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Consents & Variances

Letter to Stanley Shor, Assistant Commissioner, NYC Department of Information Technology and Telecommunication (DOITT) RE: Public Telephones on New York City Sidewalks

The following letter passed with a vote of 39 in favor, 0 opposed, 1 abstained

Dear Assistant Commissioner Shor:

Manhattan Community Board 5 ("CB5") appreciates DOITT's Request for information ("RFI") and request for public comments with respect to sidewalk based Telecommunication devices. CB5 agrees with DOITT that the current "Payphone" devices are outdated and that a transformation is called for in their amenities, design and placement. Further, we are pleased that DOITT is engaged in an evaluation to implement changes in the October 2014 new franchise contract.

Likewise, CB5 recognizes the 2014 new Payphone franchise contracts as an opportunity to change and update the way New York City has conceived and employed the use of public payphones. We are happy to make the following recommendations.

a) A reduced footprint in the size of each individual amenity: Many of the current payphones are housed in or feature a bulky design which is cumbersome. They take up far too much of the city's precious sidewalk space. More particularly, as New York's streets are incredibly busy, we find that pedestrian traffic is impaired by a myriad of sidewalk intrusions that take several forms. A slim and sleek design with overhead advertising panels would allow a degree of ease to pedestrian congestion, some relief to visual congestion, and create safer sidewalks. (see attached)

b) A reduced footprint in overall number of devices placed on our midtown streets: With the overwhelming use of individual cell phones, the need for public phones has decreased significantly, While there continues to be a need for payphones and Telecommunication devices, far fewer pay phones are needed than currently exist. Though we could not estimate precisely how many Telecommunication devices may be needed, the estimated 75% reduction in payphones nationally in the last 3 years might be a reasonable guideline. A substantial reduction in the number of pay phone units on our streets will significantly add to pedestrian safety and reduce visual clutter.

c) Modern amenities such as Wi-Fi, touch screens, information kiosks and cell phone charging stations might be included to make these amenities more useful and more profitable. However, to avoid overcrowding at these kiosks or charging stations, time limits should be considered so as to avoid public congestion or waiting lines.

d) Protection of current supports for emergencies and basic payphone usage: Any amenity should include free access to 911, 311, and 511 services. Additionally, a standard phone should be included for those who do not have other means of telecommunication.

e) A standardized system for the addition of new units or removal of problematic units: Community Boards and local officials should be given adequate time to voice their opinions and make suggestions with regard to the installation and removal of payphone units. In the past, this process has been difficult for local communities. A system similar to that employed with newsstand installations may help to ease some of those difficulties.

f) One standardized design which would incorporate into the current street scape of the New York City Streets: CB5 recommends that a design of metal and glass similar to the Cemusa Newsstands and Bus shelters would be appropriate and help to reduce visual clutter. A sleek design which reduces the impact on sidewalk intrusions is also essential to pedestrian and vehicular safety.

In summary, CB5 supports telecommunication/advertising devices, provided that each unit has a significantly reduced footprint and that the modern amenities include Wi-Fi and touch screen devices. In addition, there should be a decreased in the overall number of units and None of the existing installations should be grandfathered. Further, Community Boards should be given a prominent voice in the process to add or remove devices and guidelines similar to those used for newsstands should be followed.

CB5 is in agreement with many of the opinions and concerns voiced by the other Community Boards, and more particularly that of Community Board 4:

1.                  What alternative communication amenities would fill a need?

CB5 supports the incorporation of free Wi-Fi services within a defined radius. Such Wi-Fi services would be useful in the installation process with telecommunication and phone services in order to avoid the disruptions currently caused by cable cuts due to groundwork. We envision a small computer touch screen with one button free access to nearby mass transit and bike share locations; 911, 311 and 511 contact; Community (including Community Board) events. Amenities for charge could include telephone calls and cell phone battery recharge. Both coin and credit card payments should be allowed.

Understanding the city's desire to maintain advertising revenue, the screen could employ advertising adjacent to touch screen information and on the full screen while battery recharging is in process. As a feature installed on the telecommunication/advertising panels, the panels should have a "strip" or other form of capability to notify the public of impending emergencies such as hurricanes or evacuations.

While all installations should include basic services, including 911, 311 and 511 as one touch feature, the mix of amenities could vary based on location, need and Community Board recommendations.

2.                  Should the current designs of sidewalk payphone enclosures be substantially revised?

CB5 requests a substantial redesign of the sidewalk telecommunication devices to a two-panel slim profile fixture that is no more than one foot deep, with no pedestrian protections or other overhangs. The devices should be placed so that none of their elements projects more than three feet from the curb and do not cause vehicular distraction.

