For immediate release: For more information, contact:
Thursday, February 4, 1999 Joseph G. Rappaport at (212) 349-6460



Nearly half of credit card phones (45%) and more than one in four coin telephones (27%) in the subways don't work, according to a survey conducted at 100 subway stations by NYPIRG's Straphangers Campaign in July 1998.

The group released its survey on the eve of the MTA's release of a new Request for Proposals, due out later this month. The MTA's contract with Bell Atlantic expires on March 31.

Overall, about one in three (32%) of the 610 phones surveyed by the group were out of order. (See charts.) The findings were similar to a survey that the campaign conducted in 1997 using a different methodology. The system's 4,000 public telephones are operated by Bell Atlantic.

"Broken phones inconvenience many riders and even put some at risk in emergencies," said Joseph G. Rappaport, the Straphangers Campaign's coordinator. "While we believe that Bell Atlantic and MTA New York City Transit officials want to get the phones working, both need to do more to give subway riders decent phone service."

Bell Atlantic is responsible for phone maintenance as part of its contract. But the MTA--which earns about $6 million annually from the contract--can influence performance by writing far tougher performance requirements into the next five-year public telephone contract.

"If Bell Atlantic wants to boost profits and polish its public image, it will make sure 95% of the phones work at all times," said Rappaport. "And if the MTA wants to foster rider safety and convenience, it will insist on new standards in its next contract."

The Straphangers Campaign also urged that Bell Atlantic and the MTA New York City Transit step up efforts to combat vandals and thieves with a public education campaign and by working closely with the New York Police Department.

Removal of credit card phones

Bell Atlantic told the campaign it plans to remove all of its blue, coinless, credit-card phones from the subways by mid-1999, in part because the phones were too easily vandalized and because the public phone division can increase profits with coin phones.

Company representatives said they already have removed 488 of the original 1,015 credit-card phones, replacing many of them with coin phones.

The planned removal of the credit-card phones marks a change in policy for New York City Transit, which had the phones installed starting in 1993 as part of an anti-crime program pushed by the then-independent New York Transit Police Department. The phones, often placed at isolated locations on station platforms, do not accept coins but can make free 911 emergency calls.

In its 1997 report on subway telephones, the Straphangers Campaign recommended that the credit-card phones either be replaced or retrofitted because of the high breakdown and vandalism rate.

"It makes sense for Bell Atlantic to remove phones that couldn't survive in the tough subway environment, but the MTA should require that there are at least five public telephones on each platform as a way of increasing safety and rider convenience," said Rappaport. The campaign also urged that Bell Atlantic and MTA New York City Transit continue its recent cooperation with the New York Police Department to fight phone vandalism.

More focus on performance in 1998

The Straphangers Campaign said that MTA New York City Transit and Bell Atlantic had focussed on improved performance in the past year and a half, with the transit authority introducing a more formal public telephone monitoring program and a more organized system to track broken phones. Ball Atlantic itself plans to introduce a more extensive monitoring effort this March. The campaign also expressed hope that Bell Atlantic's "smart set" phones, which automatically report when a phone is broken, may help improve service.

The campaign stressed that MTA New York City Transit and Bell Atlantic need to coordinate efforts so that phones are repaired more swiftly, with reports of broken phones delivered when they are received by MTA New York City Transit with no lag time.

Survey description

Campaign volunteers and staff surveyed the phones during three weeks in July 1998. The campaign used a computer-generated random list of 100 of the subway system's 468 stations; surveyors were then sent to rate each phone in the selected stations.

Surveyors checked 610 phones in those 100 stations. The data are statistically significant, with a margin of error of 4% for all telephones surveyed; 5% for the coin phones; and 8% for the credit-card phones. (The 1997 survey used a different procedure for selecting stations.)

The campaign considered a phone broken for any of the following: if it had a damaged handset or no dial tone; if no operator or information could be reached; if the coin slot was blocked; if a caller's coin was not accepted by the phone; or if the phone wouldn't return the coin.

MTA data inadequate

The latest data available from the New York City Transit's own Passenger Environment Survey, also conducted during the Third Quarter 1997, shows that 88% of phones were working.

But the campaign pointed out that the Straphangers Campaign survey tests what happens when a quarter is used in coin phones, while the PES tests only whether an 800 number works.

When the Straphangers Campaign used the same, inadequate criteria as the PES, 90% of the phones it rated "worked."

The use of a coin demonstrates that many phones that the PES claims are functional are not. The Straphangers Campaign's survey found that many phones have blocked coin slots, that coins sometimes drop through the phone without registering or are swallowed by the phone.


