Why we should free the market for public toilets

America’s dearth of public restrooms reveals a regulatory failure

John H. Cochrane

The Grumpy Economist

John H. Cochrane | May 19, 2021

Why are there so few public toilets in America? Many of us have had occasion to ponder this pressing—often quite pressing—question, and in March, Nicholas Kristof and the New York Times did as well. Kristof 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? 

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 paid a small fee to use them. Why does the law now forbid pay toilets?

This answer, too, is not hard to find. I googled “pay toilets illegal,” and the first three results—particularly Aaron Gordon’s article for Pacific Standard—gave me the answer. Nineteen sixties activists demanded that bathrooms be declared free, bemoaning inequities in who needs to use toilets more. They achieved the inevitable result: no toilets for anyone. (Interestingly, many pay toilets were introduced by railroads, which first tried to give access only to customers and employees, but then learned they could make money allowing everyone to use them.) 

But you have to ask the question!

The absence of pay toilets is a delightful microcosm 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. 

You might ask: What about people who can’t afford to pay? 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 to transfer 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? 

Like so many problems in the US, this one can be solved with one simple policy: get out of the way.

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 the government have to interfere in a business’s 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?

If you really must have the transfer, the answer is simple enough. Let us add to the next stimulus bill $5 per month for every resident of the United States 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–style cards. 

Kristof would prefer a national infrastructure project to provide free toilets. If you’ve followed this over the years, you will have seen many efforts at government-provided toilets. Costs are often in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the efforts still frequently fall apart. There are some free toilets. The Chicago Park District still has some, but without the incentives created by the ability to charge a bit of money, they were typically disgusting and dangerous when I encountered them. San Francisco ran a three-month pilot in 2019 to keep three public toilets open all night, at a cost of $28.50 per flush. As with the unbuilt $80 billion high-speed train to nowhere, the problems of public infrastructure in the US are not money. 

Next, of course, public toilets must be built to standards, certified, regulated, inspected, licensed to ensure quality, and subject to zoning, environmental impact, design, and historic preservation review. Hmm. 

We face the inexorable tragedy of government-provided goods. Toilets, like everything else in life, come in gradations.  There is a trade-off between various grades of clean versus 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 costs a quarter. No public allocation can bring itself to admit that gradations in quality versus cost are desirable. Toilet inequity! That’s where we started. We get nothing at immense cost. 

The ban on pay toilets is only part of the problem. As a bit of research or basic common sense 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 those who don’t speak English, are not well attuned to American culture, and have little education or training. We have quite a few of such people, and they need the work. But now ask, what will happen if the attendants must be regular employees, paid $15 an hour, with an eight-hour schedule, rest breaks, health insurance, a retirement plan, overtime, e-verified immigration status, and the full complement of US labor regulation? How will it work if in addition they are unionized government employees? Staffing costs are pretty much how San Francisco got to $28.50 per flush. 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 wayAllow 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. 

Indeed, a good place to start would simply be to let restaurants, bars, gas stations, or 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 paying 25 cents 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.

John H. Cochrane is a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and distinguished senior fellow at Chicago Booth. This essay is adapted from a post on his blog, The Grumpy Economist.