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Payphone of the Future Could Come to a Corner Near You

By Jill Colvin | December 5, 2011 2:18pm
What will the city's payphone of the future look like?
What will the city's payphone of the future look like?
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DNAinfo/Jill Colvin

MIDTOWN — Think payphones are a thing of the past?

One group is looking to bring the obsolete, boxy structures back to the future.

Members of Community Board 4 and one of the city's top urban designers have put together a vision of what they think the city's next generation of payphones should look like, complete with touch screens, power outlets for charging electronics and voice commands. They would be sleek and streamlined and could also be used for accessing information besides for phone calls for New Yorkers who don't have cell phones.

"Today, it's obvious that those pay phones are used really for supporting advertising, not for the telephone business," said Christine Berthet, co-chair of CB 4's Transportation Planning Committee, who spearheaded the plan.

“I think we need a new approach.”

According to surveys conducted in Downtown's Community Board 1 and in the 34th Street Partnership's district, a whopping 40 to 60 percent of current phones are out of service at any time.

As of August 3, 2011, there were 5,986 city payphones on sidewalks in Manhattan and 13,602 city-wide, according to the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications — down from approximately 45,000 payphones in the five boroughs at their 1980s peak.

In addition to being out of order on a regular basis, critics say the booths take up valuable sidewalk space and serve as magnets for criminal activity, including drug dealing, alcohol consumption, sexual activity and public urination.

“It’s a really a big issue in terms of quality of life,” Berthet said.

While the city’s current franchise agreement for phone services, which is held by Verizon and other telecommunications providers, doesn’t expire until October 2014, Berthet said she’s eager to with DoITT now to avoid being left out of the planning process as it gets underway.

Berthet said she met with representatives from DoITT several weeks ago to present the proposal, and that the agency seemed receptive to the plan.

“We thought that it behooves us to start early in the process,” she said. “It seems that they are very open to our idea and that they are working in the same direction."

DoITT spokesman Nicholas Sbordone agreed.

“While any final determination is still some time off, DoITT is engaging in preliminary discussions about what New Yorkers might envision for the future of public payphones," he said in a statement. "And we look forward to continuing these conversations with all interested parties."

To help realize her vision, Berthet recruited Ignacio Ciocchini, who has designed some of the city's most eye-catching street works, including its new, award-winning benches.

Ciocchini said the biggest problem with the current generation of phones is that they’re too big and too bulky for city sidewalks.

“From a design perspective, I really started thinking about people and pedestrians,” he said.

While the team declined to share their drawings for fear of angering the city, Ciocchini said that to solve the problem, he envisions a sleek, transparent modular design with a “minimal footprint” housing a single, small communication device.

While the device could continue to be a traditional phone, he said he'd love to see a touch screen phone, perhaps activated by voice commands, eliminating the need for headsets, which frequently break. The touch screens could be used to make phone calls, as well as access other information.

While he acknowledged that some sort of advertising would be necessary to satisfy the city's budget needs, he proposed making them less imposing by mounting LCD panels high above phones, about 7 feet in the air, to take keep them out of pedestrians’ line of sight.

In addition to the new hardware, Berthet said she's hoping that the city will also consider passing new rules that give the community more control over where payphones are placed, including some mechanism for removing old phones that residents and business owners consider problem spots.

“New York needs the right design and the right technology,” he said. “There are technologies now that allow us to make this operation very, very simple.”