I've read many questions and articles on the horrific public bathrooms in the USA, where there's huge gaps in the bottom and top and even between the door on each side, so that anyone can trivially violate your privacy while doing the most private imaginable things.

I could never, ever go to a public toilet in the USA. It would be impossible for me.

I'm from Europe and I've never seen such a "US-style" public bathroom. They are always fully sealed and go all the way up to the ceiling and only have a minimal gap on the bottom, probably just to make it possible to empty a bucket of water over the floor and have it pour into each stall/unit.

I'm not asking why it's like this in the USA, because I already know:

  1. They want to avoid people sitting in there longer than necessary, and want to force them to go back to work (or just away) ASAP.
  2. It's much cheaper due to less physical material and lower construction quality. Also much more standardized so they can just fit standard booths anywhere.
  3. They want to avoid various sketchy people from doing drugs or "moving in" there.
  4. There's no concept of privacy whatsoever left in the USA. (Not meant as an insult, but just stating an observation. It's just barely better here.)

However, they could solve this by not having them be free to use. If they charged money to use the bathroom, they would be able to afford proper booths with some actual privacy. It would also automatically get rid of the people who want to just take advantage of the public utility.

Of course, having to pay money to go to the bathroom (especially if cash is going away and the only way to pay is through privacy-invasive means) is far from ideal, and actually not something I would want myself. So this is not me "suggesting" this; I'm just wondering why it's not done.

Why have these horrible toilets for free instead of sane toilets which charge a little for each use? Given that everything else in the USA costs money, why is this specific thing singled out to be free? You are expected to tip everyone all the time, but bathrooms are free... although virtually unusable unless you really need to go.

I don't understand it.

  • 4
    I feel this question does assume things which may be much less common than you indicate. And it is not a travel question. Maybe you want to re-ask your question on Skeptics, (based on 'is this as I think it is') or on Politics, (based on 'it is as it is and it is likely a political decision.' ) I am around to move the question for you, but I feel a re-write might be needed to make it fit either site. – Willeke Aug 22 at 18:00
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    "I'm not asking why it's like this" - literally the first word of your title is why, and you're asking why it's like this. This seems like more of a rant than an actual question, and none of us can persuade an entire country to change how it builds (some of) it's public bathrooms. – Kate Gregory Aug 22 at 18:54
  • Maybe having someone collect the fee would cost more than what the toilets fee would bring, or US people on average prefer exhibitionist, free toilet than privacy-preserving, non-free toilet. I don't know, I'm also appalled by the US toilets, that's indeed ridiculous. – Franck Dernoncourt Aug 22 at 19:04
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    @franck The fourth paragraph starts "I am not asking why...". Either the OP is asking why, or he is not. Either way, this is not a travel question as Willeke has already pointed out. VTC. – user105640 Aug 22 at 22:45
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    This is either a rant, or politics, or psychology...but it is most certainly not Travel. – DavidSupportsMonica Aug 23 at 1:12

Pay toilets are extremely unpopular in the US, or at least they were back when there were enough of them for people to be mad about their presence. There was a sort of revolt against them in the 1970s, complete with an organization called the Committee to End Pay Toilets in America, lawsuits, laws banning them (many of which were since repealed), and the removal of many pay toilets. You can read more in Why Don't We Have Pay Toilets in America?. There are de facto pay toilets in the form of businesses refusing use of the facilities to non-customers, which can pose difficulties in bathroom access for homeless people and mobile workers, but actual pay toilets are rare.

As that article notes, there's a potential discrimination issue too. Pay toilets in the US traditionally involved locks on the stall doors, which allowed men to use urinals for free while women always needed to pay to enter stalls. This would be considered unacceptable today, but an arrangement that charged to merely enter the restroom poses other issues unless dedicated attendants are used (how is the money collected? will people constantly prop or hold the door open? what if someone simply wants to wash their hands?)

Beyond that, your question is based on some premises that don't seem well supported.

You're assuming that lack of funds is what causes businesses to not afford to build and maintain bathrooms that meet your standards. But the cost difference between typical American public restroom partitions and larger-walled cubicles isn't that much. If a business wanted to build a restroom with European-style cubicles, they could just do that (indeed, some have). And the revenue that can be raised by a public toilet isn't all that great—unless you're going to make everyone pay with an app (which people have tried to make a thing, but it's not one), remember that the largest common coin in circulation in the US is only worth 25¢, and bill acceptors on toilet doors seem unlikely. Nobody is sitting around deciding between free toilets vs more private ones when they design a restroom; that's not the relevant trade-off.

I can't really imagine a fee that would "get rid of the people who want to just take advantage of the public utility," because those looking to take advantage of the facility can almost certainly scrounge up the small sum of money required to enter. An admission fee high enough to really deter potential misuse would be so high so as to bring legitimate customers into a state of rage as well. Self-cleaning pay toilets on the streets of San Francisco were used for private drug use and prostitution; the small admission fee did nothing to stop this—the addition of attendants to supervise the facilities did.

You're also assuming that all public toilets in the US make it easy for someone to "trivially violate your privacy while doing the most private imaginable things." This happens sometimes, but is far from universal. Many businesses, especially smaller ones, have single-occupancy restrooms where you have the entire room to yourself with a full-length locked door. In larger restrooms, there are not generally gaps on the sides when the door is closed (unless the bathroom has been vandalized or is poorly maintained) and the gaps at the top and bottom are high/low enough to prevent someone from looking in without climbing/crouching on the ground, which is frankly not a common problem.

A pay toilet also turns the facility into a business transaction. A survey indicates that Americans might be willing to pay 25¢, but in exchange they'd expect a clean and well-maintained restroom. While a business should provide that anyway if they want to keep customers happy and coming back, few businesses want to have conversations on an hourly basis of the form "I PAID TO USE THIS RESTROOM AND IT WAS NOT CLEAN I WANT MY MONEY BACK RIGHT NOW!" over a quarter.

Or to put that another way, consider the people who are currently having public freakouts over being required to wear a mask to enter a store during a pandemic, and ask how you think they might behave if required to pay to use a toilet.

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  • Ever since this topic came up here before, when I'm in a US toilet with lots of gaps, I want to take a picture just to show everyone here. My work's cafe's women's restroom has gaps that are really big. I'd guess over an inch at the sides of the door. In fact, I'd say that more public restrooms have side gaps than don't. – mkennedy Aug 22 at 22:12
  • @mkennedy I was a little strong there and edited a bit. It definitely happens sometimes. – Zach Lipton Aug 23 at 0:31
  • Thanks, Zach, I appreciate it. – mkennedy Aug 23 at 1:16

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