Have to go to the bathroom

Total addressable market: Everybody! Also, 7 other things worth your time.

I’ve heard an investor or two over the years make fun of a certain type of entrepreneur: the ones who are so enamored of their product that if you ask them who their target market is (or their “total addressable market”), they enthusiastically reply: “Everybody would want this!

Well, my wife and daughter and I took a short trip to New York City recently. As we walked around, I suddenly realized there is in fact a product that literally everybody needs sometimes, and that’s in a field that’s totally ripe for disruption.

I’m talking about public toilets. Or at least whatever somebody comes up as a cool new, 21st century take on a problem as old as humanity itself.

Look, when you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go. However, there are significantly fewer (suitable) public restrooms per capita in America than there were just a few decades ago.

Let’s examine how we got here, with a short history of U.S. public bathrooms, largely courtesy of Elizabeth Yuko at Bloomberg CityLab. The abridged version goes like this:

  • 1865: We have to start somewhere, so let’s begin at the end of the Civil War, when medicine more or less coalesces around the idea that (a) spread of disease and (b) lack of sanitation are connected.

  • 1870: As a result, we get the first primitive, prototype public bathroom in New York City: “an above-ground, cast-iron, cupolaed structure at Astor Place and 8th Street.” It has a urinal and two seats for men (no dividers for privacy), plus two stalls and a washbasin for women on the other side.

  • 1880s Other U.S. cities build “small public urinals for men.” But, local businesses resist; nobody wants these “foul-smelling and unsightly” things outside their doorsteps. As for women? They get almost nothing. It’s the Victorian era; sorry, the prevailing wisdom is that most women are supposed to be at home, most of the time.

  • 1900s: The push for public bathrooms finds an odd ally: Supporters of the temperance movement, who want men (again, mostly men) to have an alternative to stopping by the local bar to use the bathroom.

  • 1920s: With the start of Prohibition, privately owned public bathrooms are soon found in department stores, hotels, and theaters. There are more facilities for women now, but fewer options for people who cannot afford to be customers.

  • 1930s: This seems a good time to point out that there were far fewer public bathrooms in the South than in the North, because much of the South was segregated. Thus anyone offering public bathrooms has to create four facilities rather than two. Usually, they just don’t offer any.

  • 1950s: The rise of the highway rest stop. People drive more, walk less, and need a place to stop while on these new roads, and eventually the Interstates.

  • 1960s: Rise of the pay toilet! “In 1970, there were more than 50,000 coin-operated public restrooms in the U.S.”

  • 1970s: Fall of the pay toilet! This becomes a big social issue, in part because usually it’s only the women’s rooms that cost a nickel or a dime to use. Student activists and politicians oppose them.

  • 1980s-90s: Pay toilets largely disappear, but they aren’t replaced often by free ones. Instead, there were simply fewer public bathrooms, period.

  • 2000s: Yes, 9/11 changes everything—and it leads to the closing of a lot of public restrooms for security reasons. “Since then, the American city has largely been a no-go zone.”

So, where are we now? Living, in some cities, in a world of starts and stops in the public bathroom sphere.

New York City tried 25-cent self-cleaning public pay toilets a decade ago, with high hopes. But they required a lot of water and were expensive, and never really caught on.

“Basically, [Americans] are afraid of strangers,” says one academic who has studied this. “It was considered beyond the pale that you would install a public toilet that didn’t practically burn itself down and rise from the ashes every time someone used it.”

More promising, perhaps, are public toilets on the streets of Portland, Oregon, which are designed to be extremely utilitarian and almost inhospitable—to dissuade anyone from hanging around more than necessary, or using them for anything other than their intended purpose.

(They’re in public places, open at the top and bottom for limited privacy, and, the sink is outside on the street, so everyone can see whether or not you wash your hands.)

Anyway, I’m not going to give up writing or newsletters or whatever else that it is that I do for 21st-century public bathroom development.

But somebody ought to. Total addressable market? Everybody.

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