Some Other Explanations for Why Public Bathrooms Are the Way They Are

From a podcast listener named Katie McGreer, some really interesting comment on our recent episode “Time to Take Back the Toilet“:

I am an avid listener of the Freakonomics podcast and I just wanted to respond to the recent episode on noise in public washrooms (or the lack of buffers).  I was having a discussion about the history of cottaging in the UK (and of cruising in America).  I learned that the UK had really harsh penalties against homosexuality for most of the 20th century and so for gay people, toilets were chosen as a meeting place. Still today, sex in public restrooms is not uncommon between strangers (or friends or whatever).  I also learned about the way police forces have cracked down on homosexuality by targeting activity in public washrooms. My brother suggested that modern bathroom design has evolved, in part, to allow police to enter washrooms quietly and sneak up on people who are using public toilet spaces for different (sometimes elicit) purposes. I started to think of other ways public toilets are used.  People commonly go into stalls to do drugs. And the use of toilets is not just for illegal activity but also for activities that are frowned upon in public. In Korea, for instance, there are ashtrays in the bathroom stalls and women frequently sneak off for a smoke — away from public view — since it is taboo for “ladies” to be seen smoking. In this way, public toilets are a bit of a refuge, a private place in a public space. But, clearly, they can also be dangerous.  It is interesting to think that the design of bathroom stalls and of doorways could be part and parcel of a larger safety or crackdown agenda. In Edmonton, my hometown, some public washrooms on busy streets are made of glass walls (the stalls are still made of metal but you can see people’s feet). This kind of transparency, they say, is a measure taken to prevent rape.  In a way, I can see the strategic value of keeping public washrooms quiet as well: you can hear more, and even if you do not deter certain behaviours, you can more easily “catch them.”


very interesting arguments!

( I was about to ask,in the original article,why the ladies didnt give her viewpoint..Was it that ladies restrooms are more used for chatting,.,makeup checking etc,.? ..and then noise or absense of noise doesnt matter?)


I am quite aware of some of the strange activities that take place in restrooms. This seems to more add to the taboo of the discussion/ sometime result in odd design choices, more then really explaining why they are uncomfortable.

Going with the basic Freakonomics idea of incentives, it seems like your general public restrooms are encouraged to make the experience adequate but discouraged from making it inviting or comfortable. Customers/Employees in the restroom are costing the company while not adding to production. If an adequate but uncomfortable restroom dissuades usage and thus has reduced cleaning and material cost it ends up being advantageous.


The podcast about public bathrooms was quite interesting and I would love to "hear" music in this public space rather than the common sounds found here. However, I am struck by another question that was not touched on at all. Since men and women both need bathrooms for the same purposes (toilet, sink, mirror, infant changing table), why do public restrooms segregate the men and women into separate (are they equal?). Also, is this the approach across the world, or do parts of the world have a common bathroom that contain private spaces for the toilets, but leave the sinks as open space? Is there a financial reason that drives this segregation?

Enter your name...

How many women do you know, who really want to fix their hair and touch up their makeup while a strange man watches them? I would expect any bar that implemented an arrangement like that to promptly acquire a male-only clientele.

Phil Persinger


Too late!

New York, New York!


No buffers is about (not) touching surfaces. Remember bird flu and SARS? Just bear that in mind next time you open a toilet door. Have you seen how some people wash their hands? Or not wash their hands. Just bear that in mind when you pull that handle.


Good design is an open curved main entrance so that you still have privacy but do not need to touch a door to get in or out, especially out after washing hands. Bad design is those automatic flush toilets. They are especially bad for those who like to rise and wipe.

Bill Davis

I like the Japanese idea of having the sounds of flushing or running water in the bathroom, because it is a relatively "white" noise, but I have my own audio going when I am out in the world: I am constantly listening to podcasts like "Freakonomics." So overall I don't much like piped in music that interferes with the enjoyment of my podcasts.


The grossest. Thing in the public restroom is when when a women won't sit on the seat, to keep from getting any germs on her asa. So she just square over it, then posses or shots all over the place. And the men put half a roll of toilet paiper on the seat, then if its not stuck to their buns when they leave, they just leave it on the tricking seat! ?


In reference to how music affects shopping behaviour, the awkwardness of not having background music in public restrooms can be seen as an incentive enough for people to rush about in doing their business. I would assume having music played would add comfort which in turn might add time to the use.


This week I interviewed at a firm that plays classical music in the bathrooms! I wanted to tell the interviewers about how you discussed the need for bathroom music, but I thought it would be odd to bring up in an interview. i wanted you to know there are places that play music (and I totally agree that it's a good idea).