It’s Time To Re-Own The (Pay) Phone
January 11, 2013
Payphones are at worst regarded as germ-riddled, sketchy punchlines; at best, they’re nothing more than an obsolete part of the landscape, useful only in the rarest of circumstances when you’ve lost your cell phone, there’s nobody trustworthy in sight, and you need to call a number you have memorized within the next fifteen minutes. There are only 11,000 left in New York City today, down from the 35,000 high of the late-90s.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, however, wants to change that image. Rather than banishing payphones to the technology graveyard populated by VCRs and (RIP) tape decks, he’s positing a challenge: redesign the ubiquitous, and seemingly useless, New York City payphone. A little over a month ago, Bloomberg and his office launched the Reinvent Payphones Design Challenge. Along with NYC’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications Commissioner Rahul N. Merchant and Chief Digital Officer Rachel Haot, the contest is designed to “rally urban designers, planners, technologists and policy experts to create physical and virtual prototypes that imagine the future of New York City’s public pay telephones.”
Because the current payphone contracts expire in October of 2014, and given how Hurricane Sandy left many New Yorkers with no cell service and no option other than to turn to payphones, the time is ripe to focus on the almost-but-not-quite-archaic devices. Continue.
According to TechCrunch, the contest announcement isn’t as random as it may sound: “Last April, the city revealed that it planned to trick out 250 of those existing phone booths with 32-inch touchscreen displays, and a pilot program launched in July saw a handful of them converted into Wi-Fi hotspots in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens.” It’s likely that entries will feature comparable, if not similar, accompaniments, able to charge tablets and provide Internet connections for the needy masses. This is in keeping with other initiatives the mayor has launched; Wi-Fi is now available in many public spaces in New York City (it was just announced this week that thanks to Google, Wi-Fi will be available in parts of Chelsea), with full Wi-Fi coverage being Bloomberg’s ultimate goal.
And yet Reinvent Payphones is not just about tricking out preexisting booths with lots of bells and whistles, loading them up with the technology they’ll need to keep up with the pace of the modern day; it’s also a design challenge. Payphones have, again, been a part of the cultural landscape for so long that it’s nearly impossible to realign our thinking about them—what could they look like? How do we take something drab, something basic, and turn it into something that’s as iconic and urban as yellow cabs? Although it may seem like comparing apples and oranges, it’s actually useful to consider the success of the High Line Park; that’s an example of idealistic, innovative designers and engineers getting ahold of a seemingly-obsolete thing (in that case, an old railway) and converting it into something not only beautiful but also useful. If this initiative is anything like that one, Mayor Bloomberg and the citizens of New York City should have no problem achieving similarly forward-thinking success with payphones.
The contest is open until February 18th, so register here and throw your hat into the ring*.
*Yes, that is a payphone pun. I showed remarkable restraint throughout this article so just let it slide.