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Stephen Quinn

The bottom line for decent public toilets Add to ...

As I say to my two-year-old, everyone goes to the bathroom.

And sometimes, people need to go to the bathroom in the middle of their commute.

A group of transit users is urging TransLink and the provincial government to install washroom facilities at major bus exchanges, SkyTrain stations and other busy transit hubs in the Lower Mainland.

So far, the online petition hasn’t exactly caught fire. As of Friday, it had attracted just 30 signatures. But the effort is sincere.

For a growing number of citizens, reasonable access to a decent public toilet is no joke, and the lack of it may actually prevent them from riding transit, or even leaving the house. It's a question of accessibility and needs to be taken seriously.

The petitioners argue that with trips often taking more than 90 minutes to complete, asking passengers to simply “hold it” until they get to their destination is inhumane.

An example, they say, is the Coquitlam bus loop, where the closest washroom is located in the mall nearly a kilometre away and closes when the mall closes.

There are signatures from parents of small children and from people who are elderly or disabled, describing what they go through because of the lack of washrooms. It's heartbreaking stuff, actually.

This is certainly not the first time someone has lobbied for washroom facilities in transit stations. TransLink has received piles of mail about the issue from citizens. It has also been pushed by municipalities.

Five years ago, when Vancouver City Council approved the installation of eight automated, self-cleaning and not very reliable toilets, it also passed a motion urging TransLink to provide facilities at major transit hubs.

The city noted that TransLink has the space within its major station areas to build the washrooms, and that other big cities provide washrooms at major transit interchanges.

TransLink, however, is unmoved. Its position on what to do when nature calls is “go before you go,” which is cute and easy to remember, but also unhelpful.

For the transit authority, not surprisingly, it comes down to money. “It’s a question of paying for them,” TransLink spokesperson Drew Snider told me earlier this week. “For one thing paying to put them in, but then also security, maintenance and keeping them clean.”

Mr. Snider says there may be examples of other transit systems in the world with washrooms but asks: “Are they keeping them in a state where people would want to go change their baby in there or people would want to relieve themselves in there?”

True, any regular Toronto transit rider will tell you the TTC washrooms should be avoided at all costs. Still, in an emergency, even a smelly and filthy bathroom is better than none at all.

Mr. Snider doesn't disagree that more public washrooms may be needed, but says Translink is in the business of providing transportation. Even if TransLink had the money, he says, it would make more sense to spend it on more transit so people didn’t have commutes that lasted 90 minutes or two hours in the first place.

I think he has a point. I don't think TransLink ought to be let off the hook, but people lobbying for more and better washrooms also have to target the Metro Vancouver Board and their own municipal councils.

This is a real issue and will become a more serious one as the population ages.

Coincidentally, Nov. 19, civic election day in B.C., also happens to be World Toilet Day, as declared by the American Restroom Association.

The ARA is a serious organization which advocates for the availability of clean and safe public restrooms. It has made submissions to Congress, and instructs U.S. political hopefuls that taking on the restroom issue can help win elections. “Most likely this is an issue that, carefully handled, can draw votes.”

The bottom line is that making decent public toilets available is an accessibility issue, as basic as curb dips and audible pedestrian signals.

There's no question that even in the third most livable city in the world, going to the toilet when you need to – when you really need to – shouldn't test the limits of human dignity.

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One in Vancouver, 690 AM and 88.1 FM. stephen.quinn@cbc.ca

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