Boston tries to clean up the urine in its transit system

One of my rules of thumb is that successful cultures have good public lavatories and can prevent public urination and defecation from becoming a problem.  The fact that Boston's transit authority is trying to figure out not how to stop people from urinating in the elevators, but just how to track urine so that the transit authority can clean it up speaks both to societal decay and to modern America's helplessness in the face of this decay.

In my travels through Europe, Asia, and parts of the Middle East, when a country was in good shape or ascending toward prosperity, it had clean, safe, and functional public restrooms.  (Japan, of course, consistently has the best public restrooms, complete with heated seats and toilets that play pretty music to hide more earthy sounds.)  When a country is heading downward or is already down, the public restroom situation is dire, and the streets become the bathroom of choice for many.

When I first arrived in New York in the early 1990s, the chi-chi Upper East Side smelled like a giant urinal.  When I was there about halfway through Rudy Giuliani's administration, that odor was gone.  When I was last there, in 2018, during the de Blasio years, the city again smelled like a giant urinal.

The same was true with England.  When I was there in the 1980s, almost everywhere I traveled had clean, safe public lavatories.  When I was last there in 2013, many public restrooms had black lights in a desperate attempt to deter drug addicts by making it impossible for them to find their veins.  (The same was true in Amsterdam in the early 1980s, if I remember correctly.)

San Francisco was once a tidy enough city except for the Haight Ashbury during the hippie era.  However, over the last few years, thanks to increasingly leftist management from City Hall, San Francisco became world-renowned for the amount of urine and fecal matter on the streets.

In 2018, Jenn Wong created a "poop map" to help people navigate the worst parts of the city so they didn't find their shoes sinking into a steaming, stinking pile of human excrement.  Now, other American cities either have poop maps or poop problems (e.g., New YorkChicagoSeattle, and Los Angeles).  Not only is this disgusting, but it's also dangerous, because human fecal matter is a disease vector, transmitting things such as E. coli, giardia, hepatitis A, intestinal worms, salmonella, meningitis, and more.

Image: Manneken Pis ("Little Pissing Man"), originally installed in a fountain in central Brussels, Belgium, in 1619.  Image by Myrabella.  CC BY-SA 3.0.

Nothing is more basic to a community's functioning than good sanitation.  Part of Rome's success was that, at its height, cities in the Roman Empire had plumbing so good that it took over a thousand years before the world was able to come close to replicating that engineering feat.

That's why I found it noteworthy that Boston has a problem with people urinating in elevators (gross!) and is implementing something that strikes me as a rather ineffectual response (emphasis mine):

Urine trouble no more, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority hopes, with a new program to tackle public urination in system elevators with technology.

The MBTA, which services Boston and the surrounding area, is launching a pilot program this summer in which urine detection sensors will be placed in four downtown elevators. The sensors alert transit ambassadors, who can dispatch a cleaning crew, the Boston Herald reported.

The sensors on the ceiling of an elevator have an attached fan, which allows them to suck in air and "basically smell what is present," said Meghan Collins, a program/projects manager for MBTA.

First, how primitive have people become that they enter an elevator and think, "Gee, what a great urinal this is"?  Second, while dispatching a cleaning crew is definitely a good idea to prevent slick floors and off-putting odors, this system does nothing to disincentivize people from engaging in that kind of anti-social activity.

And that gets us to the real problem with urban excretory functions: our criminal justice systems are so broken that we have no way to stop people from engaging in this conduct.  In San Francisco, recently ousted D.A. Chesa Boudin, made it clear from his first day in office that he wasn't going to do anything to stop public urination and defecation.  And in other cities, while they may not have been so explicit, an unwillingness to penalize this kind of antisocial activity, along with policies encouraging homeless people to camp on public streets or to use public transportation as both bed and bathroom, means that a urine detection sensor is just rearranging the deckchairs on the ship known as the USS Public Degradation.

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