Thursday, September 20, 2012

Public Restrooms In Big U.S. Cities

That there exists an undersupply of easily accessible clean public restrooms in most big U.S. cities is not a novel revelation. What's interesting, however, is what this admittedly minor social annoyance can tell us about  how social goods are produced by the market. Most public restrooms in cities are not actually "public" in the sense that anybody can walk into a restaurant or shop and benefit from their use. Rather, informal norms limit access by allowing just the club of people who spend money--"customers only". This means that the few storefronts that truly allow anyone to use their restrooms at zero cost are going to be preferred by a lot of people. In big cities with large homeless populations, this can become a problem: the best public restrooms near homeless hangout spots get trashed. What occurs is something political scientists call a race to the bottom: locales supplying public restrooms compete to avoid the costs associated with overuse by restricting access. This could mean instituting customers- or employees-only policies, restricting access at peak demand times (just try finding a public restroom around Dupont Circle in DC early in the morning), or simply eliminating restrooms altogether. The result is that in big U.S. cities, largely the only consistently-available public restrooms are those supplied by locales that have made a non-rational commitment (in the economic sense) to provide this social good. The typical example is a public library, but Barnes & Noble and Starbucks have, for whatever reason, chosen to occupy this role as well.

To put the U.S. system in context, some major cities, such as Tokyo, have abundant public restrooms supplied and maintained by the government. Other cities have restrooms available for a price. In the U.S. we have a system composed of an insufficient public commitment via libraries and a tenuous supply by certain virtuous chains. This existing-yet-insufficient supply in the U.S. is just enough to undercut the ability of entrepreneurs to make money with pay restrooms.

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