January 17th, 2015

Wasting Time on the Internet: human poop in SF edition

I'm over at Gawker, and I run across this.


And I start to go, you know, there are some problems with this analysis. (And now the word analysis looks funny to me. Never mind.)

Here is some more coverage of the problem.


What is this, an annual thing, where people write articles about poop in SF?

Let me list the problems with the, er, analysis.

"While tourists and shoppers can sneak into a hotel or store and use the bathroom many people who don't have access to a bathroom during the day "get turned away because they are poor, and they are black," Friedenbach said. "Human beings do not want to defect or urinate in public. It is not natural and they do so out of desperation because they have no where else to go.""

Access is unlikely to be a complete explanation. If access to facilities were a complete explanation for why humans poop in inappropriate places and make Zero Effort to get it cleaned up, then I wouldn't have the Most Disgusting Story Ever to tell about my former neighbor (as in, I don't live there any more and she's dead anyway, but let's just say it had two components. Story #1 involved human poop left in the upstairs hallway of my condo building. Just for references purposes, the pooper's unit sold for north of $300K after she died. Why did she poop in the hall? Not clear -- maybe an accident, and if you're wondering, how does the poop get onto the floor, as opposed to smeared in one's clothes? Because she was walking around in an nightgown and robe and apparently there wasn't anything between her poop hole and the floor. Story #2 involved dog poop on the floor and _smeared on an elevator button_. For reference purposes, there is at least one person on an upper floor in this building how has to use the elevator to get in and out of the building. The rest of us could just take the stairs, but not her. Again? Why not cleaned up? "I had to get to a dentist appointment."). Humans poop in inappropriate places for a host of reasons that do not involve rational decision making.

Then I'll leave you with this beautiful paragraph:

"Worse off, the facilities that are open to the public are limited, even shackled by budgetary concerns. As Friedenbach told me, “When they started doing the mass layoffs of Parks and Recreation staff in 2009, the city couldn’t keep a lot of their public bathrooms open.” Suddenly, there were just a small number of overworked facilities located in the hardest-hit areas to pick up the slack and offer public restrooms and other amenities to our homeless population. “Anywhere you go in the world, westernized or not,” Friedenbach said, “you have enough public restrooms for the homeless, for tourists, for the general public. Not here, though. It’s pretty brutal.”"

I would like to assign Friedenbach the following task. Reconcile this recent scientific research:


With "Anywhere ... in the world ... you have enough public restrooms".


"Human beings do not want to defect or urinate in public."

Friedenbach is a nice person, I am sure, with a very important, laudable public goal (More Public Restrooms in SF). But Friedenbach is also an ignorant bigot, and shockingly bourgie.

ETA: Part of my fury and glee in calling Friedenbach names is because of LaConner's issues with providing a loo for its patrons, back in the 1980s. Most of it, tho, is because of the difficulty Seattle has been having with setting up public 'strooms in Pioneer Square and similar. They've spent millions of dollars trying, and mostly just come up with What Not to Do. Looks like they're taking another run at the problem. I hope they figure it out this time.


As for homeless people not being able to access 'strooms in stores, tell that to the various women who set up temporary residence in the Macy's women's rooms.

Also, if toilet facilities for all is such a solved problem outside SF, why is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation going after it as a problem.

Look, I am all over things like improved transportation infrastructure in Seattle and toilets in SF. Yay! Go for it. These are important things to work on. But activists who argue that these problems are not problems elsewhere, and Seattle and SF are so backwards compared to everywhere else just make themselves look like fools and potentially turn away those who might otherwise support them.

DIY solution in Seattle:


Again, someone who is convinced that in some other, magical place, this isn't a problem. Ha!

Public 'strooms efforts in 3 West Coast cities

Back in the 1990s, Seattle and SF both attempted to install public restrooms in areas desperately in need of time: the Tenderloin and Pioneer Square. The theory was, this would reduce the alley/other slightly concealed space problem of human waste. In practice, they just served as places to deal in drugs and sex, and serve as the backdrop of various documentaries about how awful it was to be homeless in Cascadia. Both Seattle and SF, having spent millions of dollars to install these unmonitored, 24 hour availability, self-cleaning/easy to clean facilities, wound up uninstalling them.

