in Industrial Design, New York City, Technology and Society

Toilet Usability – 6 Reasons Why the new NYC Public Toilets are Doomed

With great fanfare, New York City Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff (who will almost certainly never use this toilet himself) today announced the installation of new public toilets throughout the city (toilets he will almost certainly not be using himself.)  The idea of public restrooms in the city is of course highly welcomed, though it’s a bit embarrassing that this is being announced in 2008 and not, say, 1908.  But no matter, when reading the description of the new toilets, there are just so many IMO terrible design choices that were made that I have to wonder if any kind of prototyping/usability testing was completed.  I just can’t imagine these toilets being a success and these are some reasons why:

1 – They look like prison toilets

The new public pay toilet in Madison Square Park (Photo: Mary Altaffer/Associated Press)

There is a very strong association between a stainless steel toilet attached to the wall with no seat and what you might find in a prison cell. In fact, when I first saw a picture of the toilet, I thought that it was a picture of exactly that. The idea of a prison toilet, of course, has strongly negative connotations, somehow making the statement that “citizens of New York are so uncivilized and prone to destruction of property that we have to take the same approach to designing a toilet for them as we would for prison inmates.” Sad indeed.

2 – I would never sit on a public steel toilet without a seat (even if it supposedly had been cleaned)

The reason for this is not only about logic, but also that I would just find it weird. And wouldn’t the toilet also get very hot in the summertime and very cold in the wintertime? Why couldn’t they at least have a plastic top on the toilet that can’t be lifted?

3 – The door to the toilet remains open for 20 to 30 seconds after entering

Like the NYT article says, this will

possibly be the longest and most awkward 20 to 30 seconds of a person’s day. The door slips open like an elevator, but then it stays open, to accommodate those who need extra time getting in. Meanwhile, men and women in suits walk past. It is very difficult to look inconspicuous in a bathroom on a sidewalk in New York with the door open. There is just nothing to do but stand there. And the delay will not please those who are in distress.

So here I am, really needing to go. With most every other toilet I’ve ever encountered, I can close the door behind me as soon as I enter. But here I am supposed to just stand there looking stupid with people walking by? The fact that certain disabled individuals may need more time is all good and well, but they should have the option of preventing the door from closing immediately rather than keep the door open for an extended period for everyone.  This is a case of broad-sword design, in which all users of a product are made to suffer to accommodate an edge case.

4 – The door to the toilet opens automatically after 15 minutes

Interestingly, this second ‘feature’ is in complete contradiction to the door being kept open on entry. What if I am a disabled person who needs more time? I would be publicly humiliated. And, frankly, even if I technically would be able to finish my business in that amount of time, I just don’t like the idea of this time limit hanging over me. And this isn’t just about disabled people. What about older people who need more time? Or parents with their kids? Very very bad, IMO.

5 – The toilets are only open from 8am to 8pm

If these toilets supposedly are completely automated, why in the world can they not be available 24/7? After all, the time when I think a lot of people would want to use something like this is when everything else is closed, i.e. not between 8am and 8pm.

6 – The toilet will use 14 gallons of water per use

This is according the NYT City Room Blog. Keeping in mind that the EPA’s recommendation of water use for a single flush is around 1.5 gallons, this is absolutely egregious. To be clear, the 14 gallons are used to hose down the toilet between each person who has used it. This kind of water waste is IMO simply environmentally unethical, and reason enough for me to avoid it.

  1. Lol I wrote this 2000-word manifesto about NYC Restrooms yesterday on StationStops and came to many of the same conclusions you did.

    Coincidentally, yesterday the Seattle Times reported how their 3+ year APT (Automated Public Toilet) program had been a failure, even though similar toilets are very successful in Europe.

    However, Seattle’s program did not charge a fee for the toilet. Even a token fee of $.25 might prevent enough abuse to make it successful.

    Seattle’s program was also targeted geographically to provide service to the homeless as well as tourists, so they were in some rather sketchy areas to begin with I think.

  2. @3Y – the french squatter concept isn’t that bad at all – in fact, I believe there are public restrooms in Japan and other parts of Asia that have these kinds of public restrooms. Very minimalist design indeed – if Google designed a toilet, that would have to be it :)

  3. Eric – point well taken. Yes, there clearly is the homeless factor to contend with (and possibly even more so in NYC than some European cities.) And I’ll concede that I time limit might be a good solution for that. But I still 15 minutes is too short – especially for someone who is disabled – the potential for public humiliation is just too great.

    And as far as “borrowing” the toilet from a homeless person goes (aside from that it seems perfect fodder for a SNL skit about these toilets), I think a homeless person in Manhattan would try to rent the toilet out to you rather than just let you borrow it: Manhattan Studio – very short term lease – available for immediate occupancy – cheap!

  4. I think the best solution for a public toilet is the “french toilet”.

    Yes it is not that comfortable. But there is no plastic seat someone could demolish and you even get not in “contact” with the toilet at all. And because you can not stand/sit there for longer than a few minutes, there is a natural time limit for you business.

    For disabled persons this is not a solution. Probably they could build special toilets for disabled persons. If I had to choose (as a not disabled person) I would choose the french one.

  5. In many cities, the homeless have taken over these toilets as shelters. Hence, without the automatic opening, a homeless person can enjoy peace and quite for as long as they want for virtually no money. This also ties in with the 8 to 8 limitation, although implementing both limitations does seem somewhat redundant.

    I know this alternative kind of “squatting” has been a problem in Berlin, Budapest, Copenhagen, and Stockholm – and all have implemented time limitations. In fact, in Budapest, before the limits were put into effect, I once (with the help of a friendly interpreter) had to bribe a homeless woman to let me “borrow” her toilet. A completely surreal experience, I assure you.

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