Putting empty phone booths to use : Unused pay phones across the country find new purpose and function in local communities

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Putting empty phone booths to use : Unused pay phones across the country find new purpose and function in local communities

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1. A high-speed electric car charging station. 2. A safety-zone, where people can seek shelter and help if they feel that they are being followed. 3. A booth library, where passersby can drop by to read. 4. A phone booth water tank displayed as a form of aquarium. The left booth was displayed in 2007 and the right is currently on display at COEX Aquarium.

Anyone who lived in the late ‘80s to early ‘90s remembers the prevalence of public phone booths. Children at that time would call their parents at the pay phone to tell them they were done with school and ask for a ride home. Young adults would have stood in long lines after the bus stopped running to call their parents to tell them that they would be staying at their friends’ place for the night. In the era when cellphones were considered luxurious, many people from kids to adults relied heavily on public phones to make calls.

The number of booths reached its highest in December 2002 at 55 million, according to In Seoung-hyeong from the nation’s pay phone operator KT Linkus. After reaching its peak, however, popularity started to wane with the emergence of a new technology, when the cellphone became a must-have item.

Since then, the number of pay phones has fallen every year, and there are 31 million phone booths nationwide as of September.

With cell phones allowing people to easily make phone calls whenever and wherever they need to, the need for public pay phones has greatly diminished, leaving behind millions of obsolete and empty phone booths throughout the country.

In order to make use of those empty boxes, efforts have been under way to turn the idle booths into something entertaining and useful instead.



High-speed Electric Car Charging Station

It may not be easy to believe that a vacant phone booth can contribute to saving the environment. For those with doubts, they may be surprised to hear that some phone booths around the country have been repurposed into high-speed electric vehicle battery charging station.

The Ministry of Environment and KT Linkus collaborated in July to install nine high-speed electric vehicle battery charging stations at unused booths across the nation, including three in Seoul, three in Daegu, two in Suncheon, South Jeolla, and one in Seongnam, Gyeonggi.

These high-speed chargers are likely to appeal to electric car drivers as it only takes 25 to 30 minutes to fully charge a vehicle instead of five hours, which is the average time required to fully charge an electric automobile at a standard electric vehicle charging station.

To make the facility more user-friendly, the ministry decided, after consulting with local governments, not to charge any parking fees while a vehicle is being charged.

It costs 313 won (27 cents) per kilowatt to charge, and the high-speed charging stations in Seoul are located in Yeongdeungpo District in southwestern Seoul; Jungnang District in central Seoul; and Dobong District in northern Seoul.

The number of stations is expected to rise, according to In from KT.

“We can’t say for sure how many more we would be able to install since we are working on this together with the Ministry of the Environment. However, we are continuously putting forward efforts to expand.”



Safety Zone

Being followed by a suspicious stranger in the middle of a dark street is a fear for many. For women and children in particular, the experience would become more dreadful if there isn’t any place to hide or ask for help nearby.

To prevent such incidents from occurring and to keep citizens safe, some phone booths have been changed into safety zones. If they find themselves in a dangerous situation, anyone can step inside the booth, where the door will automatically lock behind them and contact with the outside will be completely blocked upon pressing a red button inside the kiosk.

A loud, clamorous siren with sound and lights will flash alerting people in the area of the danger, and a nearby police station will be informed of the emergency. In addition, to capture the face of the suspect, CCTV cameras are installed on the booth as well.

The safety zone booth is equipped with other functions including an ATM, which is more frequently used than the safety-zone function.

When this reporter visited one of the booths located in Jongno District, central Seoul, at around 4 p.m. last week, three people were waiting in line to use the automated teller machine.

“I frequently use these types of ATMs that are located on streets,” said a woman in her twenties, who was waiting in line with her boyfriend.

When asked whether she has used the booth’s safety zone function, she said “I know about it, but I have never actually used it.” She continued, “Although I doubt how quickly the door would shut, I think it is better to have it than to have nothing.”

The booth is also equipped with free internet, an online map and a camera.

There are currently about 130 safety zone booths nationwide.



Public Library

At Seongdong District, eastern Seoul, an old phone booth has been recreated into a small library. Named Chaektteurak, it means creating a garden of knowledge at the heart of readers.

After KT Linkus donated phone kiosks to the district, six students majoring in Applied Art at Hanyang University volunteered to transform the dull phone booth with a more sophisticated design.

There are currently three phone booths in the district that have been transformed into small libraries.

One is in Wangsimni Square, one is located in front of the district’s office and another one is located inside a Woori Bank that is situated at the district’s office.

Since they opened in 2012, hundreds of books have been donated for anyone to enjoy. Each booth is currently stocked with approximately 250 publications, and is still welcoming any donations, which can be made by slipping the books inside a postbox located next to the “small library.”

The library runs based on the honor system. Anyone who wishes to read one of the books can freely borrow it without having to write down their name or phone number, according to Seo Yeon-hui from Seongdong District Office.

“There are lots of people who sit and relax in [Wangsimni] Square. Since quite a number of them are parents with their children, we have filled the [library] with many fairy tales.”

Despite functioning on an honor system, books in the library commonly go missing.

“Although most of the books inside the library are donated, sometimes new books are added,” said Seo and continued, “but the majority of them go missing within a month.”

“Even though the principle of borrowing books from this library is reading nearby, there are quite a lot of people that take the books with them and don’t return.”

Despite the good intention of the library booths, however, they either seem to be in the wrong places or are not being managed very well.

When this reporter visited the three booths in Seongdong District last week at around 2 p.m, she couldn’t spot a single person who stepped inside to read.

The kiosk located inside the Woori Bank seemed unnecessary and even a waste of the bank’s space, as the bank is already located inside a building and is equipped with numerous magazines.

The booth in front of the district’s office didn’t seem to have been taken care of for a long time, as the glass and the books were covered in dirt. Also, the fact that the majority of the books on display were published decades ago made the reporter wonder whether they would be able to attract any passersby.

Additionally, the location of the booth, right next to giant rubbish bins, is also unlikely to make the small library appealing to any visitors.

The third and prettiest red-painted library booth in the district located in Wangsimni Square was no better as it was temporarily closed down for reconstruction. When it will reopen was not displayed.



Mini-sized Aquarium

Most people have visited an aquarium at least once, to see thousands of colorful fish gracefully swim behind glass walls. However, not many people outside of those who have visited the COEX Aquarium located in Gangnam District, southern Seoul have ever seen an aquarium made inside of a telephone booth.

The Aquarium developed the idea to create several mini aquariums in unusual spaces with a theme of household appliances.

“The idea was derived after seeing a group of COEX visitors put their hands inside a bathtub to touch the doctor fish that were on display in 2005,” said Seo Yun-seok from COEX Aquarium.

“This idea was realized in a number of ways, including in a TV, a washing machine, a vending machine and finally a telephone booth.”

Since the phone booth aquarium was unveiled, it has been renovated three times in order to keep up with the trend.

“When it was first revealed in 2005, the booth was painted blue-green, which was the standard color of public phone booths across the nation,” explained Seo.

“The color changed to purple in 2007 and the one displayed now is painted red just like [phone booths] in London.”

Along with each remodeling, the fish have also changed. Designs have been replaced to keep a modern taste and a female driver mannequin, which was located inside the booth, has been removed in the newest booth to make it easier for visitors to clearly see the swimming fish.

Currently, there are around 300 fish swimming inside the 2-meter water tank.


BY JIN MIN-JI [jin.minji@joongang.co.kr]

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