In Praise of Payphones

February 15, 2010

Have you ever lost your cell phone? Traveled to another country where it didn’t work? Forgot it at home or failed to pay the bill? While our mobile phone culture seems to be contributing to the swift death of payphones, there are times when they are nice to have.

Empty phone booths in Penn Station, New York:

Last summer I was traveling in Sweden, where my U.S. phone doesn’t work. I needed to make a call and figured that I could find a public phone in Stockholm to do so. It took me two hours. I first looked for a telephone in a public library, “no,” the librarian told me, “there’s no phone here, and I’m not really sure where there is one, try walking up the street – unfortunately you can’t use ours.”

I wandered towards a busy commercial area popping into quiet shops here and there, asking politely if the shopkeeper could recommend a public phone (or would perhaps take pity on a tourist and let me make a short local call). No luck. I thought about stopping people in the street, as surely everyone must have a cell phone. But I couldn’t bring myself to do that. There seems to be some unspoken taboo that you can’t use a stranger’s mobile.

Then, to my delight, I finally spotted what seemed to be a phone booth. It was in the middle of a pleasant traffic roundabout. As I approached I realized that the booth was behind a construction fence. As the construction didn’t seem to be active, I squeezed through it only to realize that the first booth was missing its phone, and the second one didn’t take coins, only Swedish calling cards. By the time I finally located a phone to make the call – in a subway station – I had realized the hard way that making an on-the-go call today without a cell phone is pretty difficult.

Although pay phones may seem arcane, they are still used. This article in The New York Times, paints a picture of the continued and vibrant activity at a public phone in Queens, New York: “Everybody knows the public pay phone is dying, but nobody inclined to watch this one would believe it. … In seven days last week, more than 100 people deposited a total of $52 in the phone, at 25 cents per call. … The machine served not so much as a lifeline, but as a simple landline, with life.”

While a payphone may not be as convenient as a personal mobile phone it can be a cheaper option – a few bucks a month for pay phone calls vs. $30 to $100 a month for cell phone service. In addition, sharing a public phone is probably more environmentally friendly than each of us owning our own device. Cell phones, which typically have an 18 month use span, are one of the biggest contributors to e-waste.

I’m not about to get rid of my cell phone, but if pay phones were more plentiful I wouldn’t complain…

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