Where have all the pay phones gone?


Thanks to Ann Higgins for sending an interesting article on pay phones. Many of us have noticed that a good pay phone is hard to find – but the need is still there. In New York, there is a big push to “Re-Own the Phone,” especially in a post-Sandy world…

City officials report that even though the current inventory of more than 11,000 payphones is substantially less than the 35,000 of the mid-1990s, they still provide a vital function to citizens in this largely digital world.

“While the widespread adoption of mobile devices reduces the overall need for payphones, not everyone owns a mobile phone and not everyone has connectivity at all times,” reads a press release issued by the city in announcing the “Reinvent Payphones” initiative.

Usage of New York City payphones surged during superstorm Sandy, when cell reception was severely impacted. The existing contract between New York City and a private contractor to operate the city’s payphones expires in October 2014.

I’m sure I’ve written before of being caught downtown Minneapolis without a phone. I was with my brother after a Black Flag show. Our friend didn’t meet us outside the gig. Our phones were in his car. (No one needs a cell phone in the mosh pit.) We could not find a pay phone – eventually some bouncer let us use his. But that was the first time I realized supply and demand were skewed. And there are times when a phone is not a luxury.

I’ve also been traveling and wished for a pay phone. I’ve noticed that outside the US (which is when I need a pay phone) big towns have phones, smaller towns don’t.

Does your community have a pay phone?

What if your cell ran out of batteries or was stolen or fell into the lake? What would a tourist do in the same boat in your town? Maybe it’s time for us all to take a look at New York’s effort to re-own and reinvent the payphone. After all, there’s no reason to go retro with the pay phone – why not to move forward with design and purpose? I think of the pictures of impromptu cell phone charging stations after Sandy. I think of the mall kiosks for info on local shops and events. I think of my kids’ iPad without a wireless contract – it would be nice to have a wi-fi spot for them. New York is holding a contest

In order to modernize our powerful communications infrastructure, the City of New York is hosting Reinvent Payphones, a public design challenge that seeks to rally urban designers, planners, technologists and policy experts to create physical and/or virtual prototypes that imagine the future of payphones.

Have ideas on how New York City can reinvent payphones to create a safer, healthier, more sustainable, accessible and informed city? Submit your prototype by February 18th and you could help to shape the City’s future.

OK maybe it’s worth waiting to see what comes from New York’s initiative – or maybe that gives some enterprising Minnesota developer a month to test a prototype at home before submitting the idea to NY!