Time to Take Back the Toilet (Ep. 190)

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(Photo: Kevin Zamani)

(Photo: Kevin Zamani)

We’re not asking that using a public restroom be a pleasant experience, but are there ways to make it less miserable? That’s one of the questions we ask in our latest Freakonomics Radio episode, “Time to Take Back the Toilet.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

Public bathrooms are noisy, poorly designed, and often nonexistent. In this episode, we explore the history of the public restroom, the taboos that accompany it, and the public-health risks of paying too little attention to the lowly toilet. (In India, for instance, more households have phones than toilets.) Along the way, we learn about the design of public spaces and how their environments are shaped, particularly by sound.

You’ll hear from:

+ Ronald Milliman, a longtime professor of marketing at Western Kentucky University who, in part because he went blind, became a scholar of sound. We discuss a few of his many studies, including “Using Background Music to Affect the Behavior of Supermarket Shoppers” and “The Influence of Background Music on the Behavior of Restaurant Patrons.”

+ Harvey Molotch, a professor of sociology and metropolitan studies at NYU and author of Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing and  Where Stuff Comes From: How Toasters, Toilets, Cars, Computers and Many Other Things Come To Be As They Are.

Joel Beckerman, founder and lead composer of the sonic-design firm Man Made Music, and author of The Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms the Way We Think, Feel, and Buy.

Along the way, we touch on how the right music can reduce stress for surgical patients; help kids do better on math tests; and lead people to buy more wine.

You should also know (and probably do) that working in an “open office” (a.k.a. a cubicle farm) can make you more stressed, less productive, and generally grumpy, thanks to hearing everyone else’s conversations. The problem, says sound expert Julian Treasure, is that “we don’t have any earlids.”

And that’s why we love the Sound Princess, a Japanese gadget designed to mask the sonic assault in a public toilet.


Hi Dubner! I'm quite open to the idea of music in the bathroom. I'm not sure what your desired outcome may be, but it sounded like you find it a stressful experience. Maybe tunes could add humor to the ambiance to relieve some discomfort? Melodic themes that come to mind: the theme from "I Dream of Jeannie", the theme from "Stripes", or the main theme from the "Overture of 1812" with cannons!

Quinn Wildman

I just want to say I went to a bathroom with music on Sunday. It was at the Ferry Building in San Francisco.


I don't get this episode, I mean whenever I've used the public lavatory there's always been a couple or trio or even (on the lesser occasion) a quartet of local gospel singers providing the background music. At least I'm fairly sure they were gospel singers... after all there's always a nearly constant lyric stream evoking the name of the all mighty along with repeated calls to his son and the sometime devocations inherent in an 'Oh hell yeah!"
Yes, I'm almost certain those men were gospel singers...

Chris Foote

A better solution is to have a room for each toilet. I remember this being common bars in Stockholm. It was so nice to have completely personal space in public.


I also hate the sound of public restrooms! But I wish the podcast had interviewed some building designers and asked why they are kept so quiet.


The next time you are in New York City stop by The Churchill Tavern (http://www.thechurchillny.com/). While the bar area is noisy from patron conversation, the bathroom pipes in speeches by Winston Churchill.


I think maybe there has been some thought put into public restrooms; but, maybe not the kind we would like.

I remember stall doors were taken off in the high school restrooms; stupposedly to keep students from doing bad things. It just kept me out of them; and I know several kids that have stayed home when having stomach problems because of this.

Many restrooms in California have installed metal toilets and urinals. I hate those! The toilets have no liftable seat! Men pee all over it, and then are expected to also sit on it? No thank you! Why metal toilets that could only have been designed for prisons? I don't know! Idiots!

Many of these toilets also do not have stall doors—supposedly to discourage drug use. Says something about our society. Maybe we have to change our society before we can expect better toilets.

Santa Monica has a different take on restrooms, though. They have eliminated the lobby at the beach facilities and have full stalls open to everyone — men and women. I don't know why they are not worried about drug use. But, these treat men and women equally.

As for smells, how about better ventilation? A fan behind our above every stall? Seems it is long past time.





Male Restroom Etiquette

Adrian Benepe

I guess the two hosts never have to go to the bathroom. Or they are automatons who don't have bodily functions like other humans. Jeez!


There are public bathrooms in America? Nearly all the NYC subway bathrooms have been closed, many turned into kiosks.

The problem isn't the sound, it's the homeless people using bathrooms as bedrooms. If you can design a bathroom that's impossible to sleep in, we'll have places to pee.


We just listened to this podcast and found it right on and funny. Now I am super aware of bathrooms and sounds. Then this link showed up in my Facebook feed and had to share. http://www.weather.com/travel/news/bohol-philippines-restroom-impressive-jason-godfrey

Great restroom do exist. You just have to go to Shell gas station in the Phillipines!


Why not use public bathrooms as a venue for adds? The spot could be sold for profit, because the audience is captive.

