Monday, March 05, 2012

Why Is There a Fly in My Urinal?

We took a quick trip to New York this past weekend — without kids, which turned the journey into the most luxurious experience imaginable. (Even when a baby on the flight shrieked at bird-like sonic frequencies, I just smiled and thought, "Poor little tyke. Glad he's not mine.")

But when we landed, I was a little perturbed to find a fly in the urinal at the airport bathroom. What's the message here? "Welcome to New York. We hope you don't have unrealistic hygiene expectations."

I'm glad no one reported me to TSA for taking a picture of a urinal.

It turns out that all the urinals have the same fly, and it's not real. The flies were installed to help reduce urinal messes, because they give people something to aim at.

And the practice isn't new — it dates back to Victorian times, when the bee was the favorite pee target.

NPR did a story on urinal flies back in 2009:
"There is a deep-seated instinct to aim at targets," says [May Berenbaum, head of the department of entomology at the University of Illinois], and having a fly to aim at reduces what she politely calls "human spillage." 
When flies were introduced at Schiphol Airport [in Amsterdam], spillage rates dropped 80 percent, says manager Aad Keiboom. A change like that, of course, translates into major savings in maintenance costs. 
Thaler has tried to imagine how the airport made its calculations. "I'm guessing somebody went to the urinals without flies and repeatedly soaked up the ordinary spillage with a paper towel," which he then figures was carefully weighed on a scale. Then the same experiment was done at fly-emblazoned urinals, and presumably the scales reported a dramatically measurable difference in soakage.
Flies work better than, say, a bull's-eye design because men like to aim at a potential moving target.

Still, encouraging people to pee on vermin would seem to create a perverse incentive — especially in New York.

Later on, I saw a rat scurrying down the track while waiting for the E train. Fortunately, everyone resisted the temptation to take aim.