Cell phones have rendered phone booths nearly as rare as grizzly bears. E-mail has wiped out hundreds of thousands of blue, corner mailboxes over the last 25 years. The invasive species known as "bottled water" has turned the public drinking fountain into another feature so rare that concerned preservationists have begun to tag and monitor those that remain. But how often do you find yourself hopping down the street, praying for divine intervention from deities you may not otherwise believe in, as you search desperately for a phone booth or a drinking fountain?
With public restrooms, it's a different story. They may not be as numerous as they once were, but it's not because technology has made them unnecessary.
That could change, however, with a new iPhone app called CLOO. CLOO aims to solve "the problem of too-few easily accessible restrooms" by facilitating a network of toilet landlords and toilet renters. If you have a bathroom you're willing to share with others for a modest fee, you can list it in CLOO's directory. Then, other CLOO users will see it when they're in the area and looking for a place to go. The app will allow you to see if they share any social media friends with you, how the CLOO community has rated your facilities, and what price you charge.
It sounds preposterous at first — who in their right mind is going to offer strangers or near-strangers spontaneous access to what is arguably the most private room in their home? Consider, however, that thousands of people are already renting out their spare bedrooms via Airbnb.com and other peer-to-peer rental platforms, and when they do this, presumably they're not requiring their guests to relieve themselves at the Starbucks down the street. CLOO simply focuses peer-to-peer rental on one very specialized segment of the market.
But it's a specialized segment where there is indeed great demand. The ability to navigate the world without having to defecate on a stranger's flowerbed is what distinguishes mankind from dogs and pigeons. Public toilets contribute to human dignity, civic beauty, and of course the economy. They're the social safety net that allows you to have that extra beer, shop at the mall for eight hours at a stretch, wander aimlessly through cities where you don't know a soul.
But of course public restrooms are problematic too. They're costly to build and require precious real estate that's often unavailable in dense urban environments. They're expensive to maintain. Left unsupervised, they quickly devolve into urine-soaked havens for junkies, prostitutes, perverts and vandals. In the 1970s and 1980s, many cities did begin padlocking public restrooms in an effort to save money and deter crime — and if it weren't for the subsequent rise of corporate megachains like Starbucks, which tend to make their restrooms accessible even to nonpaying customers, the noble American ideal of democratic defecation may have crapped out altogether.
But while chain-store restrooms have emerged as one of the most useful components of the American commons, they alone cannot meet public demand for a safe, well-lighted place to urinate. (Here, perhaps, is a good place to mourn the passing of Borders. The loss of its clean, capacious restrooms is a blow to civil society.)
What an application like CLOO helps us to realize, however, is that America's restroom infrastructure is actually incredibly robust. In New York City, for example, there are roughly 3.2 million housing units, which means there are probably at least 5 million private bathrooms, most of which are substantially underutilized. If CLOO could add just one out of every thousand housing units in New York to its network, New Yorkers would have more than five thousand new places to relieve themselves, at virtually no cost to the city!
In the meantime, New York is apparently so strapped for cash that Parks Department employees are rationing out toilet paper a few sheets at a time at some public restrooms. While such factoids paint America as a broken, bankrupt hellhole speeding fast toward the 18th century, it doesn't have to be that way. With new technologies like CLOO making it easier and more practical to utilize the millions and millions of bathrooms that already exist, private citizens have it in their power to build a cheaper, cleaner, more pleasantly air-freshened toilet network than the government could ever manage. Indeed, we may be on the verge of a pooper's paradise, where there are cozy, well-maintained bathrooms accessible on every block and the toilet paper is as soft as cashmere.