These two-sided devices should include a steel and glass design, consistent with existing Cemusa bus shelter and newsstand designs (the devices could also be integrated with them). We recommend that no more than one unit be permitted per block (including intersection). We feel strongly there should not be free standing advertising panels. At a time when the city is seeking, as stated in the DOTT RFI, to reduce sidewalk fixtures this would be a dangerous and unnecessary precedent.

3.                  What features should be included to make the installations accessible to people with disabilities?

Telecommunication devices should maintain the highest degree of handicap accessibility. This should include sliding display panels to enable wheelchair accessibility, brail number and lettering, and include verbal-to-type conversation features. Specific efforts should be made for any proposed installations of this type especially in neighborhoods that contain a higher percentage of disabled residents and services for the disabled.

4.                  Should the current number of payphones on City sidewalks change and, if so, how?

While there continues to be a need for payphone/Telecommunication devices, given that the greater percentage of the population is cell phone savvy, far fewer of these devices are needed. We propose that the placement of telecommunication devices go through a process similar to newsstands, that include Community Board review and approval, as well recommendations for amenities and placement of advertising panels. The new franchise contract in 2014 should not grandfather in current payphone locations and DOITT and/or franchisee recommendations for placement of telecommunications devices should be guided by:

a. Safety, Pedestrian Crowding and sidewalk furniture/fixtures: Several areas have sidewalks that are overcrowded with pedestrians and/or other street furniture. In these areas, the benefits of the telecommunication devices would be outweighed by the additional pedestrian obstruction

b. Avoiding corner locations: Most vehicular/pedestrian accidents and fatalities occur while vehicles are turning onto a street or avenue. Turning speeds and pedestrian crossing decisions are often affected by momentary viewing from varying site-lines and angles and from various heights and locations. There have been several accidents, including ones that lead to fatalities, which occurred at intersections with payphone installations within CB5. We prefer to err on the side of caution and generally restrict telecommunication devices from locations near street corners.

c. Limiting Telecommunication device per block: No more than one device on any block should include an advertising panel. Any more than that creates visual clutter and likely has diminishing returns for the advertisers. Additionally, with an overhead advertising panel, locations should be easy to identify, and a one per block ration will provide sufficient availability for any emergency and sufficient access for anyone seeking information, even in high usage areas.

d. Need for telecommunication services: DOITT should identify census tracts/blocks that have lower telephone ownership rates in assessing the potential placements for devices and services. Also, if the increased amenities are provided, locations near (or attached to) bicycle share locations, major tourist destinations and parks (without advertisements) may be appropriate.

e. Current usage: While data was not available in the DOITT RFI, we feel phone usage and telecommunication usage in the future should be used in determining the need for telecommunication devices at a given location. Most importantly, the location decision process should include Community Board review and recommendations, allowing for a 60 day review period. While we understand that this might lead to a one-time relatively high volume of location reviews in advance and immediately after franchise selection in 2014, it will be well worth the effort. Community Boards, and the various businesses and block/neighborhood associations they consult with have substantial knowledge of pedestrian usage, street furniture, areas of crime and safety concerns, as well as knowledge of what buildings or areas may have specific amenity or other telecommunication needs.

CB5 also opines that this process should be used in the recommendation for Telecommunication device removals and that there also is a process for Community Board initiated removal of devices.

5.                  Should advertising panels be limited to printed posters?

Digital Panels are now the norm and are much easier to maintain, provided that the degree of illumination is at a brightness level that will not impact surrounding residences or ground floor businesses or create pedestrian or driver glare.

In historic districts and other areas where illuminated panels might have a negative impact Community Board Five recommends that non-lit panels might be more appropriate and should be subject to Community Board and Landmarks review.

CB5 strongly object to the use or employment of moving animation, "news zippers," video, or frequently changing panels that may cause or add to visual clutter and likewise would increase driver (or bicyclist or pedestrian) view time to an unsafe level.

6.                  What are the revenue and cost implications of the various options and alternatives discussed above?

While a reduction in the overall number of telecommunication devices might create concerns for advertising revenue, placing the advertising panels overhead will create a greater visual impact and greater demand for these limited spaces. While CB5 does not have exact data on how the advertising dollar might be allocated, we theorize that an increase in charge per unit could more than make up for number of units at present.

Additionally, advertising on touch screens, banners, and on information pages will create additional advertising space.

Community Board Five does recommend that an in depth study comparing engineering and manufacturing costs to a reasonable projection of revenues be conducted immediately. Such a study should include input from other large cities which may have already undergone these technological changes. It should also include information regarding which franchises might be interested in this project.

Community Board Five requests that any proposed design be brought back to the board for comments and strongly recommends that any new phone units which are purchased or created for this project be American made and manufactured. 

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on this matter. 

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