London’s Terrible Toilet Travesty

Feb. 28 (Bloomberg) — Elaine Gennard-Levy spent 20 minutes searching for a bathroom while shopping on London’s Oxford Street. She decided it would be easier to build her own.

“I said to my husband, there must be a better way,” Gennard-Levy said. “The loos are awful in this country.”

In December, she opened a luxury ladies’ room on Oxford Street, Europe’s busiest shopping area. Use of the toilet and powder room at the facility costs 5 pounds ($10).

The facility, called WC1, is helping to fill the gap left by a decline in public bathrooms in London. The number of toilets dropped 40 percent from 2000 to 2005, leaving 415 to serve a population of 7.5 million, government figures show. That’s not including the 28 million people who visit the U.K. capital each year.

Local authorities say they can’t afford to maintain and modernize restrooms. Many have been sold to property developers, who convert them into more profitable uses, including apartments and nightclubs. Those that remain often are so dirty or rundown that they’re mostly used by drug addicts and homeless people.

In Beijing, where the average salary is a 10th of London’s, there are 7,700 toilets, or one for every 1,948 people. China’s capital plans to renovate 3,700 in time for the 2008 Olympics. London, which will host the 2012 games and has one toilet per 18,000 residents, has no such plans.

The shortage means tourists and locals have to be creative when it comes to what the British call “spending a penny.”

Guidebooks including ones from the TimeOut and Cadogan series recommend that visitors look for restrooms in department stores, pubs and shops. The proliferation of Starbucks Corp. cafes and other coffee shops makes buying a latte in exchange for lavatory use a popular strategy.

Bring a Bottle

Still, it’s not an option for everyone. Sean, who has been driving a black cab for 10 years, keeps a plastic bottle handy in case he needs to urinate at an inconvenient moment.

“A lot of the public toilets shut at night and the shops don’t like you using theirs unless you buy something,” he said, declining to give his last name. “It’s just what cabbies have to resort to these days.”

Others take more drastic steps. Research by ENCAMS, an environmental charity, showed 95 percent of Britons had urinated, vomited or defecated in public because no toilet was available.

Public urination “is one of the unfortunate aspects of London,” said Aidan Onn, 36, who runs a toyshop called Playlounge in Soho. “The streets always stink.”

Demise of Bathrooms

The shortage belies London’s history as an exemplary provider of public toilets. Its first public lavatory was built in the 12th century at the site of what is now the Royal Bank of Canada’s offices. During the Victorian era, public bathrooms multiplied, and often boasted mosaic tiling and copper pipes.

In other words if you get a little bug in London you really might end up S.O.L.

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3 Comments

  1. Jack's Shack March 5, 2007 at 4:36 am

    Mark,

    It is a hell of thing.

    Mizellie,

    Depends where you are in LA.

  2. MizEllie March 4, 2007 at 5:38 pm

    You know, I think I might have to adopt this idea for Los Angeles. I was recently visiting a friend there and when we were out walking, we couldn’t find a public restroom anywhere! Worse yet, no private business would let my poor pregnant friend pee!

  3. Mark March 4, 2007 at 5:25 pm

    DAMN! Ten bucks a crap???

    Whatever happened to the dime crapper?

    We’re in the wrong business, Jack!

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