The Pope in Philly

3,000 porta-potties and a customers-only policy: Why there might not be enough toilets for the Pope’s visit

Pope toilet

There’s an Uruguayan movie called “The Pope’s Toilet” in which a down-on-his-luck smuggler decides to craft an opulent toilet for pilgrims to use during a visit to his hometown by the pope. The man thinks he’ll make so much money by charging for its use that he’ll be able to send his daughter to college. It sounds hilarious but is more tragicomic. Not enough people come to see the pope, and the man is left with a nice toilet and no one to use it.

If only this fictional smuggler could come to Philadelphia. Visitors here might need the extra toilet. Earlier this week in an Inquirer story, papal mass organizers tried to assure people coming to see Pope Francis get his Eucharist on at the Benjamin Franklin Parkway that they will have plenty of restrooms to use. Bianca Bethel of the event planning company ESM said it would have about 3,600 toilets and urinals along the Parkway, enough for a ratio of one toilet for every 250 people if nearby businesses and public restrooms help make up the difference.

Sound like not nearly enough? That could certainly be the case. ESM’s current plans likely won’t meet the proposed 1:250 ratio, a ratio that doesn’t even come close to matching the person-to-toilet ratio at other big Philly events.

Those 3,600 toilets would meet the 1:250 ratio requirements only if the crowd numbers 900,000 or less. Unless Philly pulls a papal visit dud a la St. Louis, the crowd will probably be larger. The World Meeting of Families expects more than 1.5 million people to attend the papal mass on the Parkway. The PPA executive director said Wednesday the Parkway itself could hold about 700,000 and more people would be packed into nearby areas watching on jumbotron screens.

To have a ratio of one toilet for every 250 people if 1.5 million people come, the city would need 6,000 toilets. To reach that ratio for a crowd of 2 million, 8,000 toilets would be necessary.

Bethel, who did not respond to an interview request from Billy Penn, told the Inquirer the difference would be made up by area businesses and public restrooms.

The Parkway, also known as the museum ghetto, isn’t exactly teeming with businesses. It features a handful of restaurants and hotels. General managers at the Parkway’s Embassy Suites and Sheraton both told Billy Penn their restrooms are open only for patrons and guests, and the pope’s visit would be no different. Perry Kessler, director of sales and marketing of the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, said the only people allowed to use restrooms there are guests who have a fob to get in. Two restaurants located on the Parkway also emphasized their bathrooms are for customers only.

It’s likely these bathrooms would be off limits to the public, even if the these businesses wanted them to be open. Embassy Suites general manager Rodney Goodman said the Secret Service has mandated the hotel’s front entrance be closed when the pope visits the Parkway. Registered guests will only be able to enter the Embassy Suites from an alternate entrance.

But let’s say that somehow the ratio of one toilet for every 250 people is met. That type of ratio doesn’t compare favorably to other big events where it already seems like there are never enough toilets.

The 2014 Broad Street Run featured 350 portable toilets at the starting line area of an event in which about 40,000 people participated. That’s one toilet for every 114 people. Still, you don’t have to scan too far on the internet to see many complaints about people having to wait in lines as long as “30+ people deep.”

The infamous Woodstock ’99 concert festival in New York featured 2,000 portable toilets for a crowd that numbered around 220,000, a ratio of one toilet for every 110 people. That event had numerous problems, and a lack of toilets was one of them.

President Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 featured 5,000 portable toilets for 1.8 million people (one for every 360 people) and a raft of complaints. The ratio went down further, as mentioned in the Inquirer article, for his 2013 inauguration, with 1,500 toilets for 800,000 people (1:533). While it didn’t cause the catastrophe some feared, people still complained of long lines.

Organizers have at least planned to have many more toilets than the last time a pope came to Philadelphia. In 1979, at a John Paul II mass that attracted a crowd of at least 1 million people, there were 800 toilets. That’s one for every 1,250 people. Maybe the frustration over long lines is what sent 40 people to the hospital for with heart attacks.

Want some more? Explore other The Pope in Philly stories.

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