Superman may need to launch a posse to find a phone booth these days. The glass panel cubicles have all but disappeared from urban landscapes – thanks to the cellphone.
Pay phones in general – including the free-standing kind – are becoming increasingly difficult to find, which is why the recent installation of a new one at the corner of Summer Street and Elmwood Avenue made at least one city dweller happy.
Caila Murray said she watched with interest as workers installed the free-standing phone in late July.
One recent afternoon, she returned to make some calls. Local calls from this shiny phone station cost 50 cents, but Murray prefers the toll-free approach.
“I don’t have a phone at home, and that’s my choice,” Murray said as she dug through her purse looking for her list of 1-800 numbers. She had just finished shopping at PriceRite, and her push cart propped against the phone stall bulged with groceries. She took the Metro Rail from her Main Street apartment to shop and use the phone.
“I don’t use the phone for social reasons,” said Murray, who is 59. “I take care of medical business – on average three times a month. I live in 14214, but I’m originally from New York City, so I know all about phone booths and the seat and the shelter from the rain. They haven’t gotten better.”
The pay phone is operated by Pacific Telemanagement Services, the West Coast company that bought up much of Verizon’s and AT&T’s pay phone operations throughout the country.
Seven million Americans do not have a cellphone or a land line, according to an official from the American Public Communications Council, a nonprofit organization that represents pay phone owners.
“They have to have some way to make a call,” said Deborah Sterman, chief financial officer of APCC, headquartered in Alexandria, Va. “In some areas, there is still a need for a pay phone.”
New Yorkers flocked to pay phones in the aftermath of the 2001 World Trade Center attack that silenced cellphone signals. Similarly, after Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, pay phones shone like beacons.
“Whenever there is a national disaster – when Wi-Fi service goes down – the pay phones are working,” noted Sterman.
Throughout the United States, about 320,000 pay phones remain in use, said Sterman, who is in the habit of spot-checking pay phones to see if they work.
There are 10 pay phones located at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, according to Doug Hartmeyer, NFTA spokesman. Bus riders, meanwhile, can find 11 pay phones inside the Buffalo Metropolitan Transportation Center, the bus station located at North Division and Ellicott streets downtown.
The Erie County Holding Center placed its lone pay phone in the front lobby, according to Superintendent Thomas Diina.
“As you can imagine, it doesn’t get much use,” said Diina.
Some owners of phone booths substituted the Internet for phone service and offer Wi-Fi hot spots. Many install ATMs.
The lobby of the Hotel @ the Lafayette on Washington Street has a bank of three phone booths crafted from wood. One booth holds a vintage nonworking telephone circa 1920. An ATM is located in another. The third is empty.
“We looked into making them operational,” said Robert Shankland, hotel general manager, “but pay phones don’t make enough revenue. No one would service them. You basically would be paying for a phone and making nothing on it.”
On average, it takes at least 100 calls a month for a pay phone to turn a profit, said Sterman, though industry websites place the monthly number at 150 calls.
On the ground floor of the Walter J. Mahoney State Office Building is another impressive trio of wood phone booths located in a marble alcove. One holds a working phone.
“Nobody uses it,” said a security guard stationed nearby. “It’s hard to find them. I was surprised that the ones on the street corners keep disappearing.”
Erie County Medical Center’s last pay phone was removed in July 2009, according to one employee. At the Rath Building, meanwhile, Mark Poloncarz can’t recall the last time he used a pay phone.
“It has to be at least 15 years ago,” said the county executive. “We do not have a pay phone to our knowledge in the Rath Building. In fact, most county facilities, including county parks, do not.”
The phone at the Lake Effect Laundromat on Main Street in the University District was out of order, said the attendant who added: “If you need a cab, you can use the business phone.”
At Delta Sonic on Delaware Avenue, the pay phone was removed. No luck at Voelker’s Bowling Center on Elmwood Avenue and Amherst Street, nor at Sudseys Laundromat on Seneca Street.
Don’t get hung up trying to find a pay phone in Buffalo. You can always buy a booth on eBay. One in mint condition last week had a starting bid of $1,800. The 1960s-era Bell Telephone Booth was from the West Coast.
“Booths went by the wayside years and years ago, so they are kind of a novelty,” said Sterman of APCC. “Every time I see an actual phone booth with a working pay phone, I try and take a photo.”
In San Francisco, New York, Moscow and Shanghai, phone booths are being transformed to Wi-Fi hot spots and cellphone charging stations. Phone booths in Osaka, Japan, meanwhile, became the new homes for art installations of pop-up goldfish, a sign of good luck in that country. In Brazil, an urban design project called Call Parade converted the country’s remaining phone booths into multidimensional pieces of art, including one that resembled the human brain.
And earlier this summer in Canada, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission rejected Bell Canada’s request to double the cost of a pay phone call to $1. In rejecting the request, the commission announced an investigation into whether new policies to protect the pay phone industry were needed in a country where the number of pay phones dropped from 90,000 in 2008 to 70,000 in 2011.
People worried about germs on pay phones should remember their personal cellphones are loaded with germs, too, said Dr. John K. Crane, associate professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Buffalo.
“There’s germs everywhere,” he said. “Before you cast too many stones at the public pay phone – if there’s still some around – look at your own person cellphone. When is the last time you wiped it down with a cleaner?”
Crane, meanwhile, said he hasn’t used a pay phone in years.
“In the old days before I got a cellphone – back in the 1990s – I would get paged, and I would have to go to the nearest pay phone and answer back,” Crane said. “I used to pay attention to where they were in my neighborhood, and I would always have to keep quarters in the car. That’s like a trip down memory lane.”