These pay phones might not work for phone calls, but they make great bagel holders. (Photo by pizza guru and flickr user Adam Kuban)
Every year, the Straphangers Campaign conducts a random test of pay phones through the subway system, and every year, the results come back about the same. Approximately a quarter of all subway pay phones are out of order at a given time. Some stations have more functioning pay phones than others, and overall, the rider advocacy group urges the MTA to repair its broken phones.
This year’s survey features some improvement, at least on the surface. As the group announced yesterday, in one survey of 921 phones at 100 randomly selected stations, 26 percent of the phones were found to be out of service. While the group touts this as “a modest improvement” over the 2007 rate of 29 percent, the margin of error is 4 percent and basically negates the improvement. Another survey of 638 pay phones as the 25 most heavily-trafficked subway stations found 23 percent of the phones to be out of order.
The Straphangers further broken down their survey to determine just how subway pay phones are out of order. Topping the charts with 24 percent of the share of broken phones were those with no dial tone. A problematic coin return encompassed 23 percent of non-function pay phones while 18 percent saw the coin fall through the phone. A bad handset — I’m not sure how detailed the Straphangers should get there — accounted for 16 percent. Another 11 percent could not connect to a 1-800 number, and eight percent suffered from a blocked coin slot.
Two items of note though popped up during the Straphangers’ own survey. First, the advocacy organization notes that their findings conflict with Transit’s own Passenger Environment Survey. NYCT’s internal metrics claim that 93 percent of all subway pay phones are functioning at any given time. However, an independent pay phone audit conducted by a third party at the request of Transit found 25 percent to be out of service.
The Straphangers point to methodology as the root of these numerical discrepancies. The PES surveys, says the Straphangers’ press release, are “less thorough. Surveyors do not perform a coin drop to test the phones, rating telephones as functioning if the surveyor notes an undamaged handset and is able to contact a specific 1-800 test number.”
Finally, the Straphangers pinpoint contractual issue that may be hindering pay phone performance. Verizon is the MTA’s phone service provide, and according to the press release, prior Verizon contracts required that 95 percent of all pay phones be “fully operative and in service at all times.” The current contract though calls up on Verizon to “exercise good-faith effort to clear 95% of all known troubles within 24 hours.”
It would certainly be an interesting study to chart the MTA’s and Verizon’s efforts to repair a pay phone after one reports it to them. Perhaps the next time I notice a broken pay phone, I’ll see if the agency and its contractor really can repair it within 24 hours.
In the end, this survey is nothing new. Pay phones have long been unreliable under the best of circumstances, and the subways are hardly the best of circumstances. With the MTA years away from realizing underground cell phone service, though, we are stuck with using those grimy, gritty, gross pay phones. That is, as long as they work.