While the campaign said that Bell Atlantic and MTA New York City Transit are clearly attempting to increase phone availability, there's more to do. The group made these seven recommendations:

1) Bell Atlantic or any other carrier should be required to meet performance standards that include financial incentives to achieve the standards and penalties if they are not met. These standards should require that:

2) The MTA should consider breaking up the contract into smaller geographic areas to increase the potential for other contractors to operate some of the phones. Another option would be to conduct a test in a specific part of the system with a second contractor to see if the increased competition can improve performance.

3) MTA New York City Transit should make sure there is no lag time between the time it receives an internal report of a broken phone and when it calls Bell Atlantic. This could insure a quicker response from Bell Atlantic repair squads.

4) New York City Transit should develop a more precise measurement of whether phones work. This new measurement should look at what happens when a coin is used in a public phone; the current PES survey does not.

5) New York City Transit should release a monthly report in its MTA board committee agenda about the performance of the public telephones that includes the number of working and broken phones, the contractor's response time for repairs and whether it is meeting other performance requirements;

6) Bell Atlantic should make it easier for subway public phone users to get refunds. It should also instruct its operators to connect calls if the phone has swallowed a caller's money. This is especially important since coin telephones sometimes do not return quarters when the phone is not working. (The Straphangers Campaign lost 35 quarters in conducting its 1998 survey.)

The current system requires callers who lose money to leave a tape-recorded message and is time-consuming and difficult to navigate. Callers who want refunds should be able to talk with an operator at any time, a service available until recently. An improvement in the refund system would be another way that Bell Atlantic could quickly discover when a phone is broken.

7) Bell Atlantic and the MTA should initiate a program that makes it easier for riders to report broken subway phones and develop a public education campaign to combat vandalism. This could include a special phone number, a more prominent display on subway phones about how to report broken phones, and an easier way of identifying the phone for riders. (Currently, the identifying feature is the phone number, which is often missing.) The MTA and contractor should work with the New York Police Department in this effort.


1) New York City Transit and NYNEX [now Bell Atlantic] should introduce a formal monitoring program that triggers immediate repairs from NYNEX.

New York City Transit has paid attention to improving its monitoring program since our last report, but a honing of the program is necessary to improve Bell Atlantic's performance. Bell Atlantic planned to introduce an internal report card in early 1999, which it said it would share with the MTA.

2) NYNEX should beef up its subway phone repair force so that repairs are made more efficiently and, if possible, in less than 24 hours.

Bell Atlantic told us that it has increased the size of its permanent repair force to 14 permanent employees. However, some phones are not fixed within 24 hours.

3) NYNEX should be required to meet performance standards that require that 95% of the phones work at any one time and that the MTA include these in its 1998 contract.

A new contract, with Bell Atlantic or another contractor, has not yet been negotiated. We have sent recommendations about the Request for Proposals to the MTA.

4) NYNEX should consider retrofitting or replacing the rest of its credit-card phones so that they serve effectively as an emergency alert system for 911. These changes might include: a) speakers that can be used if the handset is missing and b) an alarm button that would link riders to 911 automatically, as originally envisioned by the Transit Police.

Bell Atlantic is removing all of its credit card phones and says it is replacing them with coin phones. However, these phones may not be placed in out-of-the-way subway platforms, as the credit card phones were.

Another 1997 recommendation urged the use of competitive bidding, which the MTA later indicated is standard for this contract. However, no other company other than Bell Atlantic and its predecessors have ever held the contract.


The Straphangers Campaign is a project of NYPIRG, the New York Public Interest Research Group Fund, Inc.

The survey was conducted as part of a four-year study of transit service funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Surveyors were Jennifer Keledjian, Mayra Sanchez, Walter RodrĖguez, Irving Leos, Laura Cheng, Matt Glomski and Joseph G. Rappaport. Lily O'Brien provided vital help in the preparation of the report.

We thank Claretha Fennick, deputy director, MTA Real Estate Department; Barbara Spencer, executive vice president, New York City Transit; Gerald Provenzano, chief electrical officer, Division of Electrical Systems, New York City Transit; Martin Krieger, senior director, System Data and Research, New York City Transit; Jim Smith, director, Media Relations, Bell Atlantic; Nancy Killion, regional sales manager, Bell Atlantic; and Allen Chapman, premier account executive, Public Communications, Bell Atlantic, for their help in developing and commenting on our findings.

We also thank Matt Glomski, Chris Meyer, Gene Russianoff, Steven Romalewski and Chris Meyer of NYPIRG; Ted Greenwood of the Sloan Foundation; and Cathy Berkman of Fordham University for their help in preparing this report.

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