Big city ills are totally a thing (maybe not as crazy as the US, where the bottom is falling out).

      Immigrating here is also totally doable.

      The reason there are loads of free public toilets that are clean is because buildings pay to have them cleaned on a regular basis. And they're free because they're mandated to be free. And there are laws about having them in public parks.

      People just pay taxes. It's not rocket science.

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    5. Pop quiz: in Tokyo, do black lives matter?

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    6. "And how can we make Americans into better citizens?"

      More immigration?

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  12. Another failing from the economics profession with respect to its students. How many econ graduates would have been swayed by this NY Times article that the public toilet mystery has no clear cause and only one clear answer

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  13. In Melbourne Australia public toilets in inner ciry (maybe suburbs as well) are free. They work and are not dirty. Why? It might be worh noting that wearing of masks and Covid lockdown have been straightforwardly adhered to and successful.

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    1. In Sydney, AU, free bathrooms are also the norm, as is the case in Canada. In Sydney I grew accustomed to public toilets being a thing I could just rely on existing, instead of having to panic and figure out what store I could find and convince to let me use their bathroom.

      I'm thinking the bigger problem is that shortly after the 60s activists' wins, rich people in America threw a capital strike and demanded an end to the funding of any kind of collective good. It's also why the rest of America's infrastructure is crumbling to shit: the petite-bourgeois demand everyone else do the hard work and pay the cost but not them, and the people holding lots of capital say "oh well not my problem" and move more of their capital out of range.

      And it's weird that Chicago's park district bathrooms, the toilets on every Chicago commuter train (Metra), the bathrooms in Chicago's commuter train stations, the bathrooms in NYC's Central Park, and the many other publicly maintained bathrooms in the world seem to keep functioning because the government actually pays people to maintain them. Funny how that goes, as though people convincing the government to prioritize the things that matter to them can lead to those things happening.

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  14. I think both the libertarian side of this and the Kristof side of this are curiously blind to how average people and businesses deal with bathroom strategizing. I can find a bathroom for free in America in places that one can't get in Germany - 1) a gas station, 2)a public park, 3)a bus/train station, 4) and a construction site (okay, the last one was technically not open to me, but I doubt anyone cares). I think the regulation has probably created the effect, that many businesses do not enforce their 'no public bathroom rule' strictly. I can go into a KFC or Burger King and not buy anything but use their bathroom; and I do frequently. In practice, I think, businesses trade bathroom privileges for public goodwill. So the equilibrium for this situation is beyond what a strict libertarian would predict.

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  15. There's free toilettes everywhere in the US ,.. what are you talking about? I never have trouble finding one. Just walk into any business or restaurant, park, hwy rest area, mall, stadium, shopping center ..etc

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  16. My opinion: 20% of the people mistreat public property (restrooms in this example) and have pushed us into a lack of toilets in our big cities. What to do? Design bullet proof toilets. San Francisco has a few of these: doors open after 15 minutes and the things starts cleaning itself. Making it hard to do drugs or sleep inside. Sad, yes, but they do seem to be a step in the right direction for big cities. Some of these are free; others cost $1 or less. Cops watch them too.

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  17. The solution is simple and increasingly many cities do it: install automated, self cleaning toilets and get a company to spring for maintenance in exchange for the ad space on them.

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  18. There is no way you can have a profitable clean public restroom with an attendant no less that costs 25c per visit. There is a good reason such restrooms only exist in very ritzy hotels and restaurants.

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  19. America is just uniquely bad at providing public infrastructure. This is just not a problem in NZ. There are plenty of free public toilets in parks, and you don't have to awkwardly deal with attendants. They're regularly cleaned, and kept to an acceptable standard (admittedly could be nicer, and probably would be if private toilets not crowded out by free ones, but I prefer our equilibrium.

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  20. Gas stations in northern Europe (NL, Belgium) have a nice approach: you pay 50-75 cents to use the toilet and if you buy something, that price is credited back. They're clean, so it must be profitable for them (lots of people don't buy anything).

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  21. Where I live the growing scarcity of public bathrooms seems directly correlated with the growing homelessness problem. In places there are many homeless people, finding a useable bathroom is tricky. Where there are not, finding a useable bathroom is easy.^

    That said I do appreciate that not every city is the same, so perhaps there are places in the U.S. where public bathroom access is more of a high-minded policy issue. But that's hard for me to relate to: from where I sit this is just yet another wrinkle to the challenge of finding pragmatic-but-humane ways to address the ever growing number of homeless in our cities.

    ^For what it's worth I do think pay toilets could improve things at the margins, as the "just use a coffee house toilet then buy a small coffee on the way out" solution that 99.9% of city dwellers employ doesn't seem ideal for anyone involved.

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  22. Portland Oregon has placed free bright red portapotties around the city. As a retired economist who walks about the city a lot and frequently needs to pee, I was delighted. Here's what has happened: many have become tiny houses for the "houseless" and cannot be used by the passersby. Others have become shooting places and are littered with needles, blood, etc. I had a conversation recently with a city employee who had come to clean one of the portapotties that I had been unable to access (apparently someone living inside). He said he has a number of times opened the door to find someone passed out with a needle sticking out of their arm. So much for free in Portland.

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  23. A friend visiting China 30 years ago told me that public toilets there were the most disgusting thing he had see. His conjecture "Everyone is equal and too good to clean toilets".

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  24. In New Zealand public toilets are free and count as local council infrastructure, which is funded by rates on local home-owners. In some places there are also a very few pay toilets, but these are special, like art-projects that people are happy to pay to see. I guess it all comes down to (a) whether the locals want their public spaces to be open-air toilets, (b) whether you think every aspect of human life and culture should be parasitised for profit, and (c) whether you think poor people are actually people. For the USA this seems to be (a) Yes, (b) Yes, and (c) No.
    I find this the problem with the strictly economic viewpoint: it completely ignores any long-term or humanitarian considerations.

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    1. Found this interesting article while digging 'down under'. https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/115520716/queens-gardens-public-toilets-cost-more-per-square-metre-than-auckland-houses Takes a little out of that point of every aspect of human life and culture should be parasitised for profit, ay? Looks like everyone has their hand in it for profit on those loos. No free lunch, in the USA or New Zealand. Keep that in mind Kiwi.

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  25. South Korea was a very undeveloped country with no public toilets. Then the 1988 Olympic game arrived and, presto! , the government delivered a law that stated: "every building must have a public toilet at ground floor available to everyone".
    This created a lot of job, better igene and still now if you want to go to the bathroom you just need to walk in in whatever building in Seoul.

    While I have to say that asians are generally very responsible and keen to think about the rest of the population we cannot say the same about European.
    I'm very glad there are paying toilets in Paris and Milan because at least they are cleaner. I won't walk in tino a bublic toilet in Paris not even with a diving suit.

    I agree about New Zealand but... my friends... this will work out till New Zealand is a country that has the dimension of Italy with only 5M people. Try to fir 50M people and you will see the mess.
    I've seen Queen Street in Auckland becomeing rotten from 2015 till 2020, this is what happens in high populated environemnt

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  26. The price of a public toilet in the US is a dollar. And you get a free soda, free cofee, or burger, or whatever you choose in the McDonalds Dollar Menu. It is a better deal than 1/2 euro you pay for just using the toilet in Europe.

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