Home MTA Absurdity ‘Can you hear me now?’ Straphangers wonder about MTA pay phones

‘Can you hear me now?’ Straphangers wonder about MTA pay phones

by Benjamin Kabak

The odds are pretty good this phone doesn’t work. (Courtesy of Flickr user Paololluch)

MTA pay phones are often a last-ditch solution for stranded Straphangers needing to make an underground call.

Just this Monday, in fact, I saw one subway rider walk approach the pay phone with exceptional caution. This woman in her mid-twenties looked to be running late. She peered into the tunnel at W. 4th St., hoping to spot a glimmer of an approaching F train. With no train nearing the station, she cautiously approached the payphone.

The payphone was your typical subway pay phone. It looked like a few drunk NYU students had probably smacked the receiver around a little. There was nothing growing off of it. But this woman didn’t trust the phone. She pulled a wool glove out of her pocket and then lifted the receiver, holding it an inch or so away from her ear. This woman would have no part of this phone touching her.

Into the slot at the top went the quarter…and into the change return slot fell that very same quarter. Surprising no one on the platform, the pay phone did not work. In fact, according to a newly-released poll by the Straphangers Campaign, nearly a quarter of the NYC subway pay phones are inoperable.

Here’s what the public interest group found:

In one survey of 886 telephones at 100 randomly selected subway stations, 29% were found to be “non-functioning,” with problems ranging from no dial tone to coin slot blocked (survey margin of error is +/- 4%). This finding is consistent with 2006 findings when an identical campaign survey also rated 29% of phones non-functioning.

In a second survey, the campaign tested 537 pay telephones in the 25 most-used New York City Transit subway stations and found 22% to be non-functioning.

Noting that the current contract between Verizon and the MTA does not guarantee any minimum number of working pay phones, members of the Straphangers were a bit dismayed. “Given the importance of being able to communicate with the outside world, especially during times of delay and emergency, we’re disappointed the MTA and Verizon removed the guarantee for a minimum level of service operability,” Neysa Pranger, one of the group’s coordinators, said in a press release.

Two of the Straphangers’ findings, in my mind, raise some interesting questions. The group found that all of the pay phones in the stop on East 86th St. were functioning as were all of the phones at the stop on the West Side IRT at 72nd St. But only 29 percent of the phones at the Jamaica Center stop on the E, J and Z lines were working. Do the socioeconomic conditions of the neighborhoods in which these stops are located have anything to do with the pay phones’ operability?

Meanwhile, as plans to wire the subways for cell service have seemingly faded away, it would probably be useful to have working pay phones in the tunnels. You never know when your train line might break down.

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Victoria February 8, 2007 - 10:00 pm

I’m surprised it would even occur to the people at the Straphangers’ Campaign to undertake this operation. I, for one, have completely forgotten about the existence of payphones. But you do raise an interesting point about where the phones are that don’t work. And I don’t blame that woman for being so reticent with the phone; I always think they seem kind of dirty too.

Peter February 9, 2007 - 9:10 am

Payphones were once ubiquitous, and universally utilized. At a Nickel, Dime or Quarter they were profitable. Now people (at least people younger than 30) regard them merely as disease vectors if they notice them at all.
Of C O U R S E many of them don’t function. What do you think a payphone costs to design, build and install? The cost is likely in the low 4 figures. What do you figure it costs to send a union-scale employee around to repair one every time some dimwit decides to test his strength by yanking the handset out? All that for a handful of Quarters every week or so? It certainly costs far more to regularly retrieve the change inside the phone than it can possibly be worth.
Once, payphones made money for both the Phone Company and NYCTA, and so paid for themselves. Like it or not, in our present culture, if something doesnt make money, and lots of it, dont expect the entity or endeavor to be well-run.
Is the solution $2.00 Payphones? Free Payphones? No Payphones? Or maybe wire the entire system for cell coverage? OK, it will take years to design and install, at a cost HUNDREDS of millions of dollars. Who can afford to do that, upfront? When theyre finished and they control every single call made from underground, what do you figure theyre going to charge you, per call?

Murder at the Canal Street station « Second Ave. Sagas March 20, 2007 - 12:48 am

[…] City subways. Wait a minute, you might be thinking, do those payphones actually work? Well, about a quarter of them don’t work. So part of the game is finding a working payphone at Canal Street. (The other […]

john perales February 12, 2008 - 8:19 pm

We need phones withouy handles to break, just to speak into. after all cell phones is not private anymore. Why should payphones be any different. This way,you only your index finger.

Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog » Blog Archive » With #3333 nearly finished, service advisories in digital form are best bets August 8, 2008 - 6:33 pm

[…] can reach a pre-recorded message detailing all MTA service advisories by dialing #3333 from any (working) subway platform pay phone. Of course, with cell phone use prevalent and pay phones on the way, […]

kanut heermehnaow May 12, 2009 - 10:55 am

The complaint about no dial tone is far too real, but here’s something a lot of peope don’t even know: MTA limits Verizons access to the feeder cables which connect the payphones to the network. To access a feeder the tech has to call MTA, contract an appointment with an escort, find the exact location for the cable in question & trace it; all the way through while the escort complains about having to stand for a half hour in a noisy grimy subway (instead of his nice quiet clean MTA office)
God forbid if the feeder is in a barely-used closet that hasn’t been opened since 1971, and the key has been lost for decades, or it takes 2 techs to trace the wire (try getting MTA to escort you a second time, even for a repeat trouble!), or vermin are apparent, or asbestos, or unidentifiable liquids seeping down from the storm drains, worse still when the lights don’t work…trust me, I have seen many things in the subway system that makes that grimy phone on the platform look like fine china, suitable to slurp your noobles off of…

Payphones don’t make the company any money; the only reason that Verizon even keeps them is because of that 99 year lease that was some guys golden rollerskate in the 60’s (what a feather in his cap…who could have predicted cellphones back then!) and now they are stuck maintaining an archaic system that even Fred Flintstone would laugh at.

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[…] what it’s worth, back in 2007, the Straphangers found that 29 percent of payphones were nonfunctioning. That survey had a margin of error of +/- 4 percent, and while the methodologies have changed, the […]

Straphangers: 1 in 3 subway payphones broken – modrstudio January 21, 2012 - 10:15 am

[…] it’s worth, back in 2007, the Straphangers found that 29 percent of payphones were nonfunctioning. That survey had a margin of error of +/- 4 percent, and […]


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