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Toronto Toronto unveils its first automated public toilet

There were snickers all around as reporters thirsting for a light and bright item flocked to see David Miller open Toronto's new automated public toilet at Queens Quay Boulevard and Rees Street on Wednesday. No less than 10 cameramen clustered around the mayor as he cut a blue ribbon to inaugurate the German-made marvel with its self-cleaning toilet seat and automatic floor washer.

Would Mr. Miller deliver the first "royal flush," asked the media gallery's resident wit? Would the city install an ATM so users could make withdrawals as well as deposits. And what, exactly, were we to make of the ad for city services posted on the side of the wonder-loo: "We'll lend you a hand."

But, in truth, public toilets are a serious issue. Most cities don't have nearly enough of them, leaving tourists and residents alike to duck into pubs or even disappear behind a bush. The public toilets that do exist are often filthy, graffiti-stained and prone to vandalism. Nothing tells the TTC's tale of decline and neglect as eloquently as the state of some of its station washrooms. The concrete-floored lavs in our public parks are often even worse.

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Howard Moscoe, the veteran city councillor, has campaigned for years for what he regrettably calls "the right to tinkle." In an aging society, says Mr. Moscoe, many seniors won't go out for fear of finding themselves out of range of a toilet. "As a senior citizen," he says, "I'm tired of walking around with my legs crossed."

The automated public toilet, or APT, is an attempt to close the toilet gap. Here is how it works. When you insert a quarter in the slot out front, the electric door glides open and you enter a one-room chamber with stainless steel toilet bowl and sink. Soothing new-age music plays and a woman's recorded voice relays instructions. If you spend more than 15 minutes inside, a blinking light and a series of messages warn you that your 20-minute limit is nearly over.

After you leave, the toilet seat automatically retracts into the wall, where a scrubbing system cleans it for the next user. Meanwhile, a power-washing system cleanses the floor. Even detritus like candy wrappers or water bottles is swept away for later collection. The water drains through the permeable floor. Yes, the public toilet has come a long way since George Michael.

The $400,000 system's proud German engineers call this the state of the art in toileting, with a security phone and heaters to keep users warm in winter. No need to worry about shoddy city maintenance, either. Under its 20-year contract with the city to provide bus shelters, litter bins and other "street furniture," Astral Media Outdoor will build and maintain 20 APTs around the city.

Whether they will work is an open question. Seattle abandoned its APTs in 2008 after they became havens for drug users and prostitutes (an ordinance banning the city from making advertising deals like the Astral contract was another factor). A bit strangely, Mr. Miller lashed out at a reporter who suggested the toilets might attract that kind of activity. They might.

But cities from Vancouver to Philadelphia to Paris have installed APTs. Even ancient Rome had 144 public latrines. In mid-19th-century London, sanitary engineer George Jennings invented the underground "public convenience," complete with ceramic tiles and ornate metal railings. A city like Toronto that encourages people to take transit and get around on foot has to provide decent pit stops.

The first Torontonian to use our neat new toilet was Howard Begley, who rolled his wheelchair out afterward to face a media mob. The seat was cold, he noted. So was the water that came out of the tap. And the hand dryer kept coming off and on. "All in all," though, "it was great."

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