Toilets aren’t just a ‘nice to have’. So why are there so few of them at Metlink train stations?
If you’ve never hopped off a Wellington train service and scrambled for the closest public toilet, I envy you. Unfortunately, it’s something I’ve had to do more often than I’d like. Approximately one in seven New Zealanders is struck with the same bowel disorder as me, and find their lives marred with a variety of gastrointestinal symptoms that put a dent in their scheduling, health and enjoyment of life.
Whenever I travel, I, and certainly others, start planning by searching up what places have the most accessible public toilets first.
Which is what led me to spending two full days of my finite human life charting the exact location of every public toilet within the vicinity of the Wellington rail network, as well as the distances between them, and the average times it takes to get to each toilet from each station.
What I found will shock you.
Before we go any further, all distances mentioned are “as the crow flies” – ie a straight line from A to B. Often that means if you’d actually need to walk this distance, it would be double or triple the distance stated. Also, I’ve left the Wairarapa and Palmerston North lines out of my data, as those services have toilets on them.
Picture this. You’ve found yourself in Paekākāriki. Why? No idea. But regardless, you have. You hop off the train, deliriously busting for the loo and…
Discover that the closest one is 400m away. Repeat this incident again after dusk and your closest public toilet is a cold and lonely nearly 7km trek away in Pukerua Bay.
Now, of course, people don’t do this. The logical thing would be to stay on the train a bit longer and disembark at Waikanae, which has a public toilet at the station, though it might ruin your commute.
But you’re not thinking about that.
You’re thinking about the nausea in your stomach and the churning in your guts, and how hot it is inside the train, and wow, with a 400m dash ahead of you, that bush over there sure looks tempting and-
We’ve all done it. That’s the thing, though. Create public facilities, and people will use them. Don’t create them, and people will find other options.
On the Wellington train network, the average straight-line distance you have to go to find a public toilet after getting off one of their trains is 400m. This average blossoms to a worrisome 1.4km at night, with long stretches of nothing up along the Kāpiti Coast especially. There are also likely other places like takeaways or petrol stations with public restrooms within the vicinity as well, but those are equally dependent on time of day or inclination of the company.
Across the network, two stations have 24-hour bathrooms, six have bathrooms accessible at certain hours, and 30 have none at all (that equates to 21% with any form of public toilet – not even getting into whether or not those are accessible to folk with mobility needs).
Metlink* predominantly provides station toilet facilities at stations which meet their threshold of “extremely high use” and “very high use”; there are some outliers, but these toilets have not been recently installed. “Extremely high use” means more than 15,000 passengers a week, while “very high use” means between 10,000 and 15,000 passengers a week. Samantha Gain, general manager of Metlink, says: “We are committed to making public transport more convenient and accessible. This will take time, money, and cooperation with other agencies, such as KiwiRail and territorial authorities.”
Which, unfortunately, seems to be what it comes down to. Thomas Nash, Greater Wellington Regional Council councillor and chair of its transport committee, says the situation around public toilets at or near stations varies from station to station for a variety of reasons, including who owns the land.
He believes that one entity will need to take the lead on getting toilets at stations, and that should be the regional council. “How we get public toilets funded and figuring out exactly where they go could be a cooperation between the regional council, the local council/s and other entities like KiwiRail and Waka Kotahi.”
However, despite the “extremely high use” and “very high use” station statistics, this logic doesn’t seem reflective of the amount of people who use the Wellington train network, with over 14,000,000 trips in the 2018-2019 year (Metlink patronage statistics, 18-19), as well as many other people who find themselves in the vicinity of each station who need public facilities.
Auckland, in comparison, has toilets at 40% of its stations, with all but one of those being accessible**, with the average distance between stations and bathrooms during working hours being 422m (24-hour statistics were unavailable).
Riley***, 27, is a public servant working in Wellington and living north of Waikanae. Their commute by train occasionally turns into a multi-stop endeavour depending on their health each day. They lament the lack of toilets provided up the Kāpiti Coast – the vast majority of public toilets north of Pukerua Bay are only open during daylight hours. “I had to get off at Mana because I needed to go, badly.” There’s no toilet available at Mana Station – the closest one is 400m away, which is fine under most circumstances, but not if you’re busting for the loo. “I intended to go to the BP, but I didn’t make it. Worst moment of my life.”
This, I’m certain, is not an uncommon situation.
It is ridiculous that Wellington’s rail network, which serves approximately one third of all of greater Wellington’s public transport needs, and is part of the most used public transport network in the country per capita, is not considerate of the basic biological imperative – human beings sometimes need to take a leak. This, also, disproportionately affects those of us with access needs.
On that topic, finding out what public toilets across Wellington are accessible is extremely difficult. The map Hutt City Council provides only covers Lower Hutt, while other parts of the region are even more challenging to find accurate data for. The best information I could find suggests it’s, on average, 1.6km to the nearest 24-hour accessible public toilet, and those stats don’t improve much during business hours.
This is another failing, and another example of how accessibility access on and around our public transport is often seen as a “priority for later”. Commuters on the Capital Connection (the weekday train service between Palmerston North and Wellington), for example, will be aware of how frequently the service runs without wheelchair access, something that is supposed to improve when we get our new carriages in the next few months.
Accessibility is not something that should be pushed to the side, whether it looks like improving ramps and seats at bus stops, providing more accessible seating on buses, or adding more toilets along the bus and train routes.
However, times may be changing. Thomas Nash agrees. “Toilets at railway stations are not a nice to have, they are a basic requirement if our stations are going to be accessible for everyone and that’s what we have committed to doing in our accessibility charter. I know it will take time and money, but I would like us to work towards public toilets at all our stations.”
Continence New Zealand provides help and support for those with continence problems, as well as their families, caregivers and the general public. In a statement, they said: “Having minimal access to public toilets is discouraging for those experiencing both urinary and faecal incontinence from using public transport. These are often people who are already missing out in many areas of life, as we know living with incontinence is strongly associated with poor quality of life and poorer self-esteem, social isolation and depression. Access to clean, usable toilets should be a given in public spaces including public transport routes. This grossly disadvantages this community and many others who need the availability of toilets for health care, self care and baby care.”
Within its accessibility charter, adopted in September 2021, Metlink states its commitment to “embed the concept of the accessible journey” while, “work(ing) to influence our strategic partners to consider accessibility in decision making to ensure all transport users have equal opportunities to travel”. An accessible journey includes public facilities for those with mobility issues, and I sincerely hope they come to consider them sooner rather than later.
Even if you’re not stricken with a dodgy bowel or bladder, we’re all one anxiety attack or lukewarm salad at lunch away from needing an emergency bathroom stop on our commute home. Public transport isn’t a service for all until it’s accessible to everyone.
Notes and disclaimers
Continence NZ and Crohns and Colitis NZ both provide “can’t wait” cards, which state that the holder has a medical condition and needs to use a toilet quickly, and can be shown to business owners for access. You can apply for one at their websites.
All data featured in this article is sourced from publicly accessible maps, listings on the requisite council websites, Metlink (the Greater Wellington Regional Council’s public transport network), and Google Maps to fill the gaps. It’s as accurate as I can make it, but there is no accurate national database of public toilet locations.
*Information as provided by Metlink.
**Stats as provided by Auckland Transport’s website, and Google Maps, collated by me. Auckland Council also doesn’t have a complete and exact toilet map on its website. Take these numbers with a grain of salt – I do not have personal experience using these services.