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SF’s Loathed Public Toilets Get Second Life 

Wednesday, Sep 30 2015

When Supervisor Jane Kim recently asked the city controller to study the feasibility of a citywide public toilet program, she couldn't help but take a swipe at the city's current stock of automated public restrooms. Those 25 giant forest green facilities made of steel have "often become magnets for dangerous and criminal activities," she said.

It's true: since their arrival in 1996, the faux-Parisian pissoirs installed by advertising company JCDecaux have earned a reputation as havens for drug use and prostitution. (The freestanding restrooms lock on the inside, making them an attractive target for people looking for privacy.) They've served as a malfunctioning reminder of the city's failure to stanch public defecation than as a solution.

Kim was instrumental in creating an alternative: the city's new "Pit Stop" program, which brings fully-staffed, portable toilets to waste-prone street corners. Pit Stop has been successful in serving the homeless population and reducing the need for street cleaning, and with the sunsetting of JCDecaux's 20-year contract, the time seems ripe to write off the toilet-in-a-tin-can experiment as a sorry excess of the Willie Brown era. (The Chronicle once described Brown as "smitten" with the advertising company that bankrolled his tour of its French factory; one of Brown's former aides, Billy Rutland, lobbied the city on behalf of JCDecaux , whose toilet contract brought in $96 million in ad revenue, less than $6 million of which was paid to the city.)

But rather than dumping the idea of billboard-wrapped facilities, the Department of Public Works is planning to double down on public restrooms. In the coming weeks, DPW will start soliciting proposals for at least 50 public toilets to replace or update the current inventory. (DPW would use a data-driven approach to determine where new toilets would be located, based in part on areas with the highest number of steam-cleaning requests to 311.)

According to DPW spokeswoman Rachel Gordon, the Pit Stop program has proved that the problem with the JCDecaux toilets was not the toilets.

"The key is staffing," Gordon says. "There's not even a question."

The Pit Stop program has expanded to include four JCDecaux johns, which are now monitored by attendants who keep an eye on people going in (and coming out no more than 20 minutes later), clean up the area around the units, and are ready to call the police if assistance is needed. With a minder on hand to deter illicit activity, usage of those toilets has increased, from about 25 flushes per day to more than 100.

DPW pays the wages for the workers at the JCDecaux toilets, but Gordon says bidders for the new contract will be expected to pay for personnel at no less than 50 percent of the toilets. DPW will take proposals from any comers and is keen to upgrade the toilets with high-tech amenities. Gordon thinks new features could include Wi-Fi hotspots, "interactive wayfinding tablets," and cell phone charging stations. (Hopefully they won't be too nice and end up on Airbnb.)

No matter what design wins, DPW is still committed to the advertising-on-the-shitter model of funding public bathrooms. "We get the toilets we want," Gordon says, "they get the profits they want. A company is not going to come in and do this out of civic goodwill."

About The Author

Julia Carrie Wong

Julia Carrie Wong's work has appeared in numerous local and national titles including 48hills, Salon, In These Times, The Nation, and The New Yorker.


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