Power Outlets for the People

Thanks to Sandy, New Yorkers have created an informal network of public phone-charging stations. But why did they have to?

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Carlo Allegri/Reuters

New York is in the midst of two energy crises: the old-fashioned, Carter-era gas-shortage kind, and a very Millennial kind, in which personal gizmos are dying as their owners helplessly cradle them.

The fuel emergency is for the officials to solve. But the question of how to revive ebbing smart-phones and iPads in a city where hundreds of thousands remain without power has largely been left to the public. In Midtown Manhattan, where the lights are still on, residents have strung extension cords out to their stoops. A pizza shop made power strips available, whether or not you were buying a slice. Con Edison's 14th Street headquarters opened its doors and its outlets to the public. "Now we're standing around the electrical plugs like cavemen around fire," one iPhone charger told Vice magazine.

It's all very inspiring, if not a little third-world. And it makes you wonder why, in the year 2012, we're still crawling under tables in coffee shops and reaching behind couches in hotel lobbies, searching for outlets meant for vacuum cleaners and lamps, when it's painfully obvious that what people need are convenient, accessible power sources for their many portable devices. "Common sense says that at one point electricity was expensive and unreliable, and you wouldn't just let anybody walk up and use yours, but these small electronic devices use such a small load," says Malcolm McCullough, professor of architecture and information design at the University of Michigan. "Recharging is becoming a basic infrastructural need in cities, like subways or lights."

Few cities have taken steps to facilitate this new reality. John Cassavetes shot his first film, Shadows, on the streets of New York by knocking on doors and asking strangers if he could plug in his lights. Half a century later, with a smart-phone in every pocket, life isn't much different. "Every day, millions of people are finding themselves scurrying about in search of wells of electricity," wrote the New York Times in 2005. Sporadic attempts to solve the problem have fizzled. In 2007, plugfinder.com (now defunct) tried to bring order to the chaos by mapping publicly accessible outlets online. Seattle's alt-weekly The Stranger recently published a similar guide for that city. But these were just tips for semi-legal power-sipping, not proposals for a saner system.

If you assume that the average person doesn't want to steal power from a lamppost (or have to buy a coffee from Starbucks when all they really need is juice for their laptop), a more cohesive network makes sense. Earlier this year, New York took a baby step in this direction, installing 42 electrical outlets throughout Bryant Park, making it the first fully-wired public park in America, according to the city. As of now, there are no plans to expand the initiative, despite its getting raves from the park's visitors -- one woman told the Daily News it gave her "a sense of security, running around the city, to know that you can charge your phone."

The low cost of electricity may be why corporations have been equally slow to get in on the game -- installing the hardware costs money, and how much will people really pay to charge their phone on the fly? A company called goCharge tried to solve this problem by putting 50 kiosks in New York bars last year, most of them offering a free phone charge in exchange for looking at ads for tequila. It's a very Bloombergian model, like the city's forthcoming Citibank-sponsored bike-share system. But the kiosks are awkward and ugly, more suited to bars and airports (which have had them for years) than parks and sidewalks. And the less conspicuous ones, without the ads, which cost two to three dollars per phone charge, only get about one-tenth as much use as the free ones, says goCharge founder Paul King.

"Ideally a city would call us and say, 'Let's put these all around town,'" says King. "That hasn't happened yet." He says New York briefly expressed interest in a pilot program, but "nothing has come to fruition."

If cities are to install public outlets that cost the taxpayer nothing and don't have advertising plastered all over them, they might need to look beyond the outlet itself. Sony is developing technology that would identify the user of the device being plugged into any public outlet, and charge their credit card automatically for the use of that power source. Not surprisingly, not everyone is in love with the idea. "Just what I've always wanted: the ability to hinder even the most ubiquitous convenience in modern civilization," wrote one commenter on a story about the prototype.

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But while electricity may be ubiquitous, running through virtually every urban surface, it's already hindered by a lack of access points, a dilemma that cities oddly choose to ignore. "More flexible electricity infrastructure will be a positive development, especially if it shifts focus away from cities designed to facilitate the circulation of personal automobiles and toward cities designed to circulate humans and their gadgets," wrote Zack Denfeld in his 2007 graduate thesis that laid out the plans for plugfinder.com. Five years later, little has changed. As wifi hotspots multiply and the work-from-anywhere lifestyle goes mainstream, the missing piece of the puzzle remains both all around us and just out of reach.

Top image: People stand around a table that a store placed outside with power bars for cell phone charging, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in New York on Nov. 1. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

About the Author

  • Will Doig's work has appeared in New York, Men's Journal, The Daily Beast, Salon, The Advocate, Out, and Highlights for Children. He lives in New York.