Coming soon to cities everywhere: PPE vending machines

Masks available for purchase in a vending machine in New York. (Nadja Sayej)

Late last month, an unusual vending machine appeared in New York City. Passersby stopped, took photos, and peered into the machine, which is located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, near the Williamsburg Bridge.

It's the first PPE vending machine in New York, a natural move born out of the coronavirus crisis. Wedged between two glass windows of a vacant storefront at 156 Delancey Street, the machine offers KN95-type masks for $4 each.

“There didn’t seem to be a reliable source for this type of mask in the city,” says David Edelman, co-founder of the company behind the machine, RapidMask2Go. “People have mentioned paying $7 to $10 for a mask of equal or lesser quality, so I think the problem has been affordable, reliable access to face coverings”.

Edelman's company plans on rolling out 20 more such machines across the city in the weeks to come, in transit hubs, office towers and entertainment venues. Though the concept may be new to New York, PPE vending machines are in fact popping up in cities across the globe, from Berlin to Beijing.

For Edelman, the idea started when he tried to purchase some masks online that never arrived. He eventually imported a bulk package of masks, gave them to friends, family and neighbors, and then tried to sell the leftovers to local retailers, which didn't work. That led him to consider a vending machine. “I hadn’t seen it done anywhere, so we went for it,” he says.

No special permit was needed to install New York's first PPE vending machine – it’s located on private property, “accessible from a public thoroughfare,” says Edelman, though he notes that future vending locations may require city permits. “We took advantage of our real estate relationships to make use of a vacant corner retail space. Delancey Street has a great deal of foot traffic, even now,” he says.

While the New York City government wasn't involved, companies like Rapid Mask2Go say they are open to a collaboration. “We would welcome a partnership with the city on rolling out these machines,” says Edelman, “ones with options to obtain free masks as a way of getting a no-cost option out there.” 

Face-mask vending machines have common been in Beijing for years, though they were more geared toward air pollution concerns until recently. China’s eastern city of Xuzhou launched a mask machine on 2 March, allowing locals to purchase two N95 masks every day with their ID cards.

On 2 April, 52 vending machines across Vienna’s subway stations were stocked with disposable 3M face masks. A mask machine recently launched in Kyiv, Ukraine, too, as well as in the Czech Republic and the Turkish city of Izmir.

Taipei launched its first PPE vending machine on 10 April, an effort of the local city government, the ministry of health and the central health insurance agency. To align with anti-hoarding efforts, the machines limit the quantity through each person’s health card, which must be swiped for each purchase.  

In Berlin, a mask machine appeared on 27 April, the same day it became a requirement for residents to wear face coverings in public. The machine sits inside the Turmstrasse metro station in the Moabit district.

A new PPE vending machine at the Las Vegas airport. (Courtesy McCarran International Airport).

And airports are also catching on. McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas is the first airport in the US to offer PPE equipment via vending machines. On 13 May, the airport authority installed two machines owned and operated by the California company Prepango, selling hand sanitizer, alcohol wipes and face masks, ranging from $4.25 to $14.50. It's apt timing, considering many airlines have now made it a necessary precaution for passengers to wear masks on flights.

“We want to make sure we have the things people feel confident to fly again,” says Joe Rajchel, a spokesperson for the airport. “Travel is changing, so are travel habits, hopefully this would help.”

Nadja Sayej is an arts and culture journalist based in New York City.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.