‘Like Waze, but for toilets’: The start-up hoping to solve Paris’s public urination problem

A new application that rewards businesses for making their toilets accessible to the public and helps users to find them is being rolled out in a Paris suburb. If everything goes to plan, the ICI Toilettes app could make its way into the capital – right in time for the Olympics. 

Public urination is high on the list of critiques of the French capital, along with rats, noise, and people not picking up their dogs’ business. Referred to in France as le pipi sauvage, or “wild peeing”, the propensity for public urination – which is technically illegal and mainly male – is explained by many factors, though a lack of available public toilets is a fundamental one. 

Over the years, Parisian leaders have proposed a number of innovative solutions but, so far, to no avail. In 2018, for instance, certain arrondissements (districts) introduced bright red, eco-friendly uritrottoirs, public installations whose name was a portmanteau of the French words for “urinal” and “sidewalk”. They were criticised for being too visible and only useful for men, and then vandalised by protesters.

The newest scheme to combat the ongoing problem comes from a start-up from the western city of Nantes called Urban Services.

ICI Toilettes (“Toilets HERE”) has two main functions. First, it is a geolocation application that helps users locate public toilets and allows them to update the status of the facility if it is in disrepair. This helps members of the public find the closest functional bathroom in real time and keeps local authorities informed about the state of the city’s sanitation infrastructure.

“It’s like Waze, but for toilets,” says founder and Urban Services CEO Thomas Herquin, referring to the crowd-sourced traffic app. 

The app’s second function is to create a network of local businesses that extend their facilities to the public, all of which are visible on the application. This expands the city’s sanitation capacity by making certain bars and restaurants de facto public toilets. These “partners” are given €100 each month by the local authorities for their participation – ICI Toilettes says this is one-twelfth the cost of setting up and maintaining a public restroom.

First launched in 2021 in Nantes, the application has now made it to the populous suburb of Montreuil on the eastern edge of the capital. The service is set to be rolled out in Grenoble and Urban Services is currently in talks with Saint-Denis, the municipality just north of Paris.

The big prize, Paris, is also in view, as France makes a big investment push before the 2024 Olympic Games. In late September, the start-up was awarded a conditional grant by the ministry of tourism. Urban Services stands to earn between €100,000 and €200,000 if it manages to set up a network of 100 partner retailers in Paris by June 15, 2024 – a number Herquin says will raise the capital’s public toilet capacity by 25%.    

The idea for the app came to Herquin when he was searching for ideas to enter a start-up competition in Nantes that he ended up winning. For market research, he surveyed people on what they thought were the biggest problems they face while commuting. The first was their ability to charge phones, the second, and much more difficult to resolve, was access to sanitary facilities.

Herquin maintains that the restaurants and bars that share their toilets should be considered “complementary” to what is already in place in the city. However, he adds, his application does provide its own benefits.

“According to our research, 85% of women do not use public toilet facilities for several reasons (like hygiene and comfort) so we offer them another option,” says Herquin.

Public urination, Herquin points out, is a serious issue with serious financial consequences. “In Paris alone, 56,000m2 of walls and doors are ruined by urine every month. That can be very costly,” he says.

On whether his business has the potential to help resolve the issue, he is less certain. “The main people who require our services are women. Men seem to have found a solution already, although it is not very clean,” Herquin says.

“But we do hope, with time we can help change the culture.”

What’s more, ICI Toilettes gives people the confidence to go and ask businesses to use their bathrooms, a feature that will particularly serve tourists who are unfamiliar with the French language or their customs related to restrooms. 

In Montreuil, finding the ICI Toilettes sticker is increasingly easy. The service has now been adopted by 10 businesses.

For Putsch café in central Montreuil, signing up with ICI Toilettes doesn’t seem to have changed much except for an extra €100 in the cash register each month. “I know some restaurants can be strict, but we’ve always been open,” says Laurine Ragot, a server at the café. “But we have seen an increase since the app, especially women and people with children desperate to pee.”

Putsch, a cafe in Montreuil that has signed up for ICI Toilettes, November 9, 2023. © Gregor Thompson, FRANCE 24

ICI Toilettes is a welcome change in a city where authorities have long been criticised for the lack of public sanitation infrastructure. Women’s association Maison des femmes de Montreuil recently described the situation as a “hygiene scandal” in French daily Le Parisien

Since signing on with Urban Services in June, “Montreuil has gone from seven public toilet facilities to 17,” says Montreuil’s Deputy Mayor Luc Di Gallo. 

For now, the businesses signed up to ICI Toilettes are concentrated in the city’s centre. The plan is to increase this number and distribute participating establishments more equally throughout the city. 

But ICI Toilettes is no silver bullet, says Di Gallo. People cannot access the app without a smartphone, and it wouldn’t be a viable option for businesses near busy areas like markets, which are unlikely to sign up because they could be inundated by the public.  

“For instances like this, it’s probably better to build public toilets that can [serve] significantly more people.” 

As part of a larger strategy, the response from the public has been “extremely positive”, says Di Gallo, adding that it makes the city more inclusive by meeting the needs of “women, the elderly and disabled people”, who have described the difficulties they encounter when out in public with no access to facilities.

“Of course, we also hope that those who degrade our public spaces will now be more inclined to use a toilet,” Di Gallo says. 

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‘Building bridges’ in a Parisian suburb amid unrest fears

From our special correspondent in Malakoff – A team of social workers tasked with preventing public disorder in the Paris suburb of Malakoff did the rounds ahead of Bastille Day after weeks of rioting. On a sunny weekend evening, the modus operandi of engaging with the community appeared to have worked.

