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Where is it OK to siphon power?

There are a few unassailable rules even in the developing field of smartphone etiquette: Don’t use your phone in a movie theater. Limit use at the dinner table. Don’t walk and text. Do not, under any circumstances, hop onstage at a Broadway play to charge your iPhone.

But as Techdirt points out, we’re still struggling to suss out the finer points, including which power outlets are fair game for phone charging. London Evening Standard reported that a man was recently arrested on the London Overground for plugging his smartphone into a train outlet. The charge? “Abstracting electricity.” (He was subsequently “de-arrested” for this offense but “further arrested for unacceptable behavior.”) According to Transport for London, on-board sockets are clearly designated for “cleaners’ use only.”

What if the power outlets aren’t marked? Does that mean you can juice up with abandon? Not necessarily. The laws on electricity theft vary widely, and depending on where you live—and how zealous cops choose to be—you could risk a fine or arrest. In 2012, a homeless man in Sarasota was arrested for charging his phone in a public park. In 2014, three people were arrested and charged with theft of utilities when they plugged into Los Angeles Metro power outlets. (The mayor later ordered a halt to these arrests.) New York City’s utility, Con Edison, “can extract back bills, large fines, and, in extreme cases, press felony charges” against electricity thieves, according to a New York Times report.

A resourceful New Yorker taps into a lamppost to charge her phone. (Paul Kostabi / EV Grieve)

Some cities are designing for smartphone users, instead of hounding them. New York and London are converting old pay phones into free charging stations, and Montreal offers a charging dock in the Lionel-Groulx Metro station. But more needs to be done to accommodate the growing demand for on-the-go power. As architecture professor Malcolm McCullough told CityLab in 2012, “recharging is becoming a basic infrastructural need in cities, like subways or lights.”

It’ll be a while before our cities become fully mobile-friendly. In the meantime, here’s a recap of where you can charge your phone: Airports—yes. Trains—if you’re feeling lucky. Broadway—absolutely not.

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