Reinventing payphones for the 21st century


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Payphones may seem like a relic from the past if you’re a member of the smartphone generation. But add a few features like Wi-Fi hotspots, electric car chargers, and taxi-hailing capabilities, and public phones might just win a spot back in our lives—starting with New York.

There are around 11,000 payphones in New York City, down from about 35,000 two decades ago. Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to find a new purpose for those phones now that most people have cell phones, and half of subscribers have smartphones. There’s a massive infrastructure for payphones, and the current suppliers’ contracts will expire in 2014, so back in December, Bloomberg launched a Reinvent Payphones initiative to crowd-source the public information point of the future.

Three months after the Big Apple’s call for ideas on how to upgrade its payphones, the top six finalists have been announced. The prototypes were judged on their ability to enable communication, as well as for safety and emergency purposes, creativity, functionality, and—of course—visual design. There will also be another prize for the popular choice, based on votes from the Reinvent Payphones Facebook page. Voting ends on March 14; you’ll have to like the page first to cast your vote.

Don’t hold your breath though for these finalist designs to actually make it on the streets of New York as they are. Instead, according to a WNYC report, the designs will be used as benchmarks for the payphone system that will be commissioned, which means that we might see some of the best ideas from all the proposals rolled into one public information point people will actually want to use.

New York’s payphones proved to be a crucial link for residents during Superstorm Sandy in October 2012, when power was cut off and people turned to the public phones to get in touch with their loved ones. In that period, the biggest challenge seemed to be to keep the phones free of coin overloads, a payphone operator told the Wall Street Journal. As a result, the utility of payphones in times of emergency has inspired several features in the proposals to reinvent them.


Beacon is a winner in the best visual design category. It sports a slender concrete and stainless steel structure that tops off at nearly 12 feet. It has a stack of LED matrix screens, and the upper displays work as digital signage that would adapt to public events throughout the city and provide display ads.

During times of emergency, Beacon would become an information kiosk, offering updates on critical services, evacuation instructions, and directions to local shelters.


Windchimes won the community impact nomination, and looks a bit less futuristic than the other projects. However, this prototype includes a series of environmental sensors for rain levels and pollution aimed at helping city officials and urban planners in assessing the air quality in New York.

Smart Sidewalks

Smart Sidewalks, winner of best functionality honors, wanted to reduce the footprint of the payphone, while incorporating free Wi-Fi hotspots as well as weather, maps, and navigational information for pedestrians.


NyFi won the best connectivity category. This entry proposes an interactive portal of public information with an app-like interface and a Wi-Fi hotspot. In fact, NyFi features two proposed models—a 10 foot version for commercial districts, and a smaller one for residential and historic areas. When not in use, the touchscreen display would show ads.


NYC I/O, the winner of the best community impact category, proposes to update the payphone exterior with commercial and community advertising, while the inside is based on civic and local information for people to find their way around easier. It would also let you make traditional calls and hail cabs.

NYC Loop won a creativity award by combining a payphone with a public space, surrounded with piezoelectric pressure plates that convert kinetic energy into electric energy to supply the phone with power. Depending on the area where it is placed, the setup can include benches, electric car charging points, bicycle racks, street art or space for street entertainers.

NYC Loop

This story, "Reinventing payphones for the 21st century" was originally published by TechHive.

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