For immediate release: For more information, contact:
Wednesday, December 1, 1999 Neysa Pranger or Farouk Abdallah at (212) 349-6460


recommendations  methodology  charts & table
ne in four coin telephones in the city's biggest subway stations don't work, according to a survey of 614 coin telephones at the 25 top stations by the NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign. The survey also found that the best chance of finding a working phone was at the 77th and Lexington on the 6 line (the 24th biggest station by usage) and the worst chance at the 42nd Street and 5th/6th Avenue complexes on the B, D, F, Q and 7 lines (the 3rd biggest station.) (See attachments.)

A July 1998 campaign survey rated 27% of coin telephones non-working. While that survey used a different methodology, the level of non-functioning phones in each survey appears consistent.

"We're disappointed that a quarter of subway phones remain broken, inconveniencing many riders," said Neysa Pranger, coordinator for the Straphangers Campaign. Pranger noted that the current contract between Bell Atlantic and MTA New York City Transit requires that 95% of all coin telephones "shall be fully operative and in service at all times."

The campaign surveyed 614 coin telephones at the 25 most-used subway stations. The survey was conducted from August 13th to the 27th, 1999. Telephones were deemed non-functioning if the handset was missing or unusable; there was no dial tone; surveyors were unable to connect to each of 411, 0 and 555-1212; the coin slot was blocked; coins deposited did not register; or the telephone would not return a coin if no call was connected.

The top stations for working telephones were: 77th Street and Lexington Avenue׬ line (100%); Columbus Circle—A, B, C, D and 1/9 lines (92%); Court Street/Borough Hallר, 3, 4, 5 and M, N, R lines (89%); 68th Street and Lexington Avenue׬ line (88%); Main Street/Flushing׭ line (88%); and 74th Street/Broadway/Roosevelt—E, F, G, R and 7 lines (88%).

The worst stations for working telephones were: 42nd Street and 5th/6th Avenues—B, D, F, Q and 7 lines (48%); 34th Street and 6th Avenue—B, D, F, N, Q, and R lines (55%); 14th Street-Union Square—L, N, R, 4, 5 and 6 lines (59%); Broadway-Fulton Street—A, C, J/Z, M, 2, 3, 4 and 5 lines (59%); Chambers Street-Brooklyn Bridge—J/Z, M, 4, 5 and 6 lines (63%).

The latest survey by MTA New York City Transit found that 91% of phones were in "working order" in the second quarter of 1999. But the agency survey tests only whether the handset is undamaged and if an 800 number works, not what happens when a quarter is used.


In February 1999, the NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign issued a survey on telephones in the subways. Today’s survey is a follow-up, using a different methodology. Both found that about one in four coin telephones in the subways don’t work. Back in February, Bell Atlantic announced a variety of steps it was taking to improve subway telephone performance. (See attached statement.) These included:

  • eliminating subway coinless phones, which had an even higher rate of disrepair;
  • establishing a monthly report card reviewed by MTA New York City Transit;
  • setting up a new service improvement team and assigning new personnel; and
  • installing new "smart set" phones that can automatically call in problems.
Among the recommendations that the Straphangers Campaign made in February 1999 were:
  1. Bell Atlantic should be required to meet standards that include financial incentives to achieve the standards and penalties if they are not met. The current standard is "95% of all pay telephones shall be full operative and in service at all times."

  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. 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 to the MTA board about the performance of the public telephones, including the number of working and broken phones, 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 current system requires callers who lose money to leave a tape-recorded message and can be time-consuming and difficult to navigate. Callers who want refunds should be able to talk with an operator at any time.

  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.

METHODOLOGY: Survey of Coin Telephones at 25 Most-Used Subway Stations

Two NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign staff and 11 volunteers surveyed coin telephones during the two-week period August 13-27, 1999.

Surveyors rated each coin telephone in the 25 most-used subway stations as listed in the MTA New York City Transit’s Subway Registration and Bus Revenue Report, 1996/1997. A total of 614 telephones were rated. A telephone was rated as "non-functioning" if any of the following applied:

  • the handset was missing or unusable;
  • there was no dial tone;
  • surveyors were unable to connect to each of 411, 0 and 555-1212;
  • the coin slot was blocked;
  • coins deposited did not register; or
  • if the telephone would not return a coin if no call was connected.

New York City Transit conducts its own quarterly telephone rating in its respected Passenger Environment Survey (PES). Results cited in the PES are not comparable to those in this report, as PES surveyors do not use a coin to test the functioning of a telephone. PES rates a telephone as functioning if the surveyor notes an undamaged handset and is able to contact a specific 800 test number.

The NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign conducted a survey in July 1998 of coin and credit card telephones. Since then, credit card phones have been phased out. That survey used the same definition of "non-functioning" telephones. But the campaign surveyed 610 telephones at 100 randomly selected stations. Despite this difference in methodology, levels of non-functioning telephones reported in each survey appear consistent.

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