New York’s payphone makeover

How times change. Go back something like 15 to 20 years and New York had around 35,000 payphones dotted about the city. Fast forward to today and that number now stands at 11,000, reflecting the changes that have come about as a result of the digital revolution.
In the 21st century, mobile phones are the de facto device through which people communicate in a variety of ways – text, call and social media. This has made public payphones somewhat redundant. They remain useful as an absolute last resort, but to all intents, they have lost their relevance in today’s instant message, always connected way of life.
However, it’s not just about taking them all out of service. That would be counter-productive. They still have a place in society, but they need to be more relevant. Aware of this, New York is looking at how it can modify its remaining payphones and bring them into the modern world.
The city’s officials have just launched a new competition inviting “urban designers, planners, technologists and policy experts to create physical and/or virtual prototypes that imagine the future of payphones”.
It’s no novel scheme but a concerted effort to make a real difference to the way New York’s residents navigate and engage with their city. It is about setting in place a new communicative infrastructure that lasts many generations and adapts to and with changes in technology.
While some of the existing payphones have undergone a facelift this year, such adaptations have been experimental as opposed to permanent. It is one way of measuring what works and what doesn’t.
This has included putting up interactive touchscreen digital kiosks that offer residents, tourists and visitors free Wi-Fi, maps, general information, entertainment bulletins and hyperlocal news.
They have been designed to be extremely accessible and include headphone sockets for those with hearing impairments, are postioned low enough to be used by people in wheelchairs and can be adjusted for those with problems with vision.
It is only just the beginning. New York’s officials know this, and they recognise that they can benefit enormously from creative minds in the city.
The future may see, for example, voice-activated technology become a permanent feature, while biometric identification will allow users to access the payphone without the need for physical cash (it will simply just be added to a person’s phone bill). The possibilities are endless.
Submissions will be judged on five key areas: connectivity, creativity, visual design, functionality and community impact.
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