Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Excretory Econ 102

As promised, I will now make the economic case against unisex restrooms. Mary Anne Case, creator of the toilet survey, “advocates ‘a model akin to the typical airline toilet,’ providing ultimate privacy without segregation (though she’s learned that many women prefer a same-sex environment).” From an egalitarian perspective, she may be onto something: unisex toilets assure equal waiting time for both men and women. And there could also be an efficiency advantage, because it’s pretty pointless for women to be waiting in line when the men’s room is empty. So why haven’t unisex restrooms become the standard instead of the exception?

My favorite theory (though perhaps not the best) is that separate restrooms constitute a form of zoning. Although zoning regulations have taken heat from some economists -- and many libertarians -- for abridging property rights, there is actually a decent economic argument for them: they help to internalize externalities. When industry and residential areas are located too close together, pollution from the former is more likely to adversely affect the latter. Since polluters are generally less sensitive to (or less easily harmed by) pollution than outside parties, zoning can reduce conflicts by grouping polluters together.

I’m not actually defending zoning regulations here, because a combination of traditional legal and market mechanisms can achieve the same or similar result. If placing your factory near residential areas leads to greater liability payments than placing your factory near other factories, you’ll be inclined to locate in established industrial areas. Zoning regulations, on the other hand, are much more likely to be affected by bureaucratic rent-seeking and political nonsense. (For instance, Giuliani’s famous anti-sex-shop zoning laws, passed in New York City several years ago, defy any kind of economic logic by prohibiting a sex shop from locating within [something like] 100 yards of any other sex shop. Far from concentrating the alleged externalities created by sex-oriented businesses, this regulation actually forces such businesses to spread out into areas dominated by other activities. The goal, of course, was not to control externalities, but to stamp out sex-oriented businesses altogether.)

The point is that zoning, whether accomplished by market or government, can reduce costs by concentrating external effects in a single area. And that, I think, is the primary function of separate men’s and women’s restrooms. You see, men have an unfortunate tendency to -- how shall I put this? -- whiz all over the place. This creates an externality for anyone else, male or female, using the toilets in question. But the magnitude of the harm is greater for women, because they actually have to sit on the toilet seat every time, whereas men have to do so less than half the time. Segregating the men and women concentrates splash-externalities on the group most likely to create them and least likely to be harmed by them.

In addition, I suspect it’s less time-consuming to clean one toilet with twice as much filth than two toilets with a normal amount of filth. If you had two toilets in a single unisex restroom, both would get used by men, and hence both would require cleaning on a regular basis. Having two separate toilets, one for each gender, means that one of the toilets (the one in the women’s room) can be cleaned substantially less often, while the other (the one in the men’s room) will only need to be cleaned slightly more often. The overall cleaning burden will fall as a result.

The economic perspective presented here also provides a ready answer to an age-old conundrum: should male transvestites use the women’s room? Answer: only if they squat to pee.

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