United States, Divided Restrooms

Well-designed bathrooms work by dividing space. Whether through complete enclosure in a single-user restroom or by clever partitioning that admits airflow and natural light, proper division of the physical environment enhances privacy. In the developed world, we enjoy near-universal access to private facilities; as a result, bathroom privacy has come to be viewed as a right rather than a privilege.

In the United States, few other issues prove as divisive as public restroom accessibility for all genders. The geographic disparity is striking — while state assemblies across the southern and southeastern regions have introduced a host of “bathroom bills” since 2013, other states lead the nation in making restroom access a public right. California’s latest efforts are among the most ambitious. In 2017, California AB1732 went into effect, requiring all businesses, schools, and government buildings to open single-user restrooms to all genders.

Public restrooms present complex design problems. With members of the public as end-users, they nonetheless involve many potential users of the tools involved. From the physical layout and construction of existing facilities to the management of code compliance issues with local government agencies, there are multiple stakeholders at each stage of development. Small business owners in California may balk at the costs associated with AB1732, which voids some local regulations. At the same time, changing the stipulation that buildings must offer both men’s and women’s facilities increases space and reduces the cost of maintenance.

The goal of making public restrooms inclusive for all genders is within reach for progressive states. Inclusive restrooms bridge tangible aspects of design — like public signage and construction materials — with the less-tangible categories of behavior and social norms. There is no singular solution to the issues raised by bathroom bills. There is no single strategy for achieving “potty parity” (unequal restroom facilities usually affecting women). Many people silently suffer from paruresis — colloquially known as being “pee-shy” — without recourse in public places. Yet these are precisely the diverse issues best addressed by inclusive design. Addressing one need can have synergistic effects on others: instead of dividing, inclusive restrooms can help people find common ground.