45,000 places in the United States where you can go when nature calls

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When nature calls far from home, cities have a knack for becoming unfriendly and hostile places.

Public restrooms are vital public infrastructure, but for decades American cities have left it to private companies like Starbucks and McDonald’s to pick up the slack. Now, a new app wants to increase the number of public restrooms across the United States by leveraging the massive footprint of these companies.

We Can’t Wait launched last week with more than 45,000 restroom locations across the country. It is the main initiative of the Open Restrooms movement of the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation, which aims to raise awareness about the lack of access to public restrooms. Approximately 1.6 million Americans currently suffer from inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The app was designed with them in mind, but it could also prove useful for homeless people, who often end up being further marginalized – and humiliated – because they are forced to urinate in public.

[Screenshot: courtesy We Can’t Wait]

We Can’t Wait joins a host of other apps with a similar mission – like Flush, Sit and Toilet Finder – but it operates on a slightly different model: in addition to crowdsourced locations, which can be unreliable, the app s is associated with retail and food service establishments like Home Depot, Texas Roundhouse and Just Salad, putting more than 3,000 verified restroom locations on the map.

Public restrooms have long been neglected, but the pandemic has reaffirmed their importance. In fact, it was in 2020 that Michael Osso, President and CEO of the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation, realized the extent of the problem. As public buildings closed and restaurants and cafes turned to take-out only, thousands of restrooms became off-limits not only to those who could buy their place in a bathroom with a $4 cortado, but also for homeless people. “It became apparent that there was a shortage of public restrooms in the United States,” he says. “It’s a challenge in a broader sense and one that has been exacerbated by Covid-19.”

The application reveals a major flaw in town planning in this country. While city planners often promote public spaces, reliable public transportation, and parks, they rarely address public restrooms. New York City, for example, has only 1,103 public restrooms for over 8 million residents (and 63 million tourists each year). Most of them are located in parks or inside metro stations, with no regard for safety and comfort, not to mention design. For comparison, the Tokyo Toilet project asked a who’s who of famous architects to design dazzling new public restrooms throughout the city center.

For Osso, one way to bring more toilets to the public was to ask businesses to open their own bathrooms. So far, three companies have signed up. With approximately 2,000 locations nationwide, Home Depot is poised to make the biggest impact. Then Texas Roundhouse, with nearly 600 locations in 49 states, and Just Salad, with 36 locations, mostly in New York.

The map also includes crowdsourced locations, as well as places that are generally known to have bathroom access, such as McDonald’s and Starbucks, which together represent over 20,000 locations across the United States (on the map, commercial locations partners are marked with orange stars, while crowdsourced ones appear yellow.) Osso says most states have well over 500 locations on the app’s map, but some states lag behind. For example, Alaska, Vermont, and Wyoming only have 100 toilets each. Naturally, the success of the app will depend on how many people continue to participate and how many companies join the cause. To reach critical mass, Osso wants to continue to partner with companies that have a large footprint.

For all of these companies, opening up their restrooms could also be good for business. That may not be the purpose of the partnership, but Osso can definitely see the potential. “You have an orange star and people are coming to your business more and more,” says Osso. “I suspect you have an increased opportunity to make a sale.”

On the other end of the spectrum, however, is where the app could do the most good. For the 552,830 homeless people in the country, an additional 45,000 toilets could provide a safe and dignified space, until cities themselves step in to create more.

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