More recently, Portland got in on it, taking advantage of lessons learned by their Northern and Southern neighbors. They installed a few versions of their "Portland Loo", claimed success and started selling it to other cities which inquired as to how that all worked. Then they were sued by their ratepayers for working on a project that was outside the scope of the utility. They sold the Loo off to a private company.

"The deal comes just months after the city lost a key ruling in a lawsuit filed by utility ratepayers, with a Multnomah County judge in March finding that Portland misspent $618,000 from Water Bureau funds on Loo efforts."


Meanwhile, San Diego is having problems installing its Portland Loo(s), and because they apparently didn't really think through site selection, it has been really expensive.


The private company that bought Portland Loo says this is the worst experience any city has had. I have no idea if that's true or not.

Meanwhile, SF has gone with a different approach. Rather than try to make 24/7 unattended work, they set up a pilot project called Tenderloin Pit Stop:


The strategy here is to provide _attended_, mobile strooms for certain daytime hours. That allows the city to locate them where they are most needed/where they are having to clean up the most human feces.

"The Tenderloin Pit Stop program will provide portable toilets and sinks, used needle receptacles and dog waste stations at three locations in the neighborhood. All are mounted on flat-bed trailer than easily be transported."

"The portable bathroom stations will operate from 2 to 9 p.m., Tuesdays through Fridays"

Other coverage indicates the timing is to cover when benefits happen and various other things associated with non-profits in the area which provide assistance to the homeless. The 6 month pilot made it all the way through the whole 6 months, was regarded as a success and has been continued.


There are several issues driving this program, one of which is that San Francisco has water issues that make it difficult for them to use the traditional method of dealing with filth in the street (viz. washing it away in the middle of the night and letting the storm sewer system deal with it).

Providing public restrooms in urban areas that have high levels of services oriented to transients and low levels of access to privately funded restrooms is something that cities should do. [Note: I reworded this, because I remembered, again, LaConner in the 1980s. The problem is people passing through needed to unload, and a lack of privately supported support for those people. Homelessness is just one way that this can happen.] WE SHOULD DO THIS. But I think we are more likely to be successful when the problem is approached in a thoughtful, methodical way, which recognizes that this ain't gonna be cheap -- and which involves stakeholders who are forced to spend money anyway dealing with the problem, because those are the only groups which are going to be willing to keep shelling out for this over time.

East Coast 'stroom experiments

Turns out NYC experimented with self-cleaning public toilets more or less like Seattle. In 2006. And then they ripped them out a few years later.


I'll be adding more later, clearly.

Urilift makes "pop up urinals": they hide in the sidewalk during the day and at night come up to capture the piss of bar hoppers who might otherwise pee in the street. Various European cities (London, Amsterdam) have installed them.



Guy on moped caught a wheel on one as it rose up in the evening.

Open urinals are an easier sell in cities with a history of al fresco urination. Tougher in Australia:


But they are still thinking about replacing the temporary urinals with Urilifts, despite the moralizing about exposing oneself.

In a bizarre twist, formerly attended WCs in London, abandoned for decades, are being remodeled and opened as bars, restaurants, sandwich shops.


A blast from the past! Activist orientation (why is this so hard?!?), and a bunch of questionable assertions about other cities that I will shortly be investigating.


""In the beginning, there were a lot of reservations about advertising and the size of the kiosks," said Jake Szeto, Project Manager of the Automatic Public Toilet and Public Kiosk Program at the San Francisco Department of Public Works. "But it is a success. Otherwise the city wouldn't have expanded the program.""

LA has automated toilets, and toilets around the world

They also had a vandalism issue.


They also have DIY toilets and prosecution thereof.


ETA: AND it turns out the ad revenue didn't pan out. Police objected to the toilets until the time per session was reduced to 10 minutes. Now, the problem is keeping them working, basically, and getting more of them.


