Highway operator taps big data to gauge toilet usage

Chunichi Shimbun

A recent analysis of big data by Central Nippon Expressway Co. (NEXCO Central) has revealed that more and more men tend to prefer cubicles over urinals in restrooms.

Real-time panels near the entrance of restrooms showed which cubicles are occupied using sensors installed on cubicle doors that detect when they open and close.

NEXCO Central began collecting data from the sensors 11 years ago, when the company was privatized, in order to address customer complaints, including about wait times.

The company has installed about 3,000 sensors, including motion detectors for toilet bowls, in 51 locations out of 9,300 toilets it manages in 200 locations along the highway.

The Surugawan-Numazu Service Area along the Shin Tomei Expressway in Shizuoka Prefecture studied the ratio of cubicles and urinals used for one year starting in May 2012. The number increased to 18 percent from 16 percent in that time.

The data from NEXCO also showed that the average amount of time a man spends in a cubicle in the 51 locations was 4 minutes 4 seconds in fiscal 2014, or 35 seconds longer compared with data taken seven years earlier.

The company believes this is due to increasing use of smartphones.

“The experience of using a restroom on the highway is becoming similar to using it at home,” said Koji Yamamoto from the technology and environment department in NEXCO Central.

“We get many users in these facilities, so even a 1 percentage-point increase is significant,” he added.

The newly opened Okazaki Service Area along the Shin Tomei Expressway in Aichi Prefecture had planned to install 20 cubicles in their men’s restrooms in accordance with current guidelines, but decided to increase the number to 32 after receiving the data on Tomei Expressway, which runs parallel to it.

After receiving reports on actual toilet use based on the big data, NEXCO Central, together with Nexco East and Nexco West, revised the design standard for service area restrooms and parking areas in July last year.

For example, in a service area with 300 parking spots, the number of urinals will be reduced to 18 from 24, while the number of cubicles will be increased to 14 from eight.

The information collected from the big data also revealed that cubicles closer to the entrance are used more frequently than the ones located farther inside.

Having cubicles used more often than others means the rate in which the cubicles deteriorate will differ, so the company is making extra efforts to ensure there is no imbalance.

When the women’s restroom in the Ashitaka Parking Area in Numazu, Shizuoka Prefecture, was renovated in April 2013, brighter lighting and warm colors on the doors of cubicles were installed because people tend to prefer brightly lit places.

As a result, the number of people using the cubicles closer to the entrance went down by 9 percentage points.

“If we can decrease the waiting time and make the restroom experience enjoyable to our users, we can help reduce their stress and prevent traffic accidents,” Yamamoto said.

Meanwhile, some people might feel strongly against having data taken about their toilet usage, but the information that can be retrieved from the sensors is limited and cannot be used to determine individual usage, said Ichiro Sato, a professor from the National Institute of Informatics.

Some companies are collecting big data not because they want to ascertain a product’s usage, but as a way to validate their business.

“Close monitoring and the establishment of rules are required in the future to ensure that accumulated data is not misused,” Sato said.

This section, appearing Tuesdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published March 20.