Dialing it back: DC has just 6 public payphones left

Payphone 1432 H St NW
Before the age of smartphones, payphones used to be a common sight on a city street corner. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)

If you’ve got to call a guy about a thing, you’d better hurry — only half a dozen payphones remain on the streets of D.C.

”We currently have six payphones — just six — that are registered with the (D.C.) Public Service Commission and are accessible from exterior locations,” said Cary Hinton, director of external affairs for the agency.

Payphones located inside businesses and buildings don’t need to be registered with the Public Service Commission, so “there may be a few, and we don’t know how many, that are located inside buildings,” Hinton said.

Here’s where the six public payphones are located in the District:

  • 1432 H St. NW, in front of a Cheesecake Factory, at the corner of 15th Street, a few blocks from Lafayette Square.
  • 2452 18th St. NW, in Adams Morgan, right between Shenanigans Irish Pub and Julia’s Empanadas.
  • Four phones are on Mount Pleasant Street in Northwest in front of a supermarket, dry cleaner, community center and ice cream shop.

On Monday, people in Adams Morgan told WTOP that they weren’t terribly surprised to hear the District was down to six public payphones on its streets.

”I don’t think I’ve ever used a payphone,” said one 27-year-old woman, engendering a “Really, oh my gosh” response from her partner.

He could easily recall how he used a payphone: “My mom would drop me off at the mall, and I’d call her to come pick me up.”

Another man, walking his bicycle down 18th Street, had more vivid memories of using payphones as an adult.

”They were ubiquitous. They were all around the city,” he remembered. However, usage required some preparation. “If you needed to make a call, you just needed to have some change in your pocket.”

Hinton said things have changed with “the explosion in the use of wireless technologies.”

”People just don’t need to go to the corner payphone to call someone or a business,” he said. “The need to have access to a public payphone has diminished radically.”

Conversely, the increase in mobile technology use has required the Public Service Commission to approve a new area code — 771 — which will go into effect Oct. 9, along with mandatory 10-digit dialing, to include either 202 or 771.

While they wouldn’t trade the convenience of mobile dialing, even the woman who had never used a payphone said she was surprised by how constant cellphone usage has become: “I was on the Metro last week and every single person in the car was on their own phone. It was kind of mind-blowing. Wow.”

The man with the bicycle said, “And let’s face it, we’re all walking around with a tracking device in our pocket. But obviously we’re not going back.”

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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