Number of roadside call boxes dwindling as use declines in Bay Area 

Like acid-washed jeans, Starter jackets and public appearances by Herman Cain, the Bay Area’s highway call boxes are becoming an increasingly rare sight.

The number of regional roadside assistance phones has already shrunk by one-third in the past decade, and those totals could dwindle by 25 percent more in the next five years.

Click on the photo at right to see the dwindling numbers of roadside call boxes.

Established in 1990, the Bay Area’s bright yellow call boxes have been a safe haven for stranded motorists in the past. The phones connect travelers with a 24/7 call center, which helps dispatch everything from tow trucks to ambulances, depending on the circumstances.

But with the advent of cellphones and other emergency call centers, usage of the roadside boxes has dropped significantly, and now the agency that oversees the program is proposing to slash the service in a cost-saving move.

Currently, there are 2,200 call boxes located on Bay Area highways, ranging from heavily used thoroughfares such as U.S. Highway 101 to rural parts of freeways such as state Route 35. By the end of next year, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the region’s lead transportation agency, wants to reduce the number of boxes to 1,800. By 2016, the MTC plans on reducing that number further, to 1,650. Overall, the reduction will save $1.9 million over the next decade.

As recently as 2001, the MTC was recording about 98,000 calls a month from the boxes, but by 2010 that had dropped to 19,500 — an 80 percent decrease. Now, less than one phone call is made a month at an average call box, and that total is even smaller when prank calls are left out.

“The numbers just aren’t there to support a lot of these call boxes in heavily urban areas,” said MTC spokesman John Goodwin.

The MTC’s plan calls to remove every other call box in the region’s urban areas. Reduction in rural zones will be limited.

Officer Tony Tam of the California Highway Patrol said the call boxes are still useful tools on lesser-used highways.

“If you’re in a rural area and you don’t have a cellphone, it’s going to be a while before someone comes by to help you,” Tam said. “Call boxes can be a huge help in those scenarios.”

He said that on busy highways, the CHP would actually prefer stranded motorists to stay in their cars and use their cellphones — if they have one — to call for assistance. Going out to use call boxes on the shoulder of a heavily used freeway is hazardous, Tam said.

Today the MTC’s Operations Committee will vote on recommending the removal of call boxes. If approved, it could get final authorization at the full MTC board at a later date.

wreisman@sfexaminer.com

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Will Reisman

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