Province column: Let’s hope this brave new experiment in public toilets is no busted flush

Monday, April 14, 2008

Last week, I came across one of the splashiest new additions to downtown Vancouver’s urban landscape: A high-tech, self-cleaning public lavatory at the corner of Main Street and Terminal Avenue, at the edge of the Downtown Eastside.

From the outside, it appeared to be nothing more than an over-sized box covered in bright advertising, including a pitch for Mexican beer.

Inside, the facility appeared industrial-strength — sullied by graffiti and an out-of-order sink, but otherwise tidy.

Though far from having a Four Seasons ambiance, it was a distinct notch above the port-a-potties found at a typical summer rock festival.

However, given that an ugly lovers’ spat over four bucks was taking place a few feet away, I was happy to escape the commotion by walking through the loo’s self-opening doors.

Would I visit the facility again? In a bind, sure.

Would I let my kids use it? Likely not.

But I’m holding out hope for this program.

These French-made loos — automatically cleaned and disinfected after each use — are being paid for by CBS/JC Decaux, a major advertising company that recoups its costs by promoting everything from beverages to animal activism on the exterior walls.

So far, so good.

Yet, I can’t help but feel concerned about the future of this brave new civic experiment.

On an earlier visit, I found the same Main-and-Terminal facility was inexplicably out of commission.

In the meantime, another of the automated toilets on Davie Street, near Yaletown, has been shut down due to vandalism.

According to Vancouver city official Grant Woff, the toilet contractor is actually sending out a specialist from France to deal with the matter.

I expect the jet-setting plumber to have a “mon dieu” moment when he sees what Vancouver’s toilets are up against — a perfect storm of drug and criminal activity.

South of the border, things are even worse. Last month, city leaders in Seattle recommended an outright end to their own automated public toilets, because of the social problems they attracted.

Indeed, given downtown Vancouver’s track record for public disorder, it’s a miracle these facilities were ever give given the green light in the first place.

I give Woff and his colleagues full marks for effort and a positive outlook, though.

Against the odds, they are hell-bent on bringing a total of eight of these toilets to the city.

But, as Woff noted, “the long-term success will be influenced greatly by how the toilets are received in the areas where they are placed.” Translation: If Vancouverites want to keep their high-tech loos, they’d best respect and watch over them, instead of turning them over to vandals and dope pushers.

Otherwise, the naysayers will be proven right — and this risky but worthwhile venture will be, well, flushed away for good.

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