There once was an economist who solved a dirty bathroom problem with the image of a fly. The place was the men’s room at Amsterdam’s international airport. Seeing the picture of a black housefly to the left of each toilet’s drain, men aimed for the target and “spillage” deceased by 80 percent.
Behavioral economists like to use the Amsterdam airport story to introduce their theory of the nudge. If government wants to encourage socially desirable behavior, it just needs to use the right incentives–the right nudge. In London a Nudge Unit increased tax compliance. In Washington they got more retirement savings.
Now, as cities try to solve the problem of public urination, they too are using nudges.
The Paris Nudge
In Paris the problem is known as “les pipis sauvages” or wild peeing.
The solution? They are starting to use the Uritrottoir.
Environmentally friendly and relatively inexpensive, the Uritrottoir needs no water nor any electricity. It is just a two-tiered box. The top has flowers and the bottom has sawdust, wood chips or straw.
The two Uritrottoirs that were just installed outside a major Paris railway station cost $9730. As for maintenance, each one’s capacity is close to 600 visits. Then, the contents are turned into compost and dumped in the city’s parks.
Explained by a Uritrottoir designer, “We’re making compost, a fertiliser, so it’s a circular economy. We’re re-using two waste products, straw and urine, to make something that makes plants grow,”
Below, you can see how the Uritrottoir works:
San Francisco and Hamburg
San Francisco and Hamburg’s St. Pauli neighborhood are experimenting with an even simpler solution. Called the “Pees Back Campaign” they are using a splash-back paint. Applied to a wall, the dried paint shoots back any liquid that lands on it,
NYC’s newest solution is the most complex and the least successful. Most of the 20 Automated Public Toilets they purchased are still in a warehouse. While the price was close to $200,000 apiece, the installation required sewer access, electricity, water, and a tangle of bureaucratic approvals.
But they looked pretty good:
Our Bottom Line: Choice Architecture
Discussing nudges, behavioral economists like to call them choice architecture. As the context in which we make decisions, choice architecture encourages us to choose a certain alternative. You could even imagine a selection of rooms along a corridor. Most people will enter the one room with the open door.
Similarly, you and I like easy decisions. If we can spend hours considering 50 Medicare drug plan alternatives or take the default, we take the default.
So where are we? Hoping that solutions like an image of a black fly in a urinal or an Uritrottoir are the choice architecture that create a better city.
My sources and more: In the NY Times,, NY Magazine, CityLab, and the Guardian, you can learn more about how cities have attacked the public urination problem. Then, for the economic analysis, this New Republic article perfectly introduces nudges. Or, you could just read Nudge.
And thanks to last night’s dinner companions for encouraging me to proceed with this topic!