Straphangers: 1 in 3 subway payphones broken


This payphone at the 7th Avenue station on the Culver Line won't be too useful. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

Nearly 33 percent of subway payphones at the system’s 40 busiest stations are not in working order, according to a report released today the Straphangers Campaign. With subway cell service still a work in progress and years away from becoming a system-wide reality, these numbers do not bode well for emergency communications or response efforts. “About a third of subway phones do not fully work,” Cate Contino, coordinator for the Straphangers Campaign said in a statement. “And that’s a problem for many riders.”

For 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 results have not.

To assess payphone functionality, the Straphangers’ volunteers tested 740 phones in the 40 most-used underground subway stations between July 14 and August 16, 2010. Thirty-one percent of those were deemed to be in non-working order, and as the Straphangers noted in their survey, these findings likely conflict with Verizon’s contractual obligations to “exercise good-faith effort to clear 95% of all known troubles within 24 hours.” (Before 2005, Verizon had to maintain 95 percent of phones as “fully operative and in service at all times,” but a change a few years ago lessened their upkeep burden.)

The Straphangers issued their key findings in bullet form:

  • The best of the most-used underground stations – with 100% of payphones functioning – is the 33rd Street Station on the 6 train on the Lexington Line.
  • The worst of the most-used stations – with only 29% working phones – is the 77th Street station also on the 6 train on the Lexington Line.
  • The leading reason for phones being rated as non-functioning was no dial tone (33%) followed by: cannot connect to a 1-800 test number (21%); coin falls through (14%); won’t return coin (13%); coin slot blocked (11%); and bad handset (7%).
  • In all, 740 payphones were tested. Of these, our surveyors found that 509 (69%) of these were in functioning order.

According to the Straphangers, their results jibe with an independent study conducted by the MTA. That report found 30 percent of payphones with “service affecting troubles,” and the two methodologies were largely in line. An internal MTA study conducted last year, however, found that 92 percent of all payphones and every one of Transit’s 468 were in working order. The Straphangers believe that since the internal examiners did not perform a “coin drop” test, those results are likely inflated. Plus, considering cell phone penetration, it matters less if a payphone at an aboveground station is working.

Ultimately, a few forces are at work here. On the one hand, subway payphones are scarce. I’ve seen units removed from West 4th St. and from the Bryant Park stop, to name a few, and those that still exist are barely touched. They’re dirty and largely inconvenient. But in the case of an emergency, the system needs functional communications devices, whether those are payphones or intercoms. From the sound of it, though, one out of three payphones just won’t do the job.

11 Responses to “Straphangers: 1 in 3 subway payphones broken”

  1. John says:

    At first I thought the headline was “Straphangers: 1 in 3 say subway payphones broken” and I was thinking “The other 2 in 3 say ‘There are payphones in the subway??'”

  2. Scott E says:

    Rip ’em out and put emergency intercoms in their place. No point in having the complexity of a telephone (coin mechanism, dialpad, handset, etc) if they won’t be used for regular phone calls.

    • pete says:

      Why not put a linksys/femotocell/small box in the place of each phone? They already have data wires. 120v comes from the fluorescent lighting track.

      • al says:

        Pete has a point. A legacy copper line can get 3-7 megabits per second DSL service. Plenty to provide SMS and digital mobile voice calls.

        • Al D says:

          Hey, if they start planning now, it can rolled out in 2079, so we will be reading then about how this ‘old tech’ functions only 25% of the time, the latency rate and how there are no compatible devices left!

      • al says:

        And emergency intercoms.

  3. Al D says:

    What good are these lousy phones anyway? Even before cells (yes, I am old), the LAST phone I would use is a subway platform pay phone. You can’t hear anything because of all the background/ambient noise on the platform, they are disgusting germfests, and even back then, they hardly worked and/or just flat out ‘stole’ your money.

  4. SEAN says:

    Can you hear me now? Not in the subway.

  5. Andrew says:

    That’s not the Culver line. Looks like the Brighton.


  1. […] permeate, the story is much the same. In fact, a Straphangers survey earlier this year found that a third of all pay phones in the subway’s 40 busiest stations simply do not […]

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