Mark Thomas knows pay phones. He’s the founder of the website Payphone-Project.com, which chronicles the location and phone numbers associated with current and past pay phones in hundreds of cities throughout the country. It’s a very serious hobby. Thomas was actually the guy who helped the Serial podcast crew decipher some of the information dealing with the phone booth at Best Buy and routinely gets calls from lawyers and police officers seeking info about old pay phones.
And you might ask yourself: “Self, why do I care?” Well, Thomas visited Philadelphia this summer. He planned to enjoy a vacation as anybody else would. He didn’t want it to turn into a pay phone exploration journey, but that’s partially what happened. Thomas ended up snapping 43 pictures of working and abandoned pay phones throughout Center City.
“We couldn’t help noticing that there were more payphones than you would expect,” he said.
They were all over the place. Not just in heavily-trafficked areas as Thomas often sees in other cities, but on side streets, away from crowds.
Thomas’ observation is backed up by a surprising statistic. Everyone has had a cell phone for at least a decade, but Philadelphia still has 1,042 pay phones in operation, according to the trade association American Public Communications Council (APCC). That number doesn’t include abandoned pay phones, of which Philadelphia likely has dozens. Based on Thomas’ database for Philadelphia, our city once had around 4,700 pay phones. Many have been removed and the inactive ones that remain are easy attractions for vandalism.
Like Thomas, APCC CFO Deborah Sterman was surprised by Philly’s total of active pay phones. The 1,042 number was higher than she expected.
In the entire United States, according to the APCC, there are about 195,000 active pay phones (down from a peak of about 2.2 million in 2000). Philadelphia makes up about .5 percent of the nation’s population. It contains about the same percentage of the nation’s active pay phones. So the number isn’t disproportionate for the population we have.
But compared to similar big cities, Philadelphia’s quantity of pay phones holds up pretty well, beating out Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and Boston.
And here’s how Philadelphia compares on number of pay phones per 100,000 people.
One reason Philadelphia might have a large amount of active pay phones is its impoverished population. Cities featuring a sizable amount of lower income residents tend to have more pay phones, Thomas said. Philadelphia, of course, has a higher percentage of people living below the poverty line than any of the nation’s other top 10 biggest cities.
But Philly doesn’t feature other characteristics commonly associated with a high number of pay phones, such as large immigrant populations and pay phones supplemented through advertisements. Immigrants, Sterman said, often use prepaid phone cards on pay phones. That’s one reason why Houston has so many pay phones.
More than 5,000 of New York’s pay phones are in Manhattan. Starting last year, the city started an advertising-funded program in which it offered free domestic phone calls and internet hotspots at these phones. That’s mainly how pay phone operators make money these days. Pay phones are seen more as real estate than a mode of communication.
In Philadelphia, Thomas was also surprised by the lack of advertisement on the pay phones he saw. They were owned by companies like Quarter Call, Vail Communications and Pacific Telemanagement Service, requiring people to pay to use them for a chance at financial success.
“The most impressive thing is these (phones) are surviving entirely by usage,” he said, “and not advertising subsidies.”