Public toilets in the United States

Nicholas Kristof, in the New York Times:

Here’s a populist slogan for President Biden’s infrastructure plan: Pee for Free!

Sure, we need investments to rebuild bridges, highways and, yes, electrical grids, but perhaps America’s most disgraceful infrastructure failing is its lack of public toilets.

John Cochrane, on his blog:

Now, put on your economist hat. Or even put on your reporter hat. Ask the question why are there no public toilets in America?


Because it’s illegal to charge for toilets. There were once abundant public toilets in America, as there are in many other countries. And you pay a small fee to use them.


The absence of pay toilets is in fact a delightful encapsulation of so much that is wrong with American economic policy these days. Activists decide free toilets are a human right, and successfully campaign to ban pay toilets. For a while, existing toilets are free. Within months, upkeep is ignored, attendants disappear, and the toilets become disgusting, dysfunctional and dangerous. Within a few years there are no toilets at all. Fast forward, and we have a resurgence of medieval diseases that come from people relieving themselves al fresco. […]

You will jump to “what about people who can’t afford to pay?” as House did, consuming the majority of her article that should instead have been about practicalities. This too is a great teachable moment. One of the top 10 principles of economics is, don’t silence prices in order to transfer incomes. That dictum is particularly salient here because we’re literally talking about quarters. Let’s add: especially, ludicrously small amounts of income. Is it really wise to silence the incentive to create, provide, and maintain clean safe toilets, in order to transfer a few dollars of income to the less fortunate?

Maybe, you say. But look how well requiring toilets to be free has worked out. Before, a person experiencing homelessness had to beg for a nickel to use a toilet. Now there are no toilets. They are worse off than if we had pay toilets and them no money. And, really, does your and my life need to be so screwed up, does the government have to interfere in a business’ desire to provide a clean restroom and make a little money, and your and my desire to pay a small fee to relieve a bursting bladder, because of the problem of transferring a few dollars’ income?


Like so many problems in the US, this one can be solved with one simple policy: Get out of the way. Allow businesses to build, maintain, and charge for toilets. Allow people to pay for a service so dearly needed. If we can’t free a market for a service that literally costs 25 cents, heaven help the rest of the economy.