Home View from Underground What future the NYC subway pay phone?

What future the NYC subway pay phone?

by Benjamin Kabak

This Brighton Line pay phone at 7th Avenue has seen better days.

Pay phones in New York City are a dying breed. Aboveground, nearly everyone has a cell phone, and pay phones, with their quaint request for a quarter, have fallen into disrepair. Most are extremely dirty, and many do not work. Underground, where cell signals do not yet 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 work.

Now, as Verizon looks to exit the pay phone business, the future for these underground communications lifelines may be short-lived. An article published last week by the Dow Jones Newswire didn’t gain much attention, but it features a key bit of information on the city’s subway system. Verizon is going to sell its NYC pay phone network to a California-based company called Pacific Telemanagement Services, and the buyers would like to disconnect all of the phones in the subway system. “At MTA, there’re many, many more phones in place than are justified,” Thomas Keane, the head of PTS, said.

While I saw an earlier version of the story that claimed PTS may shutter the subway pay phones, the company says it remains committed to keeping the city’s most popular phones up and running. Greg Bensinger had more on the impact this sale may have on underground pay phones:

Among Verizon’s more frequented pay phones are those on New York’s underground subway platforms, where wireless signals mostly don’t reach, Keane said. Under PTS management, some of those pay phones would be closed or turned into kiosks with commuter information, he said, noting the firm will have to negotiate those terms with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority…

Still other perils lie ahead for pay phones. In New York, the MTA has already rigged six subway stations with wireless service and plans to similarly retrofit all 277 stations by 2016. And Washington’s Metro this year said it would remove nearly all of the pay phones in its system, about 1,000, after failing to reach terms on a new contract with Verizon.

“People tend to forget about pay phones, until their cellphone doesn’t get a signal, until there’s a natural disaster or other emergency,” Keane said. “We want to make sure there’s a future with pay phones where Americans need them.”

Because the MTA has a service contract with Verizon that will, in all likelihood, be assigned to Pacific Telemanagement Services upon completion of the sale, the MTA won’t be losing its pay phones any time soon. Removals will, as the article said, have to be negotiated. Yet, it’s easy to see how forces are aligning against the pay phone. Cell service is available at a handful of underground stations, and that number should swell to around 36 within the next 12 months. Furthermore, the MTA is ready to move forward with its Help Point Intercom pilot to provide better emergency response underground. Only those looking to reach a person aboveground to talk business or pleasure will need a pay phone.

For now, I can’t get too worked up over the eventual death of the subway pay phone, if that truly comes to pass. Verizon has removed pay phones in the system for years, and stations as popular as 42nd St.-Bryant Park and West 4th St. have seem their phones removed for good. Meanwhile, it’s tough for me to imagine a scenario that would cause me to place a subway pay phone in contact with my ear or mouth.

Yet, the pragmatist in me hears faint stirrings of worry over emergency situations in which contact with the outside world is impossible. Do we live in a city ready to give up its underground pay phones? Perhaps not.

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Kai B October 18, 2011 - 12:22 am

They’ll last around in stations until they either get those stations either receive cell service or those new fancy call boxes. I wouldn’t be surprised if you do a followup on this article in five years entitled “Have you spotted a pay phone underground recently?”

al October 18, 2011 - 12:51 am

Could we repurpose the phones (and wire wire conduits) for cell/data service infrastructure?

al October 18, 2011 - 12:51 am

Could we repurpose the phones (and wire/wire conduits) for cell/data service infrastructure?

Dan October 18, 2011 - 1:55 am

Meh, good riddance. Most of them are eyesores now anyways.

Peter October 18, 2011 - 8:14 am

I’m fascinated by the relatively recent notion of people considering payphones – and water fountains – to be vectors of plague. This is something that no one worried about 20 years or more ago.

Al D October 18, 2011 - 9:02 am

Even when pay phones were ‘the only game in town’, using them in the subway was only as a last resort. Back then, they were still filty and disgusting, money grabbers, often broken. And, if you were on the platform at a big station, the call didn’t make sense anyway because th trains coming and going would drown out the conversation anyway.

SEAN October 18, 2011 - 10:02 am

Pay phone? what’s that! LOL

Jay Van October 18, 2011 - 12:40 pm

I think the following quote comes from PTS – “In New York, the MTA has already rigged six subway stations with wireless service and plans to similarly retrofit all 277 stations by 2016.”

But aren’t there 468 stations in our system? What is the 277 number in reference to?

Benjamin Kabak October 18, 2011 - 12:41 pm

You don’t have to outfit above-ground stations for subway cell service. They already enjoy over-the-air access to cell signals from nearby towers.

al October 18, 2011 - 5:28 pm

Several shallow underground stations currently get wireless service due to in-station ventilation grates that allow signals to get underground. They primarily exist along the BMT Broadway and IRT 7th Ave lines.

Several spots in deep stations also get signals due to vent shaft geometries. You sometimes can get a signal near the eastern end of the BMT platform at the Lexington Ave station, which is at least 3 stories underground.

Bill Reese October 18, 2011 - 3:03 pm

Waiting for the G at Metropolitan Avenue I saw a homeless guy jimmy the lock on a pay phone and make off with dozens of quarters. I wasn’t so much astonished by this theft during broad daylight with people waiting on the platform, but that the phone actually had a multitude of quarters in it in the first place.

Apparently people still are using them.

Jason B. October 18, 2011 - 8:06 pm

Regarding cell service, it’s only going to be AT&T/T-Mobile, so those of us with Verizon and Sprint won’t benefit from service.

But, I’ve found pay phones helpful in a pinch, and would be very sad to see them go. Two incidents bring to mind their importance: once I was on a field trip and a group of teenagers started harassing my middle-school students between 125th and 59th on the D. You can’t walk between cars so we had to keep the fight separated, and as we were in the last car one of us ran to the conductor before the train rolled out, and we used the pay phone to call 911 when police didn’t show up after 5 minutes. More recently, a 20 minute delay on the Lex express line left me stranded at 125th waiting for a signal malfunction to clear. As a teacher I needed to let my school know I’d be late and unsure of when I’d be leaving getting someone to cover my kids if need be. Both times were critical.

Granted I use a pay phone once every 8 or so months down there, but a backup is never a bad thing.

And I have to agree with Peter… we touch so much stuff anyways, when did pay phones becomes so gross? They always were but it was never a problem 20 years ago.

SEAN October 18, 2011 - 8:49 pm

Twenty years ago we weren’t as germ phobic as we are now. How many perrents do you know that get paranoid when there kids touch something, or when someone coughs or sneezes? I know at least one like that.

MRW October 20, 2011 - 8:17 am

In some recent article, a rep from Verizon stated how they worked hard to keep the pay phones working but lamented that the public did not actively inform them which phones were out of order. Well today I came across a pay phone where the handset had been snipped off but I cannot figure out how to report — the repair number listed on the phone is no longer in service and there is no place on their website to do so… maybe more people would report it if it wasn’t so difficult.


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