Pay Phones May Be a Bad Call for City


An article in today’s New York Times looks at the city’s most prominent — and profitable — form of street furniture, the pay telephone:

The phone kiosks generate $62 million in advertising revenue annually — and last year the city got $13.7 million of the take, triple what it pulled in from calls.

Over all, the number of pay phones in New York is falling, as it is throughout the country. But in a phenomenon unique to New York, the phones are more valuable than ever, thanks to the intense competition among advertisers for attention in a city of eight million.

Phone companies say the pay phones are still necessary, noting that during 9/11 and the 2003 blackout, people lined up to use them. But it is the phone kiosks’ desirability to advertisers, who love them because they are inexpensive and plentiful, that appears to be driving pressure on the city for permission to install new phones in choice locations.

Since 2003, every new phone the city has authorized has been put at the curb, the only spot where city regulations permit advertising. It has approved moving 465 pay phones from alongside buildings to the curb.

The article notes opposition to the ever-more-massive curbside phones comes from community groups who object to the way they attract graffiti, crowd the sidewalk, and use space that might otherwise be available for trees. As an earlier Times article noted, they might be life-threatening as well. A Ninth Avenue double-wide phone booth has come under scrutiny for its possible contribution to two pedestrian fatalities.

All of which raises the question of whether the city’s addiction to this particular revenue stream is worth the cost. As Vanessa Gruen, director of special projects for the Municipal Art Society, is quoted saying in the Times: “The sidewalks of New York are our biggest public space, and somebody should be watching over them, and they should not be for sale for the city to make money out of them.”

Photo: Sarah Goodyear 

  • ddartley

    Item number 944 in the “Widen the Sidewalks” file.

    Once again, why should that space be taken from the economy-driving pedestrian majority instead of the all-destructive motoring minority?

  • Ian D

    Of course, this is the very phenomenon that makes a public bike-sharing program so likely – and self-funding. The ad space potential in NYC is a big hunk of juicy meat to advertising companies.

    We could say that this is a matter of priorities: would you prefer that advertising to be supporting (physically and financially) a pay phone or a rack of free bikes?

  • d

    Imagine the advertising that could be wrapped around safe, secure bike parking in some of the same locations now taken up by pay phones.

  • Leland

    The article fails to mention the utility of the phone booths as urinals for drunk college students late at night.

  • Fendergal

    Seems like an easy thing to require that if a phone booth is going to be bringing in ad revenue, that the phone itself be working a designated percentage of the time.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    It’s a good idea, Fendergal, but it’s important to have pay phones in certain places in case of emergency, and that necessity doesn’t have much to do with how often they’re used.

  • Eric

    Never mind the lost street space. NYC garners only a paltry 20-some percent of the phone kiosk ad revenue? Why doesn’t the city hire a handful of the best outdoor advertising salespeople around, bring the operation in house rather than offering it to the highest bidder, and keep 100% of the revenue? Bloomberg owns a media company, for God’s sake. He can’t make this operation more efficient?

  • Indignant

    If you think this is a bad deal for the city, how about Adopt a Highway? An advertiser like Trump gets an exclusive big sign on a highway that has 120,000 sets of eyeballs a day (Henry Hudson Parkway) for $6000/year (as of last time I checked). It’s a bad deal, and it violates the city’s own prohibition against advertising within 900 feet of a park or parkway. The city should start enforcing it — or collecting, say, from Fairway for the scrolling neon sign? Or for setting up in the rr raight of way in the middle of Riverside Park?? Phone booths, billboards, MTA signs. The city should revisit the whole issue.

  • Fendergal

    Absolutely, there should be functioning pay phones across the city, in sufficient numbers in key locations. I am one of the cell-phone carrying masses now, but I remember far too well occasions in recent years when a land line (in particular, one that doesn’t depend on electricity, i.e., not a cordless phone) kept me connected to the outside world.

    And every time I see that Trump sign, I am sorely tempted to blot out the T.

  • LN

    Up here in Washington heights, we have lots of pay phones. They are the international type, and are still in heavy use, since so many of my neighbors dont have home phones. Use has declined over time though, probably because of cell phones, I miss seeing my neighbors in their jammies on the pay phone in the middle of the night.

  • I don’t have cell phone and I don’t want one. I depend on these phone for the 5 times a year that I need to make a call on the go.

    I don’t see the problem with the ads. No everyone has a cell phone. Let’s not stack the deck against those people.

    I agree, though that the phones should be working if they are going to spam the streets with ads.

  • Well, they’re also very visible sites for subvertising, and almost as easy to deface as ads on subway platforms. I’ve seen, for instance, big feminist stickers on the endless objectifying clothing ads that litter our streets, and I think this should be a lot more common. They grab your attention, for better or worse.

    Suggestion: wheatpaste subversive speech/thought bubbles on to the “people” on these ads.

  • And re: the people who are supporting pay phones for emergencies and in poor neighborhoods. Why not make them free, in that case? The city’s getting more money in advertising anyway; the rest of it is coming from people in an emergency, who can’t afford a cell phone, etc.

  • Dave


    Because then there would be a really long line.


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