Joanne Chianello, Ottawa Citizen
Published on: February 20, 2015
When Eric McCabe goes somewhere new, one of the first things he does is scout out where the nearest toilets are.
The active 70-year-old has a prostate issue — as do so many older men — and access to a washroom is of supreme importance and something he considers before venturing on an outing. A half-day of cross-country skiing in the Gatineaus? No problem — there are plenty of well-maintained outhouse-type facilities along the National Capital Commission routes. Taking the bus downtown? A much riskier proposition.
If McCabe is embarrassed to discuss his biological needs, he certainly doesn’t show it. Indeed, he talked openly about it at the city’s first budget consultation.
That might sound like an odd venue to talk about your health issues. But McCabe is part of the GottaGo! Campaign that’s been lobbying councillors to install public toilets in the capital. The group’s ultimate goal is for the city to develop a fully fledged policy on making sure that the public has access to toilets in high-traffic parts of the city.
But in the short term, GottaGo! is pressing councillors to include public washrooms in the new light-rail stations and at park-and-ride facilities. At the very least, the group argues, the city should install washrooms at Bayview and Hurdman stations where there aren’t any other facilities nearby. And they’re recommending that the city provide subsidies to some private businesses in exchange for letting non-customers use their washrooms.
“We want people to have a sustainable system,” says Joan Kuyek, chair of the GottaGo! campaign. “If you’re using the Confederation Line (and) somewhere along that line you need to go, then what?”
The GottaGo! folks are right, of course. (They are also to be applauded for their efforts: showing up at each consultation and committee meeting, lobbying councillors and generally being civicly engaged in fighting for this basic right.)
Of course, when it comes to public toilets, there are safety and cleanliness concerns, to say nothing of the funds to maintain them. Some North American transit systems have shut down their washrooms over the years. But many cities are embracing the public toilet. In Washington, D.C., its latest rail addition — the Silver Line — included publicly accessible washrooms in each of the five new stations. But many cities in Europe, as well as Japan and Korea, provide public toilets, many of them at least partially self-cleaning. Some require a small payment to enter. In Toronto, some of the subway stations also offer public washrooms.
The fact is, other cities are able to provide access to facilities. Why not Ottawa?
We’re spending billions on a rapid transit system that we hope will get people out of their cars. But if seniors, men with prostate issues, folks with illnesses (from Crohn’s to colitis to irritable bowl syndrome), people with disabilities or parents with young children are worried about what they’re going to do if they get caught short on a train with no place to go, then they may decide not to take transit. Worse, they may decide it’s too much trouble to leave the house.
The city’s contract with the Rideau Transit Group — the consortium building the Confederation Line — calls for no public washrooms in the station. That decision may turn out to be one of the casualties of council approving the massive contract in one meeting. Voting on the contract was such a major decision, with so much at stake, that many smaller issues were glossed over or missed. (Another example: that all the buses from the Transitway would be routed onto Scott and Albert streets. The detail was in the report that council approved, but was overlooked in the enormity of the day.)
Certainly including washrooms in the light-rail plan now instead of at the start is more difficult, but it shouldn’t be impossible. The city hasn’t yet decided whether to allow businesses to open up in LRT stations, so there’s no reason that we couldn’t add washrooms to that discussion.
Queries to the city about public toilets in new LRT stations this week remained unanswered. But to many people, it’s a no-brainer. How can we not offer up this basic service, at least in places where no other option exists?
As Kuyek puts it, if the city refuses to provide accessible toilets, “what are we saying? That some people can’t take transit? What does that say about us?”
Nothing very good.