Children wandered around with glitter on their cheeks, waving balloons while French pop singer Corine performed for dozens of onlookers.

Despite fears of the riots that have gripped France in recent weeks, the festivities in the southwest Paris suburb of Malakoff went off without a hitch on Thursday. While a large police force was present, filtering access to the square where the festivities were taking place, five social workers kept a watchful eye on the crowd throughout the evening.

The mission of the five men wearing purple T-shirts emblazoned with the word “Médiation” is two-fold. Their main objective is to try to prevent conflicts and defuse public disturbances through dialogue. They also work to create links with local residents. “It’s a job that really makes you feel useful,” said a smiling Samba Baye. “We can help homeless people improve their lot, raise young people’s awareness of certain issues or try to calm things down when a situation gets out of hand. And sometimes, like tonight, we’re there just in case we’re needed.”

Baye was one of the first social workers in Malakoff when the scheme was established in 2020. Today, there are five of them working five days a week throughout the town’s neighbourhoods. They are all employed by Promévil, an association specialised in social work operating in partnership with the municipality and state public housing departments.

Social worker Samba Baye watches the Bastille Day fireworks in the southwest Paris suburb of Malakoff, France on July 13, 2023. © Cyrielle Cabot, FRANCE 24

‘So what do you think of the evening?’

Early Thursday evening, before the 11pm fireworks, Baye and his colleagues strolled among the crowd. Some people greeted them with a smile and a “good evening”, while others shook their hands and chatted with them for a bit.

Suddenly, Baba, another social worker, slipped away and headed towards a group of homeless men sitting on benches.

The homeless men smiled broadly when they saw Baba approach. They chatted for a bit, then Baba took a few steps back as the situation seemed calm. “We know them well. They often wander around the square and unfortunately, they drink a lot. I tried to explain to them that tonight they had to be more careful because it was a special evening,” said Baba.

A few metres away, just behind the security cordon set up by the municipal police, a group of teenagers burst out laughing. This time Karim, who has been a social worker for 10 years, started the conversation. “So what do you think of the evening?” he asked them. One of them replied, “It’s cool, it sets the mood”, before exclaiming and pointing to the roof of the building behind him: “But I want to see the fireworks from up there!”

Karim quickly shot down the idea, noting that climbing on a building is not only illegal but also very dangerous. The teenager eventually agreed with him and abandoned the hair-brained idea. The conversation then continued, with jokes and references to Mansour Barnaoui, a young man from Malakoff who is now a mixed martial arts champion and an idol for the local teenagers. 

The conversation turned towards the riots of recent weeks following last month’s police shooting of Nahel, a teenager of Algerian origin, in the Parisian suburb of Nanterre. The local kids pulled out their phones to show images that have clearly left an impression. One of them said that he had taken part in the violence, while another admitted, with a disappointed look, that he had been forced to stay home. But they all came to the same conclusion: “We identify with Nahel, it was unfair what happened to him!”

“They’re good kids, they listen,” said Karim. He added that this was the result of three years spent building relationships with them. 

Read more‘We have to listen to them’: Youth associations on the front lines during Nahel riots

‘To advise, not order, and to build bridges’

Before the festivities began, Karim, Baye and Baba were convinced that the evening would be calm. But by the afternoon, there was palpable anxiety in the town.

The team began its usual rounds in Malakoff’s streets around 4:30pm. They checked every nook and cranny for damage and took photos of illegal rubbish dumps for about two hours.

Samba Baye, a social worker in Malakoff, heads to a caretaker's lodge to take stock of the situation a few hours before Bastille Day festivities on July 13, 2023.
Samba Baye, a social worker in Malakoff, heads to a caretaker’s lodge to take stock of the situation a few hours before Bastille Day festivities on July 13, 2023. © Cyrielle Cabot, FRANCE 24

Karim, Baye and Baba also stopped regularly to chat with passers-by, and at each building they said “hello” to the caretaker, listening to comments and complaints.

On their list, they noted one or two broken doors and a few neighbourhood concerns. However, one question kept coming up: “So, is it going to be a busy evening?”

Malakoff was left relatively untouched by the rioting that followed Nahel’s death. “A few cars and bins were burned and a shop was vandalised,” said Baye. He attributed this “good record” partly to the efforts of social workers on the ground.

“We spoke to these young people during the riots. They were able to express their feelings of injustice and anger,” he said. “From our end, we were able to raise their awareness and explain to them that not only was violence not the answer, but that they risked a lot if they took part in the vandalism. Several young people told us that they understood and that they were going to try to talk about it with their friends.”

Baye also noted that, “We’re the people to turn to for everyday problems. There is a lack of public services here in the evenings. The town hall closes at 5pm and after that, there’s nothing. The social workers help maintain the social bond all the time.”

This is especially important, added Baba, “as relations between the police and the public are not at their best these days”.

Baba said their job was “to advise, not order, and to build bridges. And this is now more useful than ever.”

Samba Baye and Baba Diop, social workers in Malakoff, talk to a local resident a few hours before the Bastille Day festivities on July 13, 2023.
Samba Baye and Baba Diop, social workers in Malakoff, talk to a local resident a few hours before the Bastille Day festivities on July 13, 2023. © Cyrielle Cabot, FRANCE 24

It’s a sentiment shared by many local residents, who often voiced their gratitude to the team with a simple, but heartfelt, “thank goodness you’re here.”

This article is a translation of the original in French.

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