New York City's Latest Transplants: Public Wi-Fi Kiosks

Intersection has set out to replace pay phones with Internet hotspots, but are they losing sight of the bigger picture?

The whizzes at Intersection promise to “reinvent the urban experience.” But what does that mean?

Up until about a decade ago, you would still, on occasion, spot the odd person making a call on a New York City pay phone. But in recent years, as cell phones and then smartphones became more or less ubiquitous, the booths shifted to the exclusive province of the down and out — used more for shelter and a little street privacy than for making a call. When the city inked a deal to replace the remaining pay phones with thousands of free Wi-Fi kiosks, to be paid for by advertising — a network to be known as LinkNYC — it felt innovative. And also overdue.

Peppering the city’s neighborhoods with free, super-high-speed Wi-Fi hubs with outlets and touch screens offering internet, maps and directions, and domestic calling is undeniably a positive thing. It’s just not the bold stride into the digital future that it’s been touted as. Too many years have passed between the obsolescence of pay phones and the installation of the first Wi-Fi hubs last December for them to be a game-changer. Tourists will love them, sure, and New Yorkers are likely to stop for a phone charge, or to avoid overloading an anemic data plan. The shifts to digital, though, happened long ago.

Still, while LinkNYC’s role in New York’s digital transformation may be overhyped, the one they play in Google’s incursion into the urban sector has been largely overlooked.

Last June, Alphabet, Google’s parent company, launched Sidewalk Labs, an urban technology startup helmed by Dan Doctoroff, the deputy mayor of economic development under Michael Bloomberg and the former CEO of the billionaire’s namesake company. Sidewalk Labs describes itself as “urban innovation company” that works in partnership with cities to improve urban life. (And, of course, tap into the lucrative possibilities lying dormant in the transit, construction, real estate, and energy sectors.) This made a certain amount of sense, as cities are very hot right now. Or at least the belief in their incipient transformation through data and technology (i.e., “smart city”) urbanism is.

LinkNYC kiosks are sprouting up around New York. (Photo: Courtesy CityBridge)

It made even more sense when less than a month later Sidewalk acquired two of the companies leading the LinkNYC project — an outdoor ad space and design firm — and merged them into a company called Intersection, appropriately named given its focus “on improving the urban experience at the convergence of digital and physical worlds.”

What, exactly, will come of this remains unclear, though it was reported in late April that Sidewalk, which had staffed up considerably a few months earlier, intended to try its hand at actual city building. It’s been courting struggling cities with large tracts of land ripe for redevelopment, where the company could create experimental mixed-use, technology-embedded neighborhoods from scratch, à la Hudson Yards, the mega-development under construction in West Chelsea that is, in part, Doctoroff’s brainchild. It’s also where the company plans to relocate.

The details, as ever, are key here. Intersection provides at least a glimpse of how the company’s dauntingly ambitious plans might actually be put into practice. Speaking at a conference last fall, Doctoroff, who declined to comment for this article, said that he hoped Sidewalk would leverage technologies like LinkNYC to ensure “that the virtuous cycle of the successful city will continue by ushering in what I call ‘the shared city.’”

Free public Wi-Fi has arrived in New York City. (Photo: Courtesy CityBridge)

Besides the LinkNYC rollout, Intersection is very much focused on public transportation right now, according to its chief innovation officer, Colin O’Donnell. “The subways present a huge opportunity for an improved urban experience,” O’Donnell says. “From the way customer information is delivered to the way data is generated — there are many different opportunities that could help the MTA be a more efficient operation.” To that end, Intersection has already installed advertising-funded way-finding stations at a handful of subway stations.

Future projects would, he said, also involve combining customer-friendly digital signage, “to handle more passengers in a safer, more pleasant way, and really improve the customer experience.” A person might, for example, like to know how much longer a half-empty 6 local train would take to get to Grand Central than the packed 5 express train across the track. But as much as that information would be helpful, what subway riders really want — and need — is a solution that fixes the rampant delays and cars packed to the point of suffocation.

Pressed for how Intersection might address the latter issues and usher in the “shared city” that would provide better quality of life with fewer resources, O’Donnell apologized that he couldn’t go into more detail. The company is engaged in a competitive process with the MTA, he says, “but to put it succinctly, I think you can use great technology and design to overlay a 21st-century experience with a 20th-century experience.”

The problem is, the subway system is in need of an overhaul, not an overlay: It still uses a track-signaling system developed in the 1870s, runs trains from the 1970s on a number of lines, and can only see movement and control signals on 67 percent of the railroad, as New York magazine recently reported. Combined with exploding ridership that has resulted in delays and overcrowding, which in turn cause even more delays and overcrowding, improving digital signage is reminiscent of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s out-of-touch promise to bring Wi-Fi to all subway stations.

Recharging at a LinkNYC kiosk. (Photo: Courtesy CityBridge)

Of course, it’s possible that Intersection is keeping something heroic, rather than merely helpful, under wraps. Private partnerships and copious research can certainly help cities. Still, while the past is not necessarily prologue, it’s concerning the rezonings Doctoroff presided over have hardly been hailed as models of socioeconomic diversity or “the shared city” — neither have the luxury condo-cluttered Williamsburg waterfront nor the upscale park of incoming high-rises that is Hudson Yards. And the tech industry has not done much in the way of improving the urban experience in the Bay Area, where large swaths of neighborhoods have shifted from economically and culturally diverse bastions of urban vitality to affluent bedroom communities for Silicon Valley’s extremely well-compensated.

One way to help change that record would be for these urban saviors to immerse themselves in the messiness of city life, rather than wading in cautiously from the isolated campuses of Silicon Valley or setting up shop in as-yet sterile neighborhoods. And to take on cities’ thorniest structural problems instead of focusing on ways to improve “the urban experience.”

One in five people in the U.S. lacks access to broadband at home, which increasingly complicates everything from paying bills and completing homework assignments to filing job applications. Intersection’s proposition is a welcome improvement over pay phones, but a truly revolutionary Wi-Fi system would be one that bridged the digital divide by treating the internet like a public commodity, not a comfort station amenity. Last year, it was reported by the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs that 96 percent of New York residents own a mobile phone, after all, so while nouveau phone booths certainly make for convenient ad displays, they hardly reflect the way we communicate now, let alone the way we’re likely to in the future. It’s time we moved beyond the paradigm of the phone booth altogether.

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