Is app-based restroom service Good2Go a harbinger of San Francisco’s slide into a tech dystopia? No. Or, at least, not for the reasons you’d first think.
Café La Bohème is the Mission’s ur-cafe. It doesn’t predate coffee but it does predate several iterations of the Mission, including the present one. To wit, there were still plenty of Bohemians around when this place opened its doors in 1973.
Perhaps they’re the same doors. Perhaps it’s the same furniture. This is an old cafe and it feels like nothing has changed here in a changing neighborhood. But, as longtime owner Awad Faddoul points out, he’s changed plenty of things here through the years. You don’t notice them. But he does.
“People,” he says, “don’t understand the concept. The concept is: This is an old cafe. It’s possible to change, to modernize. But I don’t want to. This is a living-room cafe. You can’t buy atmosphere. You can buy chairs, you can buy tables, but you can’t buy the vibe.”
As he says this, and without breaking eye contact with your humble narrator, he grabs a bottle of Beck’s beer, pops the top off of it, and hands it to a customer who never needed to ask for it. No words were exchanged. Faddoul knows this cafe and he knows the people in it. He knows the vibe.
“And the only thing I can change without affecting the vibe,” he continues, “is the bathroom.”
And, boy, has he done that.
Café La Bohème is still every bit the Mission’s living room, but to get into the bathroom here, you need to download an app.
Or, for the less technologically inclined, you must request and receive a card emblazoned with a QR code, which is scanned by an infrared reader and results in the door opening itself, Starship Enterprise-style.
Captain’s log jokes notwithstanding, I don’t recall ever seeing the commodes on Star Trek. Well, they might have looked a bit like this — the restrooms in one of the Mission’s oldest and, by design, funkiest cafes. The door is hands-free, entering and exiting. The toilet is hands-free. The faucet is hands-free. The air-dryer, a device protruding from the faucet and resembling a divining rod, is hands-free too.
And, for Faddoul, getting this high-tech new restroom was a hands-free experience, too. The people at the Mission-based restroom app outfit Good2Go (it’s a pun!) reached out to him and asked him if he’d be alright with them upgrading his facilities, on their dime.
He sure was. Faddoul had, for years, been frustrated by outsiders wandering in off 24th Street Plaza, befouling the toilet, and then strolling out. He’d never before even installed a lock and key.
And now, in a very high-tech way, he has. The QR codes serve the same function as a key for everyday customers, for free. Paying subscribers to the app, meanwhile, occasionally wander in, hold their phones to the reader, and enter through the touch-free doors.
This is an arrangement that is working for Faddoul and his establishment. In the Star Trek universe, humanity has transcended money. But in today’s Mission, money is tight — and this was a valuable free upgrade for him (that makes someone else money).
As such, when asked if he owns this building, Faddoul’s response is near-instantaneous. “If I did,” he deadpans, “I wouldn’t be talking to you.”
Subscribers to the Good2Go app receive access to the 13 (and growing) San Francisco restrooms in the outfit’s network, and can always gauge how close they are to a place to go via a map on their cell phone. You also get to cut everyone in line — there are privileges that come with the $19.99 monthly fee.
Monetizing a free service is certainly a recurring theme among tech outfits in today’s San Francisco. But the visceral reaction some have had to the notion of an app-based restroom is not entirely warranted. At first glance it’s one more classist, elitist, tech-based solution to a non-problem enabling San Francisco’s enabled at the expense of everyone else. And that would be true if only people who’d downloaded the (not free) app onto their (very expensive) phones were allowed to pee.
But asking for and receiving a QR code, for free, is no more oppressive than the standard key with a spatula as a keychain you’d have to beg for in most cafes.
“The first thing I would really want to hammer home is that restrooms are always free for patrons of retailers,” says Kelsey Laubscher, who works in Good2Go’s marketing department.
The company received a smattering of publicity when it opened up shop last year, and has been quietly expanding since. While still San Francisco-bound, there are talks of expanding to Tokyo in time for the 2020 Olympics.
“We were created to create an alternative,” Laubscher continued. “Not to take away from public restrooms, but simply to create more access. In major cities, this is a problem a lot of people have.”
A decent high school pitcher could, in fact, hit the 24th Street JCDecaux “Pit Stop” toilet while standing with his back to the Good2Go in Café La Bohème. But this is an embarrassment of toilet riches and this city’s dearth of facilities and resultant human effluvia problem is extremely well-documented.
Good2Go’s ostensible bottom line (not a pun) revolves around providing users with knowledge of where bathrooms are and access to them. For a fee.
As bathrooms go, they’re great bathrooms. But, as so many are left asking after coming into contact with the latest San Francisco tech innovations, why does this need to exist? Who is this for?
“Uber drivers,” calmly answers Luis Cach, the counterman at Stanza Coffee on 16th, which also features a Good2Go restroom. An app billing gig workers who are slaving away for another app seems a bit like a San Francisco parody, but there you go.
Also, on this day, the toilet at Stanza was out of order. All the tech components were working fine; it just wasn’t draining and there’s no app for that.
Which again prompts the question: Why does this need to exist? That’s something loyal Stanza customer Philippe Dunbar asked himself recently before deciding that, for him, it didn’t. He’d downloaded the Good2Go app, but he deleted it.
The app was buggy and would freeze up, so he’d lose his place in the bathroom queue. If someone doesn’t have the app or a QR code and walks in the open bathroom door, it throws off the system, Dunbar continues. That person might be in and out of the can in 30 seconds, but the technology — which provides a 120 second grace period for each user to claim his or her turn — will still make everyone arbitrarily wait for 90 seconds.
And if the diaper-changer is down, the door won’t open. These are all problems induced by proffering high-tech solutions to low-tech problems.
But Dunbar’s complaints are dwarfed compared to those of privacy advocates. At Mission Local’s behest, several attorneys read Good2Go’s data privacy policies.
“It’s consistent with how a majority of applications write their privacy policies. There’s nothing atypical. But what’s typical is concerning,” notes Andrew Crocker, a senior staff attorney on the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s civil liberties team. “What’s typical is that they give broad latitude to collect information, whether that information is useful or necessary to provide the service they are providing. And they can use it for a variety of reasons and combine it with data they get from third parties — so there’s a vast ecosystem of data collected by data brokers and used, primarily, for advertising.”
Laubscher stresses that all data is anonymized and the company has no plans to hawk its users’ information.
But that could change.
“Every app is a data-mining app, whatever it purports to be,” sums up attorney and privacy advocate Shahid Buttar. “Every one of these projects aspires to be monetized by being sold to some third party.”
Or, if Good2Go comes to grief, that data could be otherwise scooped up by someone else. Customer information, in fact, was a listed asset during Radio Shack’s recent bankruptcy.
Now you know why they needed to get your zip code when you were buying AA batteries.
On a closing note, private, for-profit “solutions” like those posed by Good2Go often arise out of public failures to address problems. That’s certainly the case here, in San Francisco, where there are far too few available toilets and far too much proof of that underfoot. So, if you get nothing else from this column, get this: a map of every publicly accessible toilet in the city, including those open late.
The city ought to be publicizing this map. Ought to be making cell-accessible apps of its own. Maybe that’ll happen. In the meantime, enjoy this information. If, by chance, you happen to be sitting down, somewhere, with time to read.