Reviving Payphone Footprints, NYC

Public payphones are quickly becoming archaic artefacts, relics of a past-life without mobile telephones [side note: so much so that preservations have digitally organized themselves at the Pay Phone Project, a global initiative to document the dying infrastructure; check out their photo gallery of payphones from all seven continents here.

Walking down the street in NYC this past month, I counted seven defunct payphone kiosks, each booth announcing in wilted signage: broken, out-of-service, dial-tone coming. Really? For whom was this dial-tone coming? In the heyday of fixed-line payphones, Verizon management sent collectors out multiple times each day to high-traffic payphone sites to collect the overflowing coinage. Today, these cashcow payphones of the past are as well as dead: Verizon coin-collectors make monthly trips as opposed to daily trips to the company’s highest-grossing phones, and if Verizon is lucky, it earns 10 dollars in quarters on the head of a highly-used payphone in New York City each month. Hardly a windfall in 2009.

So, for whom are these dial-tones coming? Probably not for me or you.  In a city as densely populated with people as NYC and as littered by advertisements, payphone infrastructure represents a valuable public access-point for ad agencies and product purveyors alike.  In 2007, the New York Times put yearly revenue from payphones at $62 million, 13 million of which goes to the city. [Read the full article here]

As such, payphones represent a dithering relationship between public-service and private-sector utility:  Abandoned or under-used booths become nuisances for pedestrians, eyesores in the cityscape and as is often the case, annoyances to one’s olfactory glands.

Buoyed by my own increasingly cynical perspective on payphone infrastructure,  I met with Tom Touchet from the company City24x7.  City24x7, a start-up based in NYC, is reinvigorating the defunct payphone skeletal system with 26 inch interactive media displays.  Building within the Verizon payphone footprint, the firm delivers  location-specific, time-specific, information to city residents out in the street through their interactive touchscreen installations.

I must admit, I was initially critical of the service: do we really need more interactive signage in the city?  Can’t we confine these kinds of digital barrages to Times Square?  However, after spying two of the beta-installations in Union Square, the utility was instantly apparent.  Passers-by can quickly glimpse the display for real-time traffic or public-transport updates.  Tourists can access a list of restaurants within a 4 block radius.  In an instant, residents can dial 911 for emergencies, or the NYC-specific 311 for municipal queries.    The seamless technology fosters an experience that is neither obnoxious nor disruptive and yet it manages to provide a valuable service to city-dwellers.