A London public toilet blends in with the streetscape. Photo by Jennifer Dickert on Flickr.

There are many amenities that residents of a major city in the developed world should be able to take for granted, and one basic and often-overlooked aspect of infrastructure that is severely lacking in most US cities is the public restroom.

A stunning graphic appeared in the September/

October 2007 issue of GOOD Magazine showing how inferior major US cities are compared to their European, Asian and even African counterparts in terms of the availability of restrooms open to all.

Although this chart does not include Washington, it is doubtful that DC would rank much higher than Boston and Los Angeles.

Last April, Lynda Laughlin surveyed DC’s privy problems. She articulated how safe, clean, widely-available public WCs enhance the livability and walkability of a city, especially for people with medical conditions that result in needing to go more often than most.

She highlights the Baltimore-based American Restroom Association, a spunky little advocacy group you’ve probably never heard of, which is doing its part to raise much-needed awareness of the issue. The next task is to identify and address the obstacles that prevent the District and other local jurisdictions from putting a good public toilet network in place.

Paris is among the cities that has pioneered the use of small, on-street, pay-per-use public toilets that thoroughly clean themselves after each use. This simple, elegant design avoids the need to pay staff to clean and monitor a restroom. They can even be equipped with weight sensors or security cameras to deter illicit activity.

A network of such toilets could easily pay for itself in little time even by charging as little as a quarter per use. Payment could be made inserting coins, swiping a credit card, or by touching a card to a sensor, perhaps a SmarTrip or Capital Bikeshare card.

Homeless people could be given free access to the toilets through tokens or pre-paid cards, thus greatly cutting down on public urination and defecation. Using the toilets as advertising space is another way to defray the costs.

While many Americans may find the concept of paying to use the john to be anathema, the truth is that you already pay part of the cost to maintain the restrooms at any shop or restaurant you visit, even if you don’t use them. When push comes to shove, I doubt most people would balk at paying a quarter to be able to relieve themselves.

Residents and visitors of a cosmopolitan city should not be made to feel like outcasts, be forced to buy something, or need to traipse into a hotel, museum or other large public building just to attend to an elemental human need. Let’s start talking toilets and encouraging local governments to follow San Francisco, Boston and Los Angeles and start installing public toilets in areas with high pedestrian traffic.

Malcolm Kenton lives in the DC’s NoMa neighborhood. Hailing from Greensboro, NC and a graduate of Guilford College (BA) and George Mason University (MA, Transportation Policy), he is a consultant and writer on transportation, travel, and sustainability topics and a passionate advocate for world-class passenger rail and other forms of sustainable mobility and for incorporating nature and low-impact design into the urban fabric. The views he expresses on GGWash are his own.