Cities have a knack for becoming unfriendly, hostile places when you’re away from home and nature calls.
Public restrooms are vital public infrastructure, yet for decades cities across America have left it to private businesses like Starbucks and McDonald’s to pick up the slack. A new app wants to increase the number of public restrooms across the U.S. by leveraging the massive footprint of those businesses.
We Can’t Wait launched last week with more than 45,000 restroom locations listed around the country. It’s the leading initiative of the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation’s Open Restrooms Movement, which seeks to raise public awareness about the lack of access to public restrooms. Approximately 1.6 million Americans currently suffer from inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The app was built with them in mind, but it could also prove useful for people experiencing homelessness, who often end up being further marginalized—and humiliated—for being forced to urinate in public.
We Can’t Wait joins a host of other apps with a similar mission (including Flush, Sit, and Toilet Finder) but it operates on a slightly different model: On top of crowdsourced locations, which can be unreliable, the app has partnered with retail and restaurant establishments like Home Depot, Texas Roadhouse, 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, the president and CEO of the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation, realized the magnitude of the problem. As public buildings closed and restaurants and coffee shops shifted to take-out only, thousands of restrooms became off-limits not only for those who could buy their way into a bathroom with a $4 cortado but also for people experiencing homelessness. “It became obvious there was a dearth of public restrooms in the U.S.,” he says. “It is a challenge broadly and that was exacerbated by COVID-19.”
The app reveals a major urban planning flaw in this country. While city planners often promote public spaces, reliable transit, and parks, they rarely address public restrooms. New York City, for example, has only 1,103 public restrooms for more than 8 million residents (and 63 million tourists every year). Most of them are located in parks or inside subway stations, with little to no regard for safety and comfort, let alone design. By comparison, the Tokyo Toilet project has been commissioning a who’s who of famous architects to design dazzling new public restrooms throughout the city center.
For Osso, one way to bring more restrooms to the public was to ask businesses to open up their own bathrooms. So far, three companies have signed on. With about 2,000 locations across the country, Home Depot is set to make the most impact, followed by Texas Roadhouse, with almost 600 locations in 49 states, and Just Salad, with 36 locations, mostly in New York City.
The map also includes crowdsourced locations, as well as places that are commonly known to have restroom access, like McDonald’s and Starbucks, which together account for more than 20,000 locations across the U.S. (On the map, partners’ business locations are marked with orange stars, while crowdsourced ones appear in yellow.) Osso says that most states have well over 500 locations on the app’s map, but some states are lagging. For example, Alaska, Vermont, and Wyoming have only 100 restrooms each. Naturally, the app’s success will depend on how many people continue to participate, and how many companies join the cause. To reach critical mass, Osso wants to continue partnering with businesses that have a large footprint.
For all of these companies, opening up their restrooms could be good for business, too. It may not be the point of the partnership, but Osso sees the potential. “You have an orange star and people are increasingly coming into your business,” Osso says. “I suspect you have an increased opportunity to make a sale.”
At the other end of the spectrum, however, is perhaps where the app could do the most good. For the 552,830 unhoused people in the country, 45,000 more restrooms could provide a safe and dignified space, until cities themselves step up to create more.