We've all been there. You're out and about, when it suddenly hits you. You gotta go. There's no public toilet that you can see nearby. However, there are plenty of coffee shops. You pop into one, probably run by a big chain, and head straight for the loo. Except you're thwarted. By a keypad.
It's increasingly common in 21st century London for cafes to bung monotonous grey keypads on their loo doors with the aim of making sure they're for customer use only. So either you have to buy something — which not everyone can afford — or leave and hunt down another toilet elsewhere.
But now there's another way. The Twitter account London Loo Codes — run by duo Soph and Merl — is pulling together a publicly accessible catalogue of every loo code in London. That way, you can check the code on your phone and walk right in at your convenience, with no need to buy anything at all.
Soph and Merl began cataloguing loo codes when they were at university. We spoke to them about why they started the project:
We spent a lot of time studying in cafes and because we both need to pee pretty regularly we gathered an archive of toilet codes in the backs of our notebooks. We are lucky enough to have the luxury of being able to afford a coffee, or of being able to walk to a loo further away or on our campus if we needed to. Obviously those aren't options that are open to everybody.
This cost to 'spend a penny' is something that's become more pronounced in recent years. London once had many more free public loos, but plenty of them have become coffee shops and trendy bars, as councils sell them off in a bid to raise money. Then there are public loos that'll cost you to use them — in Covent Garden you can be charged £1 to use the loos.
People with disabilities and chronic illness, for example, aren't always able to go out of their way to get to a toilet, or may need to use a bathroom urgently and unexpectedly. Likewise, homeless people should be afforded the basic human dignity of access to a toilet whenever they need it. And that's to say nothing of pregnant people, people on their periods, the elderly, people with kids, people whose jobs aren't office-based etc — the list goes on and on!
That's where the idea for @ldnloocodes came from, a place for Soph and Merl to share their knowledge with the world, but also where people can contribute with codes they've discovered.
Now, we know what you're thinking. What do the venues that house these codes make of all this? That's currently unknown, but we doubt they're too happy — those codes were put there for a reason. Soph and Merl suspect they might start to change codes regularly in response. However, they hope for a different outcome, and that the cafe chains might "recognise this as a radical opportunity to reflect on their toilet-code policies and the actual roles that they're playing in the communities they're operating in."
The duo point out a level of certain hypocrisy at play from many of these chains:
The Costa website says "we're just as committed to our communities, the people we serve and the world we live in as we are about serving great coffee". That commitment to local community is admirable, but it seems to us to be at odds with privileging access to the loo for those who can afford to buy coffee.
Likewise, Pret runs some admirable initiatives, such as giving out unsold food to homeless people, and yet the toilets in its stores are usually blocked off with codes. As Soph and Merl see it:
To give the public free access to their loos would be another great initiative to carry the core values of these extremely successful businesses forward.
A spreadsheet collating loo codes is not an ideal solution, but as a temporary measure we think it's ingenious.