New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has issued an RFP to create a network of free, outdoor Wi-Fi hotspots across all five boroughs. The network would become one of the largest in the country, and have a significant impact on the city’s streetscape. That’s because the plan transforms New York’s aging system of payphones—commonly known today as al fresco “toilets”—with what are being described by the city as public connection points.
The people have spoken (well, “clicked”) and the votes are in—NYFi wins the Popular Choice Award for Mayor Bloomberg’s “Reinvent the Payphone Design Challenge!” The winners of the Connectivity, Visual Design, Creativity, Functionality, and Community Impact categories were announced in early March but the Popular Choice winner was decided last week by public vote via the City of New York’s Facebook page.
The “payphone”—like subway tokens—is a word that has increasingly become synonymous with an older New York. It’s been years since many of us have even stepped into, let alone used, one of those bulky, eerily abandoned and, let’s face it, uninviting, telephone booths peppering New York City’s sidewalks. But unlike subway tokens, the payphone is making a comeback.
With the current rise of smartphones and tablet technology, it is easy for coin-operated payphones to be cast aside as archaic tools of urban communication, but with over 11,000 functioning payphones dotted across New York City alone, these sidewalk staples have become ubiquitous in the urban landscape. And as was a lesson during Hurricane Sandy and other disasters, the payphone can serve as a reliable back-up when cell phone batteries die.
But can the payphone be updated to thrive in the 21st century? New York City is enlisting designers to rethink the role of payphones in today’s New York City, with Mayor Michael Bloomberg officially announcing the “Reinvent Payphones” competition last week.