VANCOUVER -- Metro Vancouver's three rapid transit lines snaking their way along nearly 70 kilometres of track throughout this swiftly growing region have been hugely successful infrastructure projects that reduce traffic congestion caused by automobiles, drive well-planned residential and commercial development along their routes, and help to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.
They represent, in a planner's world, the main key to managing the ever-increasing urbanization that is transforming and defining one of Canada's most dynamic metropolitan areas. And, with the Metro population expected to increase by an additional one million people to 3.3 million residents in the next three decades, that trend will surely continue.
To transit-riding customers, however, there is one often annoying problem with the rapid transit system that carries close to 120 million riders a year: They have no public toilet facilities, a situation you'd think that should never have been allowed to happen, especially with an aging population.
But, as a public policy issue, installing toilets at Metro Vancouver's 47 transit stations is just not a compelling topic, even if the average adult has to urinate six to eight times in a 24-hour period.
Nick Volkow, a councillor in the City of Burnaby, which is part of the Metro Vancouver region, thinks it is shocking that the transit stations are toilet-less at a time of great population growth, rapid densification and aging baby boomers.
"I'm not getting any younger and my bladder capacity isn't what it was when I was 18," said Volkow, a frequent transit rider.
Metro Vancouver encourages tourists from around the world to visit the region, Volkow said, but then "you basically invite them to do their business in doorways and alleyways because there are no public amenities."
Chairman of Burnaby's transportation committee, he said he has often asked TransLink, which operates the transit lines, why toilets can't be placed in stations but is always told the policing and maintenance costs would be too expensive, an argument he rejects as being completely specious.
He also rejects as ridiculous TransLink's position that riders -- the elderly, the sick, mothers with young children -- who are desperate to use a toilet can ask permission to use a staff washroom if it is an emergency.
"There's absolutely zero being planned on putting these public amenities onto the rail lines. It's not even a point of discussion."
Volkow's point should not be dismissed as unrealistic, especially considering a fourth spur, the Evergreen Line, is currently being built and will include seven more stations along 11 kilometres of additional track. By the time it is completed in 2016, different levels of government will have spent at least $5.6 billion building the region's rapid transit system.
Indeed, TransLink itself published a survey two years ago that looked at which rapid transit systems around the world did, and did not, have public toilets.
The survey showed that San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit system had toilets in all 47 of its stations and Atlanta had facilities in all its 38 stations. Some cities such as Philadelphia, New York and Toronto had toilets in some of their stations while others, such as San Jose and Ottawa, had none.
Derek Zabel, a TransLink media relations officer, said the organization is aware of the need for public toilets, especially for older people and young children.
"However, we have to consider the operational and financial implications of providing public washrooms or allowing the public access to staff washrooms," a Translink document says. "We would need funding to provide the required maintenance of the washrooms and assurance of the safety and security of our customers and staff. We do not have that funding at present."
Yet there are obvious and proven solutions to putting public toilets in all transit stations.
In Europe, caretakers look after and clean transit station toilets, charging a nominal fee and reporting any suspicious activity to police. Usually caretakers are older women who run a ship-shape, no-nonsense operation.
And in North America there is the Portland Loo, a cheap and effective free public toilet that can be installed on less space than a parking spot and quickly connected to existing water and sewer lines.
The simple math is this: An installed and connected Portland Loo costs up to on average $120,000 per unit. Putting one in each of Metro Vancouver's 54 transit stations would cost in the vicinity of $6.5 million which is -- wait for it -- about one-tenth of one per cent of the total cost of the region's rapid transit system.
Gord Price, the director of Simon Fraser University's city program and a former Vancouver councillor, says building and operating a rapid transit system without public toilets is simply a lousy civic policy. Acknowledging that policing and maintaining toilets would have a cost, Price pointed out that the cost would be offset by "the public demand and convenience."
Now 60, Volkow deserves the last word on toilet-less transit stations: "It's ridiculous, it's shortsighted and it makes absolutely no sense. When you have to go, you have to go."
Chris Rose is the Winnipeg Free
Press West Coast correspondent.
Building Metro Vancouver's rapid transit system:
Both the federal and B.C. governments, along with TransLink, have funded the building of Metro Vancouver's $5.6-billion rapid transit system.
As an example, the Evergreen Line now being built is estimated to cost $1.4 billion, with the federal government contributing up to $417 million and the B.C. government contributing $583 million. TransLink is contributing the remaining $400 million.
TransLink's funding sources include a portion of property taxes, fuel taxes, a parking tax, and a power levy. Revenues are also raised through transit fares and bridge tolls.