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Civil engineers: The US needs toilets

Building, maintaining and designing them for visitors, residents and the unhoused

4 min read


Men's restroom at Stockport Bus Station, England, in 2007.

In a SmartBrief for Civil Engineers poll, readers overwhelmingly said they consider public restrooms to be vital public infrastructure. The poll ran Tuesday in response to news that NYC seeks to improve public restroom facilities. Almost 90% of those surveyed responded in the affirmative. However, the engineers acknowledged there are challenges to fixing a dearth of public toilets nationwide. Three restroom issues take precedence: The yuck, the design and the intended user factors.


If you build them, will they come? Not if they’re dirty. New York City plans to build 14 self-cleaning toilets. Here’s how one self-cleaning system works, though there are other models. (It wasn’t reported what system New York City will use.) SmartBrief for Civil Engineers reader Tom B. suggests, no-flush urinals “which do not smell and conserve water.” Good air ventilation, automation to reduce the number of services touched and a sink outside the facility could also improve sanitation.

Regardless, restrooms still require manual cleaning and maintenance which municipalities often outsource. However, municipal operational budgets are always at risk, which can lead to … yuck. 

“Based on the current status of infrastructure in New York City, I don’t believe that the city has either the wherewithal or intention of maintaining these bathrooms. They will be destroyed in no time flat and/or they will always be filthy. Safety in them is a whole other issue,” reader Derek M. offered. 

Charging a nominal fee for toilets could help, though it’s illegal in much of the country.

Free self-cleaning automatic toilet, corner S Market & W Santa Clara streets, San Jose, Calif., in 2016.


Some public restrooms take your breath away – in a good way. Here are some of the world’s prettiest and the best (private and public sector) ones in the US. The 2023 winner was Baltimore’s Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, which has continued to renovate its facilities. 

Across the nation, airport bathrooms are being redesigned to better accommodate luggage, among other things. Another trend is single stalls for families. 


Users vary far more, though, outside of public buildings that limit access. The most frequent users may be homeless, which a decade ago motivated San Francisco to provide more public restrooms. 

“How ironic it is that the homeless will be the ones that will deter their use. Public libraries bear witness to this. … A somewhat harsh observation but pointing out that the solution is to attack the problem at the beginning not the end,” reader Ron W. said.

However, “ignoring [the needs of those without homes] is asking for public nuisance, disease, blight, you name it. Maybe the use of the French pissoir would be one part of a solution?” suggested reader Dave H.

The pissoir might assist men, but there is a growing need for gender-neutral public restrooms, as reader Ed G. explains well in his research on the topic. Gender identity is one issue. Others are caregivers whose sex may not match that of children or other charges such as older people with limited mobility.

The US ranks especially low for access to public toilets. It’s estimated at eight per 100,000 people. In New York City, it’s half that, while San Francisco has since improved to 26 per 100,000. That still makes finding a bathroom hard. Access to clean, public restrooms allows residents and tourists to spend more time away from their homes. It also just makes it more pleasant. But civil engineers say the US has a long way to go.

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