When you gotta go, you gotta go—whether you're on a road trip, or trying to navigate midtown foot traffic during your lunch break. But even if you manage to locate a public toilet (good luck with that!), you'll probably find yourself holding your breath in dreadful anticipation of the grimy, if not downright stinky, atmosphere to come. The good news: These kinds of gross public restroom experiences are quickly falling by the wayside. In the future, expect cleaner, safer, easier-to-maintain W.C.s that feature cutting-edge design—and maybe even some entertainment.
1. PEE- AND GRAFFITI-PROOF WALLS
It's a familiar sight, especially on weekend nights out: drunken dudes who can't be bothered to locate a toilet, and instead use city walls as their own private restrooms. As a solution, the city of San Francisco (taking its cue from Hamburg, Germany) is coating its walls with a liquid-repelling paint that makes urine splash back onto the public urinator. Of course, this could also be applied to public restrooms to encourage men to, ahem, hit their marks and not create an undue mess.
Atlanta's Lindbergh Center Station has also decided to prioritize cleanliness above all else by providing fully-automated restrooms with graffiti-resistant, nonstick walls, a hands-free hand-washing and drying station, and metered dispensers to help control how much toilet paper you use at once.
2. STATE-OF-THE-ART TECHNOLOGY, CONVENIENCE …
There's nothing worse than waiting for a public bathroom stall, only to find that the toilet is clogged. As a remedy to this, some toilets in Beijing boast turbo-strength flush, whose pressure-based power provides almost twice as much flow rate—in less than half the time—as a traditional gravity-fed toilet flush. As if having to empty your bladder wasn't urgent reason enough, you might also find yourself ducking into such a public toilet for its all-in-one ultra-convenient amenities, which include chargers for your cell phone and electric car, recycling bins for paper and plastic, and an A.T.M.
3. … AND ENTERTAINMENT
We're living in such an entertainment-saturated era, it should come as no surprise that bathroom entertainment is the next frontier. The Beijing restrooms mentioned above also feature free Wi-Fi and stalls equipped with personal flat-screen TVs to prevent boredom from setting in after you take a seat. If you're one of those people who prefer a more analog experience, you can still enjoy the soothing cello soundtrack playing in the background.
4. CUTTING-EDGE ARCHITECTURE
Is it too much to expect your toilet to sport a more appealing design than your average store, restaurant, nightclub, or home? We don't think so. Forget those bland concrete boxes that once ruled the public realm. Instead, expect your bathroom-going experience to receive an injection of the fantastical, from Studio Pacific's Kumutoto units in New Zealand—which resemble giant, armored caterpillars—to Miro Rivera's Trail restroom in Austin, Texas, which serves as both loo and landscape sculpture.
Maintaining the cleanliness of a public toilet has always been an unpleasant, labor-intense experience—until now. Boeing is developing a self-cleaning bathroom prototype for its airplanes, featuring touchless fixtures and a sterilizing UV light that kills 99.9 percent of germs. On the ground, there are four such automatic self-cleaning public restrooms already installed in NYC (and, according to a March report, about a dozen more sitting unused in a remote warehouse in Maspeth, Queens).
6. GENDER-NEUTRAL SIGNAGE
It looks like we're saying goodbye to the old binary bathroom icons. Many universities and private institutions have chosen to swap the man in pants and woman in a dress for more inclusive signs. MyDoorSign has said it will donate signs sporting its all-gender icons to interested college campuses.
7. RECYCLING AND SUSTAINABILITY
Blue port-a-potties are so passé. Particularly useful at festivals and outdoors sports events, French practice's uritonnoir, slotted into hay bales, is a green innovation that cleverly turns your pee into compost. The combo of the carbon in the straw and the nitrogen in your urine creates human manure that can be used to grow plants and veggies.
8. LIGHT-UP MAPS
There always seems to be a line for the women's restroom. At one metro station in Taipei, Taiwan, women restroom goers can now read a real-time color-coded light-up bathroom map that shows which cubicles are occupied as well which are not available or require assistance. Finally.
9. LUXURY MEMBERSHIP
Ever been afraid of not locating an NYC public toilet in time? Thankfully, there's an app for that. If you're still too terrified to brave a random public toilet in the Big Apple, the start-up POSH City Club allows you to poo in private if you purchase a day pass, which, according to their website, costs the same as a sandwich ("the price it sometimes costs to use a restroom in a pinch"). POSH offers a spa-like restroom experience, located around popular transport hubs and city attractions like Grand Central and Central Park. Manned by full-time attendants to ensure you “safety and privacy”—as well as the guarantee of a sanitized toilet seat—members are also treated to "individual, soundproof rooms with luxury showers" as well as reprogrammable digital lockers where they can store luggage and shopping bags.
A potential solution for developing countries lacking sewage infrastructure, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-funded Nano Membrane Toilet is an off-the-grid, no-flush toilet that recycles human waste without connections to water, electricity, or sewers. Separated solid waste is collected weekly and transported to a near-by gasifier, which turns it into fertilizer that can be sold to provide additional income, while the resulting water can be used for cleaning, irrigation, and even human consumption. As of February, the first of the Nano Membranes was being tested in Ghana.
Considering that the typical elevator ride lasts mere seconds, a Japanese proposal to equip all elevators with plumbing and running water may not seem like a necessity. That is, until you take into account Japan's tendency to pack lots of very tall buildings into populous, earthquake-prone cities. After one 2015 quake near Tokyo, it took rescuers more than an hour to assist the people stuck in 14 elevators across the region. Far from being frivolous, this measure could end up having a big impact on public health and safety.