By Damita Menezes
Chicago city officials are considering a plan to install public restrooms across the city, according to Ald. Daniel La Spata, who proposed a pilot program in 2021.
The city is exploring the possibility of incorporating public restrooms as part of a renegotiated contract with JCDecaux, the company responsible for operating and maintaining bus stops in the city, according to La Spata.
The revenue the city receives from JCDecaux could be used to fund the installation and maintenance of the public restrooms by the company, at no cost to taxpayers.
“We just have to make the choice as a city. Do we just want to take the revenue, or do we want to take these new infrastructure items, which arguably would provide an even greater benefit to Chicagoans?” La Spata said.
The company, which also operates in San Francisco and Paris, generates revenue through advertising sales, such as billboards, bus shelters and digital displays. In exchange for operating public amenities, JCDecaux typically receives a share of the advertising revenue generated by those amenities, La Spata said.
Fifty years after Chicago pioneered the way to end pay toilets, the city is lacking in public toilet infrastructure. There are fewer than 500 publicly available restrooms that are easily accessible without any restrictions or with minimal restrictions and a significant number of these bathrooms are managed by organizations that cannot provide round-the-clock access to them, according to the Chicago Tribune.
“It is a public health issue. And in cities, we are witnessing public defecation and urination issues,” said Steven Soifer, president of the American Restroom Association.
Public restrooms have become a rare commodity in the United States, with consequences ranging from public health issues to infrastructure quality. The U.S. has only eight public toilets per 100,000 people, according to a 2021 report by QS Bathrooms Supplies called the Public Toilet Index.
Soifer said the lack of public toilets in the United States can be traced back to the 1960s, when budget cuts led to a reduction in the number of public toilets. The elimination of pay toilets in the 1970s did not lead to an increase in free public toilets as anticipated, exacerbating the problem. Homelessness and the expectation that businesses provide toilets for their customers further complicated the issue.
La Spata added that there is no reason why the proposal couldn’t happen this year and that the city and his colleagues should act quickly to identify locations for the first few public restrooms.
“This is not a logistical challenge because we know how to overcome it. It’s not even a financial challenge. The only barrier to overcome at this point is a political one,” La Spata said. “Do we have the political will to do this for Chicago? I very much hope that we will.”