Saturday, February 22, 2014

Baby Steps Towards Restroom Reform

A new startup is planning a pay-for-access washroom in Manhattan that basically sounds like a capsule hotel. As I've previously noted, the supply of public restrooms in most big US cities is pathetically low. Many cities, such as Tokyo, have publicly-funded restrooms. Other cities have privately-supplied restrooms that charge small fees. The US has neither, with most public restrooms provided as a complementary service by private businesses selling other stuff. This system worked okay because overuse of these free restrooms was curbed by norms--polite "for customers only" signs etc.

For whatever reason these norms are breaking down and businesses are decreasing the quantity and accessibility of their restrooms. This Manhattan experiment is nice because it can help shift the way people think about restrooms: as a valuable good that people should be willing to pay for. Smuggling this idea into a business model that bundles a bunch of products together (storage lockers, showers, a quiet space, etc.) is both clever and disappointing. It's clever because it emphasizes the positional value of the package by appealing to rich folks. It's disappointing because it fails to target the low-value customers, like tourists, who's willingness-to-pay for a public restroom might fall below the membership fee. 

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