Time to give priority to the urinal issue

If there is one thing I know attracts a great deal of interest on this blog is when I feel its time for another urinal post. As I know from my popular economics book — the only one in existence to include a full chapter on toileting — no issue commands more interest than ones in this area.

So it was with delight that, on no less an media outlet than the BBC, that the issue of ‘Potty Parity’ was given prime billing. It appears that John Banzhaf, a law professor at GWU, has led a push to bring equality to public bathrooms in the US. As I raised in a previous post, there is a complex issue of the allocation of space as well as the queuing problem in bathrooms. From experience, we know that women have to queue more than men and so incur waiting costs. These waiting costs are different from those incurred by the men outside waiting for the women as we already have done our business; for instance, men could avail themselves of this iPhone app while they wait. A straight economics perspective would suggest that there is an imbalance in the allocation of facilities between men and women and Banzhaf’s mission is to restore some fairness. 

Now it turns out that the issue of fairness is complex here. First of all, Banzhaf cites research (and by the way, this is not Banzhaf’s research or mine for that matter — and for those who are surprised that I am stressing this see here and here) that women, when they actually get to a stall, take about twice as long as men. Now it is pretty clear that this argument is unfair because it lumps individual behaviour with a group stereotype. You would not want to look at averages but at individual distributions otherwise what you are doing is profiling. The point is that, from a fairness perspective, a woman should not have wait longer than a man just because she is stuck in a line behind slow people. That said, it does raise the issue of what type of tax we should put on the externality caused by slow people. Yes, I know that some of this may well be inherent but Banzhaf thinks there are some behavioural choices there too. So the tax issue is complex (in a similar way that truckers often argue about speeding fines and limits). This requires some modeling using queue theory that I note that the current Dean of MBS is an expert in).

I’ll also note that even when toilets are individualised — such as in restaurants and public buildings — and so there is no issue of men and women mixing within the restroom area — there is still a separation of men and women’s facilities. At one restaurant, there were a few women queuing outside the single unit women’s bathroom while the men’s bathroom — which was identical — was left vacant allowing me to queue jump (socially speaking). When I exited, I noted that the women outside could surely go on in without consequence but they declined. My understanding is that such separation is, in fact, an actual preference of women who have noted that men’s only facilities tend to be ‘gross.’ I think that is likely a fair observation and if there weren’t a queue at the women’s I might jump ship if given the opportunity at such restaurants.

This all leads me to a second, urinal related bit of news that is worth bring to your attention — the plight of the waterless urinal. Wired has a fascinating story about the difficulties of improving environmental outcomes here. If you are a student of innovation and entrepreneurship — as well as regulation I might add — it makes a fascinating read.

The point is that, unlike some people who think that urinal research is trivial (you know who you are Gerard Henderson and may I add that this post raises concerns about your consequent attitudes on gender issues, hygine and the environment), that there are actually some policy issues at the heart of it all that cannot be resolved without some serious investigation. If there was ever a time in Australia for this to become an area of priority, surely it is now. I certainly look forward to someone raising it in the forthcoming election debates.

9 thoughts on “Time to give priority to the urinal issue”

  1. That said, it does raise the issue of what type of tax we should put on the externality caused by slow people. This is no longer a hypothetical question, we pay taxes so that the State can provide us with such worthwhile things as a National Toiket Map: http://www.toiletmap.gov.au/ Makes me proud to be a taxpayer.


  2. I just go into the men’s when the queue is too large – in fact the men’s toilets are not much worse than the women’s toilets. But a lot of women feel social stigma about it.
    I have long believed that they should make more stalls in women’s toilets to try to relieve the congestion and waiting time. It is a serious cost of time to me! I hope research on this matter is pursued with the seriousness and gravitas it deserves.


  3. Now don’t get me started on the issue of public toliets ….

    Seriously, the waterless urinal is already here thanks to an Australian product that I’ve seen in action (so to speak) – see http://www.desert.com.au/waterless.htm

    The use of water in urinals could be/should be banned tomorrow (but let me get some shares in the company first)


  4. My understanding is that such separation is, in fact, an actual preference of women who have noted that men’s only facilities tend to be ‘gross.’
    From my conversations with several people who in their youthful days were occaisionally charged with cleaning the facilities in restaurants, I have determined that this is apparently a preference grounded in myth. The story from those at the coalface is that the women’s are often significantly worse.


  5. I recently went to a concert at QPAC and used the loo during the intermission. As I was going in I noticed that, as usual, there was a long queue of women waiting outside their stalls. By the time I had finished, a number of the younger women had entered the wash area of the mens and were waiting to move further in. I suggested that it was now free and available for use and they did. As far as I know there were no complaints from either side.


  6. Surely if we talk of equity we need to take into account full quality of the urine purging experience, not just queueing times
    Perhaps equality can only be achieved when female toilets are fitted out with urinals as well that can be backed up to for number onesies. Or if not a urinal some apparatus that is biologically equivalent that perhaps facilitates a hover


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