… Money, Cost & Value

December 10, 2010 at 1:10 pm 1 comment

**Postscript: What seems to have happened is that rather than covering ‘money, cost & value’, I’ve written 1100 words on whether you should charge people for the loo or not (??!). So let’s call this Part 1**

I’ve not posted in a while, because I needed to put more effort into doing something rather than just writing about it. It’s quite scary and I’m not sure that it’ll pay off, but at least I’m having a go…

Anyways, it’s Christmas soon and I really wanted to fit in a festive blog post on MONEY.

Funding public toilets is probably the biggest concern for councils (right now it’s their biggest concern for everything).  But there are ways that you can generate revenue from public toilets. And even more ways to generate value.

I’ll just say up front that I don’t think public toilets can pay for themselves. But then my crass understanding of the public sector is that that’s one way to define a public service – something the public wants that couldn’t exist outside of a tax system. And the public want public toilets. Half the people that we interviewed don’t even use public toilets because they think they’re too dirty/scary/non-existent, but almost everyone that we interviewed thought there should be more, better, public loos. There’s a contradiction there; wanting something you don’t use; that I’m totally fine with.

The most obvious way to generate an income is to charge people to use it.

Charging the public

Our interviewees were quite 50:50 on this. The reasons that they gave reflect the issues quite well. The Fors thought that paid-for facilities were safer and cleaner. The Againsts thought they it was a barrier to a natural, urgent need, and that they were being taxed twice.

There are no right or wrong answers here (I agree with all of them!). It’s up to each provider to decide what’s right for them, for their public, and for the type of facility they’re providing.

For the provider it can work for two reasons. Firstly it generates money. From research I know that one busy seaside public toilet (summertime only) brought in £15 700. (I can’t decide if that’s a lot or not). A facility in ‘a capital city’ (I’m struggling with anonymity here!) had 850 000 visitors one year. The next year they started charging 50p. Now the fact that there’s a charge would put (a lot of) people off, but for the sake of argument let’s say it didn’t. That’s £425 000. Now we’re talking…

The second reason is that it deters vandalism. The theory that the policeman I spoke with subscribed to was that people don’t damage things that they pay for. Which makes sense. Those pesky teenage vandals aren’t going to graffiti a public loo if it costs 50p to get in. Of course they may jump the barrier. But you could have direct-access toilets that have a coin slot on the door. But they’ll vandalise the coin mechanism instead. I mean you really can’t win. My perhaps idealistic solution to these issues is to make your public toilet attended, or popular, so the opportunity for vandalism is removed (i.e add value).

Direct-access toilets, Cambridge

But that brings me onto the next topic – how do you charge for a facility, and how will it affect the public?

For a lot of providers, charging for a facility requires two things: A barrier, and a full-time attendant.

The barrier is contentious round here as it discriminates against those with different access requirements, whether it’s wheelchair access, poor mobility, or having pushchairs or suitcases with you. You then either need an attendant-operated gate for these users, or a separate disabled toilet (and some guilty people with a lot of luggage using it). The fact that you would need an attendant immediately confines this sort of charging to busy facilities that would require a full-time attendant in any case, since the attendant will cost more than the money that the gate will bring in. It will also divide the attendant’s attention between cleaning and helping the public with access.

The option of having the payment mechanism on the door, as with direct-access toilets or the automatic tardis-like superloos, removes the need to have an attendant. Just make sure they don’t break.

Then there’s the barrier of the money itself. The user has to have the correct coins, or the provider has to have a change machine. Happily I spoke to a station manager who’s approach was that if the change machine wasn’t working the attendant should just opened the gate – this wasn’t about making money, it was about deterring misuse, and he wasn’t going to let collecting 30p’s rank higher than letting someone use the loo. (King’s Cross, take note, you could learn something).

‘On the continent’ (sorry for the horrible sweeping phrase) we’ll have all seen a more ad hoc approach. The attendant cleans the toilet and has a saucer and a sign requesting payment. It’s hard to tell sometimes whether paying is a requirement or a voluntary contribution, but it seems to work and doesn’t require infrastructure. But it’s not clear how much money this brings in, or whether this is, in fact, the only money the attendant receives. It may reflect a different employment system and certainly is a huge culture shift. But perhaps a tourist cafe could try it here, as a voluntary contribution. It might help pay for the toilet roll.

An idea that I’ve heard from a lot of interviewees and some providers was to use a card to access the loo instead of needing to fiddle around with coins; sort of like the Oyster system on London Underground, or Visa payWave etc.. A great idea, though again it requires even more expensive infrastructure. Now the provider really is trying to make money at a very busy city facility (and fair enough).

Another option is just a paper card that gives some people free access: Westminster residents don’t have to pay for Westminster toilets, for example, if they show their ResCard (a discount card given to those paying council tax in Westminster). One interviewee had heard that showing the attendant her older person’s bus pass was meant to get her free access. It’s an interesting area to look at, if you can decide who deserves a free pee and who does not.

But physical barriers and correct change aren’t the only things to consider when charging for a facility. It’s also changes the perception of the facility in the eyes of the public. The way I see it, there’s a sliding scale of provision, from the great (‘I’ll go now, just in case’) to the awful (‘I’ll wait, even though I’m desperate’). Charging for a facility will push the public toilet down the scale (‘I’ll go now, just in.. Oh! You have to pay! I think I’ll wait…’). Don’t expect your user numbers to stay the same.

And whilst the provider may know that they’re only charging as a deterrent to misuse rather than aa a money making machine, I don’t think the public see it that way. Whilst facilities that charge do have less of a ‘fear of crime’ problem (not least because of the attendant) what the public really think is that they’re paying for a cleaner loo. Having to pay for a toilet only to find that it’s filthy is maddening. This must be a big problem when you have to pay for one cubicle in particular, as with direct-access loos and Tardis toilets.

And finally (I promise!). You can’t charge for toilets in areas that have a strong night-time economy; a potential flaw in the 24-hour Tardis-toilet solution. Drunk people will go up the sides!

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Entry filed under: Service Design. Tags: , , , , , .

… Crime … Money, Cost & Value – Part II

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