Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Old phone booths to the rescue: Philly weighs turning eyesores into safe havens

Long-defunct phone booths are scattered throughout the city of Philadelphia, magnets for trash and graffiti. But a member of City Council thinks they could have new life as kiosks that provide wifi and a way to reach emergency responders.

Long-defunct phone booths are scattered throughout Philadelphia, magnets for trash and graffiti.

A member of City Council thinks they could have new life as kiosks that provide WiFi and a way to reach help in an emergency.

"If you are in Center City or in one of the neighborhoods and someone takes your phone from you, what do you do?" Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. said. "You can't even find a [working] phone booth for Superman these days."

Jones has latched on to a concept becoming a reality in New York, where a company hired by the city is in the midst of refurbishing 7,500 phone booths. The first went online in February, and about 500 are expected to be up and running by the end of July.

The program comes at no cost to New York City's taxpayers. It is self-funded through advertising, sponsorships, and partnerships. City officials also say it will generate at least a half-billion dollars in revenue over the next 12 years.

Jones said he thinks the concept of converting phone booths could be replicated in Philadelphia, where he estimated there are several hundred nonfunctioning phone booths. On Thursday, he introduced a resolution to hold hearings on the idea.

As chairman of Council's committee on public safety, Jones appears to be focused on that issue. He mentioned the proliferation of emergency phones on college campuses and said the city could "take a page from their book to keep everyone safe."

"We want to know if there is a need by way of public safety to have these every half mile or so, dispersed throughout hotbed areas for criminal activity," Jones said

The kiosks in New York, part of a network called LinkNYC, provide a 911 Emergency Call button but also much more. From a portal, users can place a phone call to anywhere in the United States, charge their phone, access city services through a touch-screen tablet, and get maps and directions. There is no cost, though users have to register with an email address.

Each portal also has two 55-inch high-definition screens, used for advertising and public-service announcements. The kiosks are being installed and operated by a private company that has a franchise agreement with the city.

So far, New Yorkers are responding with curiosity and uncertainty, according to the New York Times, which reported that some residents have voiced concerns about their personal data being stolen or about the kiosks being too bright. The booths have also become gathering places for some homeless people, according to the paper.

Jones said that he does not know what it would cost to launch a similar system in Philadelphia but that the advertising model in New York might also work here.

"It might be an AT&T kiosk or a Verizon kiosk," he said. "Or a McDonald's kiosk, for that matter."