Lezlie Lowe is the author of No Place To Go: How Public Toilets Fail our Private Needs.
An expanded public-bathroom facility on Parliament Hill is set to open by the fast-approaching end of 2019, ready to serve 3,200 visitors a day.
Let’s hope most of those tourists turn out to be men. Because women who arrive to spend time at the seat of Canadian government are just going to be stuck waiting in a toilet queue.
The new $2.4-million toilet building is tucked behind the West Block and mirrors its neo-Gothic architecture. It’s part of the Parliamentary precinct’s continuing and painstaking rejuvenation.
By aesthetics, this is one lovely loo – shiny fixtures, drinking fountains, reasonable signage and sedate-yet-classy grey-beige tile.
By the numbers, it’s a disaster.
The facility includes two all-gender, accessible, single-room washrooms, a women’s washroom with 15 stalls, and a men’s with five stalls and 12 urinals. If you’re keeping count, that’s 15 for the women and 17 for the men.
And that? Well, that’s just not going to work.
Charles Drouin, a spokesman for Public Services and Procurement Canada, noted in an e-mail that the expanded bathroom would “support and maintain a positive visitor experience on Parliament Hill.”
Noble goal. Too bad the number of toilets will prevent it coming to fruition.
Women urinate more frequently than men and take longer to do so (about 90 seconds, compared with 60 for men, from entrance to exit). It’s a function of biology, but also more complex clothing and the added time of entering and locking stalls. Women also have more reasons to visit the bathroom, including menstruation, and more frequently act as caregivers for children and adults needing assistance.
For these reasons, women require two or three times the provision of men just to even out bathroom wait-times. (And in case you’re wondering: All-gender bathrooms don’t figure into the mix. They are entirely necessary. But they provide for all users, so they don’t specifically help women.) The solution to lines for the ladies’ is “potty parity,” a mandated 2:1, and sometimes 3:1, provision ratio in favour of women.
Canada’s National Building Code enshrines 2:1 parity for some types of buildings, but not this bathroom, where, ironically, parity is of the utmost importance.
There’s a particular onus on the parliamentary precinct to be accessible and welcoming. It is a signifier of who we are as a country. This was no doubt the motivation for an addition to the original bathroom in 1984, which added women’s stalls for the first time, thereby conceding that women were, in fact, living and working and walking among men of the modern world. The least Parliament could do today is ensure that there are not merely some places for women to pee, but actually enough.
Since the men’s side has five stalls and 12 urinals, parity dictates the women’s should have 34 to 51 stalls. Not 15.
Do you find yourself balking at that number? At the imagined cost? Balk away. This isn’t some haughty foot-stomping demand. It’s simply what it takes to accommodate women’s bodies.
Women can’t reasonably be shamed for the biology that makes us take longer to pee and the physiology that means we have to move more clothing out of the way to get the job done. We can’t be blamed for menstruating – a quarter of all women of childbearing age are doing so at any one time. We didn’t create the social factors that leave more women than men caring for adults in need of assistance and that make women still the primary caregivers for young children.
Many women choose this. I did. When my children were small, I wanted to work part-time. It was an era of museum and trail and pool visits, of naps and reading books. It was also the time of my public-toilet radicalization.
So few changing tables. So many bathrooms that wouldn’t fit my stroller. So many times I trudged home early from the park because the public bathroom was inexplicably locked, even though it was mid-day, June and 20 degrees. So many times one of my tiny charges peed their pants because public bathrooms had failed them, even in the most natural and inescapable of bodily functions.
I had spent a lifetime to this point waiting in public toilet lines – making do, assuming it was just what women and girls did. Our lot. It took having a toddler and a newborn to make me wonder what the heck was actually going on. To wonder why this six-to-eight-times-a-day function was being made so impossible.
Women’s bodies aren’t broken because they work differently than men’s. (And for that matter, bodies that use mobility devices aren’t broken because those bodies require larger or differently outfitted bathrooms; transgender people aren’t broken because those bodies may require all-gender options for safety. Kids bodies aren’t broken because they need lower sinks or step-stools to wash their hands.)
Bathrooms are broken.
And the shiny new West Block bathroom is definitely broken.
Once the facility officially opens, women will go and women will wait. The bathroom building is accessible now to Hill visitors; the hoarding’s still up, but there’s no going back on the design. These ratios will stand. And half the population will, too.
We’re used to it. Even where potty parity is legislated, the standards apply only for new and significantly renovated buildings, so the pace of change is glacial. Meanwhile, we wait at theatres, in airports, at restaurants, at conferences. The stealthy persistence of ill-designed public bathrooms makes us miss time on ski hills, steals from us the chance to grab refreshments during concert intermissions, makes us give up and go elsewhere. Go home.
Don’t scoff and think this is a whole lot of hullaballoo about peeing. It’s not about peeing. It’s about belonging. It’s about the ingrained gendering of public spaces and the built environment. It’s about the implied disdain for women that exists when women wait and men do not. The sting is only stronger in the case of the West Block bathroom – the fix is not merely known, it was within reach.
The temporary seething rage women will feel as they slump in line at the new West Block toilets – as they watch men waltz in and out, comfort and dignity assured by virtue of their bodies being the measuring stick for all that is right and good – is not, I presume, what the designers of this facility were aiming for.
Needless, uncomfortable waiting does not inspire patriotism, is not “a positive visitor experience.” Not even mute neutrality. It inspires enmity, and in a place where all Canadians should feel gladly received.
Public Services and Procurement says that for large events on the hill, such as Canada Day, temporary facilities will be added to ease wait times. I’d suggest that might be something to consider doing now.