Regulation

'I'm Not Going to Lie: I Used to Smoke Crack in There'

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The City of Seattle had this great idea a while back: Let's invest millions of dollars in free public toilets that open up with the push of a button and self-clean after each use, so that people don't have to, er, patronize a store in order to relieve themselves. But Seattle residents trashed the toilets, and now the city is closing its dilapidated, techno-riffic outhouses and selling them on eBay:

[T]he restrooms, installed in early 2004, had become so filthy, so overrun with drug abusers and prostitutes, that although use was free of charge, even some of the city's most destitute people refused to step inside them….

"I'm not going to lie: I used to smoke crack in there," said one homeless woman, Veronyka Cordner, nodding toward the toilet behind Pike Place Market. "But I won't even go inside that thing now. It's disgusting."

Why did the plan fail? For starters, the people who used the toilets—transients and druggies—didn't have to pay for them:

Seattle officials say the project here failed because the toilets…were placed in neighborhoods that already had many drug users and transients. Then there was the matter of cost: $1 million apiece over five years, which because of a local ordinance had to be borne entirely by taxpayers instead of advertisers.

I should probably check with reason's Ron Bailey on this, but I think Seattle scripted its own commons tragedy.

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  1. You can get your million dollar toilet for the low low price of $89,000! It’s a steal(*)!

    (*) Stolen right from your friendly Seattle neighborhood suckers (I mean taxpayers).

  2. They have those in San Francisco, but they haven’t suffered the same fate, although they’re not pristine. (To be fair, I haven’t used one if over 4 years, so they may be worse now) They needed them, though, because businesses lock bathrooms now, due to junkies trashing them. So the solution was the public restrooms, but I think they cost $1 in SF. And I don’t think they’re as unusable as Seattle’s. Maybe Seattle should have just started charging for use instead of selling them. How much does a ravaged $1 million toilet sell for on eBay?

  3. In Black Tar Heroin, the junkies were always using those toilets (in San Fran) as shelters and places to shoot up. Good documentary, by the way.

  4. Headline should read: “Seattle Pawns Public Privy for Providing Perfect Privacy for Prositutes and Pipe Smokers”

    My name is Brian, I’ll be here all week, tip the veal, try the waitress

  5. open up with the push of a button and self-clean after each use

    This is good, but not perfect: the booth should lock itself, and initiate the cleaning/ disinfecting process with the hippie inside.

    *It’s “Hatin’ on the Hippies” day.

  6. I used one of these in Europe a few years back. It was very good as far as unattended public toilets go. Heck, it was better than most public toilets with an attendant. But they charged for it and it had a very visible warning that the cleaning cycle would start after x minutes, presumably whether you left or not.

  7. A perfect example of how replacing human labor with machine labor is not always the most efficient choice.

    Seems you could have built restrooms complete with showers, lockers, and a full-time attendant staff for the same price…with better consequences.

    As for charging to piss in a public toilet…best version I have seen is a “men’s room” at one of Prague’s train stations. You go through the door, give an attendant you Kroner, and get to piss on a wall in the alley.

  8. Well, I think that it could work just fine: provide free-but-responsible access by requiring membership in a registry which uses a fingerprint identification pad to open the door and just place surveillance cameras inside the bathroom to help discourage illegal activity.

  9. As I recall, the public urinals in Amsterdam were perfectly functional.

    Of course, they were open at the top and bottom, and consisted of a pipe that dumped directly into the canal.

    But, they weren’t trashed or used for anything but their intended purpose.

  10. I live in Seattle, and those things are insanely disgusting. When they first came out, I had some friends who [drunkenly] used one to hide from a homeless guy who was bothering them. Never heard of anyone actually using them for the intended purpose, though.

  11. They’re planning to put these up here in NYC soon. What could possibly go wrong?

  12. Best outdoor pay toilet ever, somewhere in central China. You gave the lady guarding it one RMB, walked through a door in a wood wall and confronted a wooden plank with a hole in it, stuck out over the edge of a cliff. If you did’t want to pay for this privilege, you walked around the wall and pissed over the cliff anyway. Only diff is she got to laugh at your penis. Hahhahaha

  13. Even though this is Reason, I really thought this was going to be a Josh Hamilton post.

  14. stuck out over the edge of a cliff.

    They have those in the Alps, like this one.

  15. Why did the plan fail? For starters, the people who used the toilets-transients and druggies-didn’t have to pay for them

    But that’s absurd. I recognize the commons issue, but as several commentators point out, the alternative to using a pay toilet is just using the street (or alley, or wall, or canal, if you’ve got one). What Seattle could have done is pay people to use the toilet ( India apparently is). I learned about India’s policy here in a Will Saletan piece that’s eerily relevant. One more article and I’ll have a trend!

    Anon

  16. A perfect example of how replacing human labor with machine labor is not always the most efficient choice.

    Leave it to Neu Mejican to totally miss the point.

  17. But that’s absurd. I recognize the commons issue, but as several commentators point out, the alternative to using a pay toilet is just using the street[…]

    … and risk getting arrested.

  18. Parisian public toilets are free and still usable, if not pristine. Maybe Seattle isn’t socialist enough.

  19. Piss on the sidewalk, Mister Pervert, and you’ll end up living under a bridge, where you belong.

  20. But that’s absurd. I recognize the commons issue, but as several commentators point out, the alternative to using a pay toilet is just using the street[…]

    … and risk getting arrested.

    Why do you Americans always arrest people for unimportant offences?

  21. How else could we fill our prisons to the point that we’re able to find an excuse to release tremendous assets to society like Jessica Lunsford’s killer??
    JMR

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