2009-06-19 / Community

Study Finds One in Four Payphones Broken in Subways

Approximately one in four payphones in New York City Transit subway stations does not fully work, according to two surveys released today by the NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign.

In one survey of 921 telephones at 100 randomly chosen subway stations, 26 percent were found to be "non-functioning," with problems ranging from no dial tone to coin slot blocked (survey margin of error is +/- 4%). This finding is a modest improvement over the 2007 survey which rated 29% of phones non-functioning, a modest improvement. In a second survey, the campaign tested 638 pay telephones in the 25 most-used New York City Transit subway stations and found 23% to be non-functioning (see Table One). This finding is consistent with the 2007 survey, which found 22% nonfunctioning.

"About a quarter of subway phones still do not fully work," said Cate Contino, coordinator for the Straphangers Campaign. "And that's a problem for many riders."

Verizon's current contract with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority does not require any minimum number of payphones be kept in working order. Previous contracts called for 95 percent of phones to be "fully operative and in service at all times." But language changed in 2005 reads: "[Verizon] shall exercise good-faith effort to clear 95 percent of all known troubles within 24 hours." Underground stations do not allow for cell phone use. In addition, the MTA said in 2007 that as many as half of subway riders do not own cell phones.

Both surveys were conducted between June 30 and September 23, 2008. The release of findings was delayed until June 2009, after state officials resolved the MTA's funding crisis.

Key findings of the survey include:

• The best of the most-used stations — with 100% of payphones functioning — is Flushing-Main Street (7);

• The worst of the most-used stations — with only 50% working phones — is 68th Street-Hunter College (6);

• The most improved of the mostused stations is Flushing-Main Street, which improved from 86% working payphones in 2007 to 100% in this survey;

• The most deteriorated mostused station between our 2007 and 2008 surveys is 68th Street-Hunter College, which fell from 88% functioning payphones to 50% in this survey;

• Among the 20 largest subway stations common to the 2007 report and this one, payphone functioning rates improved in ten and grew worse in ten (see Table Two).

Telephones were deemed nonfunctioning if the handset was missing or unusable; there was no dial tone; surveyors were unable to connect a call to a 1-800 number; the coin slot was blocked; coins deposited did not register; or the telephone

would not return a coin. phones in the 100 randomly selected stations, the leading reason for phones being rated as non-functioning was no dial tone (24%); followed by won't return coin (23%); coin falls through (18%); bad handset (16%); cannot connect to a 1-800 test number (11%); and coin slot blocked (8%) (see Chart One). One regularly scheduled survey conducted by or on behalf of the MTA found a better level of subway payphone performance, noted Jason Chin- Fatt, field organizer for the Straphangers Campaign.

However, he noted that the survey used a different methodology, which might explain the difference in findings.

For example, in its Passenger Environment Survey (PES), New York City Transit's Operations Planning Division found 93% of subway pay telephones to be in working order during the second half of 2008.

Chin-Fatt noted the discrepancy between Straphangers and PES survey might have arisen from three major differences. First, the PES surveys are less thorough.

Surveyors do not perform a coin drop to test the phones, rating telephones as functioning if the surveyor notes an undamaged handset and is able to contact a specific 1-800 test number.

Second, the PES draws its sample from the entire subway station population (468 stations) and does not restrict itself to the most-used stations. Third, the PES survey was conducted over six months; the campaign's was over three months.

In addition, surveys were conducted for the MTA by an independent contractor during approximately the same time as the Campaign's survey (July to September, 2008). It found 25% of payphones to have "service affecting troubles," largely in line with the campaign's methodology for classifying payphones as nonfunctioning. The campaign believes these results to be consistent with the overall findings of the Straphangers Campaign.

The Straphangers survey can be viewed at


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