Ben Kubczak

I am an architect and thought that there was a substantial amount of missing information in this episode. It's disappointing that the episode featured non-architects making blanket statements about how architects are generally poor designers when it comes to restroom design and did not include any commentary by actual architects. There are very good reasons why restrooms are generally designed the way they are, so let me add some considerations to the conversation:

1. Music is not generally pumped into restrooms because the acoustic quality of restrooms is very poor. Health code requires hard, non-absorbent surfaces in restrooms (e.g.: tile, concrete, metal, plastic, etc.),for hygiene standards and acoustics generally require soft, porous surfaces (e.g.: fabric, foam, carpet, etc.) to achieve good sound quality. With all of the "materials" flying around in restrooms, hygiene supersedes acoustics by far. I doubt you would prefer to have questionably damp walls, floors, and ceilings in restrooms in order to have background music (and even if you did, building code does not allow this). Large restrooms that do have music pumped in can be incredibly echo-ey which many people find more annoying that regular restroom sounds. This is why you rarely see it done in large restrooms (and when it is done, the volume is turned down so low that it does not cover up other noises).

2. It is very true that detailing of restroom design is often handed off to the most junior designers in architecture firms. However, this is because options for restroom layout are highly regulated by the Plumbing Code and Accessibility Codes that the restrooms practically design themselves. The only options for true design freedom is if the architect would like to increase square footage past the minimum required amounts, but 99.99% of building owners seem to not want to dedicate more square footage than required to their restrooms. Think about it: a client wants to build an office building to fit in the maximum amount of desks, or a school with a maximum amount of classroom space, or a store with a maximum amount of retail area. Who wants to waste valuable square footage on restrooms that don't generate any utility? Many building owners would probably choose not to have as large restrooms as they have if they were not required by code. When designing a restroom is essentially a slide puzzle using a kit of minimally-sized clearance dimensions, it is generally passed onto a junior designer to work out while the project architect would prefer to focus on that neat atrium in the main lobby, where not only are the fun design opportunities are greater, but there is greater potential to "screw up" the design if it is not done correctly. Every good architect generally knows how to design a restroom that meets code, so it is very hard to screw up a restroom design. As long as a junior member has a senior architect reviewing their work, restroom design is generally an efficient use of a designer who is still "learning the ropes".

3. Stall partitions are generally preferable to doors by building Owners for a number of reasons. Ideally, from the restroom user's perspective, we would prefer nothing but single-occupancy restrooms with their own toilet and sink and solid walls, but this would take up a HUGE amount of square footage when compared to designed a multi-occupancy restroom with stalls (Music would work better in single-occupancy restrooms by the way, and you do see this more commonly in single-occupancy restrooms like in small restaurants, but if they are single-occupancy restrooms there's not as big of a need for music covering up other people's sounds). Walls and framed doors are much more expensive that stall partitions and take up more square footage in a restroom. Partitions that do not go all the way down to the floor serve 2 main purposes: they make the floors easier to clean, and they generally allow building security/maintenance check to see if the stalls are occupied. Most building owners do not like "irregular restroom activity" occurring in their bathrooms (e.g.: sex, drug use, rape) and open partitions are a major deterrent to these things happening. Stall partitions also do not go all the way up to the ceiling because it is a more efficient way to ventilate the space. If stalls had full-height walls they would each require their own separately-ducted exhaust fan (required by mechanical code) but if they stop short of the ceiling, an entire large restroom with a dozen stalls could be adequately exhausted with perhaps only 2 or 3 exhaust fans. Most building owners generally opt to use the standard painted metal partitions because they are the cheapest, but there are other options for stall partitions that are pretty neat if the owner is willing to pay for them (usually they aren't).

In summary, I was surprised to see that this episode had so many generalizations and ignored considerations, especially ignored ECONOMIC considerations. I suggest... no in fact DEMAND, that you acknowledge these missing factors in your next questions/comments episode because they really do bring a lot more sense to some of the frustrating issues that were brought up in this episode. I'm not saying that restrooms are destined to have mundane design; there are a lot of good restroom designs out there that deserve to be praised. But there are very sensible economic reasons for why a standard public restroom is designed the way it is. If you would like more specific information, shoot me an e-mail and I can quote all of the specific lines of Building, Plumbing, Mechanical, and Accessibility Codes & Commentary that cause restrooms to be the way they are.

Thank you for reading this and by the way, I do enjoy the show! (By the way, did Dubner get a paycheck for his commentary in this episode? If so: easiest gig ever!!!)


Phil Persinger

Mr. Kubczak--

In addition to the various codes you have cited, I would recommend to readers the most cringe-worthy book relating to this subject: Alexander Kira's "The Bathroom" (1976). It describes and studies, among many other things, the various splash patterns produced by use of the then-common bathroom fixtures. It probably had a great influence on the development of subsequent building and plumbing codes.

If architects really had the god-like power over building design ascribed to them by the general public, then there would be TV dramatic series with architects as protagonists. Instead, architects-- if they appear at all-- are generally parents (i.e., straight-men and -women) in sit-coms....

Get a grip, general public: your public restrooms are only as good as what you want, directly or indirectly, to pay for....

Ben Kubczak

(Sorry, I meant to say above that Levitt had the easiest gig ever on this episode. Dubner earned his paycheck!)