Bathroom Design, Distilled
why the women's restroom always has a longer line
Estimated reading time: 2 minutes, 13 seconds
What we’re pouring (poring) over: Bathrooms
Why is this a cool topic? It’s peak summer, which means more events like concerts and baseball games, which means more standing in line for the bathroom. Unless you’re using the designated men’s bathroom, in which case there is no line.
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This newsletter is often inspired by those everyday life experiences that make you ask, “Why is this the way it is?” And I find myself asking that question all the time when I’m waiting in an absurdly long line for the women’s bathroom while the men can walk in and out freely.
So here’s this week’s Carrie Bradshaw-style question: “I couldn’t help but wonder: Does the women’s restroom line have to be such a nightmare?”
What to know about bathroom design: Public bathrooms arose in the Victorian era, right around when plumbing became a thing. And at first, public restrooms were a male-only concept. Victorian women had to get creative if they had to go — whether using their long skirts to covertly go on the street or carrying their own little stand-to-pee device called a “urinette” that sounds like it could still come in handy today.
Then, builders finally created designated bathrooms for women. Bathroom facilities were built to be equal, with the same amount of space.
But this didn’t take into account that women do, in fact, take longer to use the bathroom. For many reasons that are not our fault!
We have more clothes to remove. We menstruate. We are more likely to have small children with us. We have to wait for individual private stalls. We talk a lot in the bathroom, sure, but that’s to pass the time while we wait for our comrades who are still valiantly waiting in line.
In fact, researchers did a study that showed that if someone arrives to the bathroom every five seconds, on average, women will wait more than six minutes while men will wait just 11 seconds.
The problem: A 30-minute bathroom line that makes you want to explode.
My best bathroom break in recent memory is when I was hiking Mt. Sherman in Colorado and we were so far above the tree line that there was nowhere to hide, so I squatted over a pile of rocks out in the open, Victorian era-style. It felt liberating. As another hiker said later on the trail, “It’s just a butt.”
But we can’t do this in a sports stadium or a bar, so how do we solve the bathroom problem?
We could simply build more bathrooms, but that’s not always realistic. Toilets don’t drive revenue, for starters: bathrooms take up space and don’t make money. Plus, it’s harder to add bathrooms to older buildings, like theaters.
So we’re left with the most practical solution, according to research: gender-neutral bathrooms.
Picture the bathrooms on an airplane. Why aren’t there men’s and women’s bathrooms? Because airplanes don’t have time for this nonsense. They have zero space and zero tolerance for lines.
Neutral bathrooms are efficient. They reduce average waiting times and overhead costs. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.
The main opposition comes from what Cambridge scholars call “sheer queasiness,” which everyone needs to just get over. After all, we used to live in a society in which women just peed down their skirts.
What to do now with this information: Assuming we aren’t legislators or builders, here are some options as an individual:
Take advantage of gender-neutral offerings: Congrats! You’ve struck bathroom gold. Enjoy.
Use the men’s OR women’s single-use restroom: If it’s a single-use bathroom, what’s the difference?
Get aggressive: During a play, SPRINT to the bathroom the second intermission starts. Don’t walk, RUN.
Go in a bush: self-explanatory. Good for hikes and music festivals. Bonus points for using the “Victorian method” if you have a long skirt to hide under.
Look for the secret bathroom: There’s almost always a secret bathroom.
Go to the source:
Potty Parity in Perspective: Gender and Family Issues in Planning and Designing Public Restrooms (Journal of Planning Literature)
The gender-neutral bathroom: a new frame and some nudges (Cambridge University Press)
This week’s beverage pairing
If I’m at Tommyknocker, chances are I just did a good hike. After hiking my second 14er, we headed to Tommyknocker in Idaho Springs on the way back for a celebratory beer. Drift Blonde is a crisp light beer that’s always refreshing after some high-altitude activities.
Other random things I have on my reading list this week
People aren’t reading as much as they used to. In early 2021, nearly a quarter of Americans told the Pew Research Center that they hadn’t read any books at all the previous year. Here’s how to fall back in love with reading. (Vox)
What went wrong with Victoria’s Secret? For starters, no one wants uncomfortable bras anymore when we have other options. The new documentary on Hulu is a good watch, and this Atlantic story is a good read.
The Runner: A longform story from 2001 about a criminal who created false identities and competed in track at multiple colleges. “What disturbed Matt Jacobson most about the thief’s locker was the collection of athletic trophies he found.” (The New Yorker)
After a loooong hiatus, I had some room to breathe and pause and reset. This newsletter isn’t always easy to research and write, but I’m back with some more good topics to cover and more headspace to do it. More to come!
Thanks for reading Distilled! If you haven’t already, subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.