ETA: Here's a blast from 2008, in which Saletan asserts that India will have eliminated open defecation by ... 2012.

Yeah. That didn't happen.


Mostly it's about how you shouldn't have to pay to eliminate.

But here's some stuff about India and public toilet maintenance issues.


And Brunei:


Transparency laws got costs associated with public toilets in Cardiff:


They were thinking of pop ups there, too.

More numbers here:


Found some more about the water conservation/drought issues in California and how that is interacting with street cleaning in the state.


(Possible alternative? http://inhabitat.com/poop-scoop-robot-keeps-streets-clean-by-automatically-picking-up-dog-poo/ I am NOT SERIOUS HERE!!!)

Today's obsessive topic was: public restrooms

I was wasting time on the internet, and saw coverage at gawker about public toilets in SF, quoting an activist claiming that this wasn't a hard problem, people around the world have solved it, etc.

I objected to that, cited a few things that came to mind, and then went in search of more data. And here is what I have concluded.

(1) When you buy or rent space, whether at a hostel or hotel, in a single family home or multi family residence, retail space, commercial space, etc., any space at all, the number and quality of the bathrooms is a huge cost driver. Anyone who has ever paid for space anywhere knows this, on some level.

(2) Shared bathrooms are nasty. Again, anyone who has ever had a roommate or used a public facility, or gone to the 'stroom at a restaurant or whatever and gone ick, knows this, on some level.

(3) Public 'strooms in dense urban areas with a high number of people passing through -- whether bar hoppers, the homeless, or Yuppies shopping in La Conner, WA -- are hard to find, expensive to maintain and have lines. Depending on the level of anti-social behavior in the area and the amount of money to spend on policing, the 'strooms may, in addition to disgustingness associated missing the potty or just plain not getting there in time, be used as a sheltered area for illegal activity.

(4) The need doesn't go away just because you don't satisfy it. Commercial ('strooms at the bar, in the museum, etc.) facilities may in some places take up the slack, but again, dense areas with a lot of people passing through tend not to have adequate commercial facilities, because that would be heinously expensive.

It should be obvious, BUT APPARENTLY IT IS NOT, that providing clean, safe, public 'strooms in areas like Pioneer Square, the Tenderloin, Venice (LA, CA, not the one in Italy), Amsterdam, Cardiff and many, many, many other places, is a CRAZY HARD, EXPENSIVE PROBLEM. In order to solve the problem, you (as a city) will need the following.

(1) Paid attendants. Paid by the city. Paid by the user. Paid by fundraising from the merchants in the area through the chamber of commerce. But someone needs to pay the attendants. What, you think you don't need attendants. Wow, you are a stupid, stupid person. I'm not going to waste time explaining it.

(2) Facilities, and a capex budget to maintain them. The toilets will break. The plumbing will break. The mirrors will break. Then there are the operating expenses over and above the attendants: Every disposable product will need to be replenished. You need to keep it lit and that will cost you money. It will need cleaning supplies. Etc. Idiots will graffiti the place, especially if you cheaped it up on attendants or policing.

(3) Security, either in the form of police on call who show up very quickly, or a dedicated security service. Cameras are not an adequate deterrent.

People _think_ they can handle stuff with robots and get the power from solar and the water from rainwater and pay for it all with advertising. Turns out, that doesn't work in most places, either because of anti-social behavior, or inadequate ad revenue, or whatever. People _think_ they can rely on community enforcement, and things like exposure for the bottom foot and a half so you can tell if someone is in there having sex. Good luck with that; in some places, the _cops_ routinely see people heading into the loo in pairs. And I don't mean mummy and child.

We SHOULD make public provision for this most basic of needs. Tourists need strooms. Bar hoppers needs strooms (altho I'm a little hazy on why we can't make the bars supply strooms -- they supplied the drink. What's up with that?). Homeless people need strooms. Etc. But if we are going to do this successfully, and for real, and not just replace Our Brilliant Idea with something else 5-10 years down the line, we are going to have to actually _recognize_ the scope of the problem.

Tenderloin Pit Stop seems to be a genuine effort to do so. I applaud it.