Walk through the University of Michigan’s Carisbrook campus, an increasingly popular draw for students and locals alike, and you might come across signs reminding you to use the restroom.
“Empty your bladder!” read one recently erected at the entrance to Ramada Inn, the sprawling lodge near the center of the campus. “Prepare yourself!” warned another. “Any time you need to make some noise – two minutes is not enough time, you need toilet paper!”
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Those signs are part of an initiative to make the official standard for all of Ann Arbor’s public restrooms, mandated as a new requirement by the Ann Arbor city council this week. The effort is spearheaded by council member Kim Wheeler, who has not ruled out further requests for similar measures elsewhere in the city.
“I just want people to use them,” Wheeler said in an interview on Monday. “I want the 3,200 public restrooms in Ann Arbor to be usable and welcoming, and I want the businesses to get used to it.”
In May, a broader array of issues including diversity, illegal immigration and police brutality were among those that city council members discussed. But the shift in bathroom access had everyone talking.
“We’re on a pace to have toilet paper in a million public restrooms,” Wheeler said. “It’s a very, very large goal, but I like to think of it as a symbol that really wants people to stop ignoring their needs in public spaces,” such as stores, doctors’ offices, parks, homes and hotels.
For Wheeler, the idea to start the initiative grew out of her conversations with other members of the city council. One meeting included the issues of toilets in restaurants, public parks and public restrooms on campus, and she notes that women using the restroom after a night out were often left with no toilet paper at all. A 2016 study by the Menstrual Research Information Center showed that 64% of American women use toilet paper every day, using at least 10 pieces. Some other restrooms also lack bathroom tissue, and may not be cleaned regularly, Wheeler said.
There are signs telling people to use the restroom. Photograph: Ann Arbor city council
The problem had already prompted leadership to take action in some locations. For several years, the city of Austin, Texas, has required businesses to include restroom mats for guests and provide one free set of toilet paper for each guest. The area also has “free pads” for customers. In Illinois, a Lake County law mandates that businesses provide both toilet paper and sanitary napkins.
Wheeler’s campaign in Ann Arbor took shape over the course of a meeting last month, where she pulled together, and walked the 10 colleagues through a map of bathrooms. During her presentation, her colleagues suggested turning the entire map purple to symbolize the color used for restrooms; it also became the color of campaign literature that she also distributed at the council meeting.
The next day, the council signed off on a resolution and took to the streets to inform residents of the push to make their restroom use more visible. A Facebook group helped to circulate the petition. The resolution passed unanimously.
“I’m proud to be out and proud about having this campaign,” Wheeler said. “I’m hopeful that other cities will follow suit.”
Wheeler has no plans for further toilet-related demands. But she says, given the community’s urban demographic, “maybe we’ll move toward universal issue cards” and “pamphlets will be distributed”.
“It’s a delicate thing,” she admitted. “But I think it’s important that we reflect the realities of the world that we live in.”