Although we all use toilets, we very rarely discuss them. However, when you are in a foreign country, one of the most important phrases to learn is how to ask for a toilet in the local language. That’s “wo ist die Toilette?” for anyone visiting a German-speaking country by the way. However, if you are heading to Germany, there are other things you will need to know about using a public toilet; most notably that you almost always must pay to use one. The average cost of using a public restroom in Germany is between 50 cents and one euro, which is either payed directly to an attendant or through a coin-operated turnstile.
This idea of paying for the use of public toilets is far from unusual within Europe. In British English, the common phrase “spend a penny” (meaning to use the toilet) emerged as a result of the prevalence of coin-operated public toilets, which were introduced during the 1851 Great Exhibition. However, within Germany free-to-use toilets are particularly sparse. While most pubs or restaurants provide free toilets for paying customers, you should expect to pay to use toilet facilities in train stations, museums, autobahn rest stops, department stores, and even in some smaller pubs or restaurants - including most McDonalds branches. In the UK, almost all of these examples would be free to use (but some public spaces no longer have any council-run public toilets due to budget cuts).
Multiple times since I moved here, I have handed coins over to a woman outside the toilets who was searching the depths of her bag for change. If I am being honest, I had barely given this a second thought, a coin or two is not a life changing amount of money, and I figured that if I was in the same situation somebody would just as readily help me out. What goes around comes around, as the saying says. However, a conversation with a German friend has drastically changed how I view both these interactions and public toilets more generally. My friend mentioned that as a teenager she would sometimes stay at home rather than go out with her friends, because she didn’t have much money and she felt too embarrassed to ask someone else for the money to use the toilet should she need it while she was out. While desperately rummaging around for change when you need the toilet might not be ideal, for many people having to pay to use a toilet is a mild inconvenience at worst. However, for other people it is a much more tangible issue.
A lack of free-to-use toilets specifically impacts people from low income backgrounds, as access to public toilets is important in enabling access to urban life. Given that no one can stay for a long time in a place without a toilet, not being able to afford access to public toilets greatly complicates daily life, contributing to low self-esteem, depression and loneliness. This is a particular issue for the 19.7% of Germany’s population which the Federal Statistics Office (FSO) reported was threatened by poverty in 2017. Although low food and energy costs mean that this figure is below the EU average of 22.5%, Germany’s position as the most populous country in the EU means that an estimated 15.5 million residents are at risk.
The FSO specifically reported that women across all age groups were disproportionately at risk of poverty compared to men. Equally, women are particularly disadvantaged by a lack of free toilets, as they often have a greater need for these spaces. Specifically, pregnant women have an increased need for the toilet, as do the quarter of all adult women who are menstruating at any given time. Furthermore, women are more likely to both suffer from incontinence and to be caring for small children. Women are therefore frequent users of public toilets alongside other demographics who must plan their activities around their toileting needs, such as the elderly, the disabled, parents, and workers whose jobs involve driving. Homeless persons also particularly rely on public toilets.
In recent years, a number of groups have emerged who seek to make toilets more accessible to those who may not be able to afford them. For example, the website www.FreePee.org lists public toilets in Germany and other European countries which are free to use. Furthermore, since the year 2000 a programme called Nette Toilette (“Nice Toilet”) has been running across Germany. German cities who participate in the scheme pay local businesses a monthly fee if they are willing to allow the public to use their toilets for free. Marked with a sticker and listed online at www.Die-Nette-Toilette.de, there are now companies participating in this scheme across at least 210 member cities. While some of these toilets are in bars which do not allow children or are in businesses which do not open for long hours, through this scheme many cities have been able to dramatically increase the number of public toilets on a tight budget.
It is evident that people in Germany are finally becoming more aware of the issues that arise from a lack of free toilets. While certain groups (particularly women from low-economic backgrounds) continue to struggle with this additional cost, there is a continued drive to make facilities more accessible. These schemes are having a positive impact, but there is a long way to go until no one restricts their activities because of the cost to use public toilets.