A test gone awry brings the end to a trial contract between the city of Seattle and a German manufacturer of high-tech automatic toilets. But is such an abrupt end to a pilot program designed to quell public urination and defecation necessary? Surely these silver self-cleaning cylindrical facilities were not the boon the city was expecting, but were they really the bane?
Five public toilets were installed in Hing Hay, Victor Steinbruek, Waterfront and Occidental Parks, as well as on Broadway. These toilets, costing taxpayers $4.3 million since 2004 took inspiration from the successful sanisettes in Paris. The 420 pubic restrooms in Paris, similar to the design of those appearing in Seattle have recently become free for users in an effort to crack down on public urination – they used to cost around twenty cents. According to Yves Contassot, the man in charge of the environmental and cleaning policy in Paris, “No-one who urinates in the streets will be able to use the excuse that they have to pay to use the public toilets.”
That same idea compelled Seattle city council members to embark on a like-minded project. Hoping to offer tourists and the homeless a safe and private facility for relief, these toilets were expected to considerably quell the use of alleys as substitutes for actual restrooms.
-image courtesy of KOMO-TV
Stores and restaurants were keen to the idea given without the new toilets the homeless would ask to use their facilities to bath. Now with the automatic toilets, business owners can direct the homeless across the street instead. But what was supposed to be a haven of cleanliness quickly turned into a mucky environment.
Originally a selling point for the toilets was that they were self-cleaning. When an occupant exited the bathroom, the doors would close and an automatic high-pressure washer would clean the toilet seat and floors. This virtually eliminated the need for personnel to monitor the facilities. However, what worked splendidly overseas faced issues in the Emerald City.
When the automatic floor cleaners were initiated, instead of removing dirt from the floor, they turned the dirt into mud and the trash into mush. Towards the end of Seattle’s test run, they had city service employees clean the floors twice a day instead. There have been no reports of such inadequacy from the Parisian sanisettes, but there have been accounts of the cleaners starting while young children were still in the restroom.
Considering that urinating in public is not only a health hazard for those around the culprit, but also a showing of public indecency, the toilets were employed to clean up the streets in more than one way. Equipped with automatic doors that shut behind the users, the toilet offered a sense of privacy, a luxury not offered by an alley way or park. In an attempt to have some order over the use of the toilet, the doors would automatically reopen after fifteen minutes.
The time limit in the restroom was later decreased to ten minutes by the city of Seattle, citing the use of the stalls for illegal conduct as their motivation. In addition to the obvious, the toilets were also being used for drug deals, prostitution and drug use. Moreover, reports showed an actual increase of human waste in public areas.
In 2007, the Seattle Times interviewed a homeless man about the toilets. “‘The revolving crack house’ is what Luigi Gephart calls the public toilet in Occidental Park. Gephart uses it but advises tourists to stay away. ‘These are the worst bathrooms you can go to,’ he said.”
Claiming the trial run a failure, the city of Seattle recently ended its contract and is in the process of closing the toilets. But many are unhappy with the hasty decision arguing that Seattle has chosen to ignore the truths about the areas in which the toilets were located.
Residents and shop owners in the area argue that there has always been a problem with illegal activity surrounding the location of the toilets, and the illegal activity will persist even after the removal of such toilets. Also, many contend an increase in Seattle’s homeless population coinciding with this trial can explain the still rising use of alleys as toilets.
While Seattle does plan to install alternative facilities that will be monitored and cleaned daily, cities around the country should take note of Seattle’s attempt to install a European concept to an American city. Expecting these automatic toilets to solve the city’s most disgusting public issue was a tall order to fill. Maybe one day such toilets will be commonplace in cities like Seattle, but this trial run has made clear that city officials are not ready to spend more taxpayer money on underperforming public solutions – no matter how trendy they are overseas.
- Evan Miller
The New Argument