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MTA names 19 finalists in its 'genius' transit challenge

The contestants could win $1 million in prize money and serious influence over the subway’s future

This past June saw F train passengers stuck in a sardine-packed, overheated subway car for close to an hour, the violent derailment of an A train in Harlem, and eventually, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s declaration of a state of emergency for the subway.

Though the MTA has put out its own emergency action plan for the subway, the agency also launched a Genius Transit Challenge, an open contest soliciting ideas for ways to fix the transit system’s crumbling infrastructure. Now, 438 submissions from 23 countries later, the MTA has announced the 19 finalists who are in the running to win up to $1 million in prize money and the opportunity to significantly influence and improve the New York City subway system.

“Ultimately, this competition is about identifying technologies that can deliver more capacity and throughput in the subway system,” MTA chief development officer Janno Lieber said in a statement. “Having been so involved with the competition for the past six months, I am confident that ideas that have been submitted can and will play a key role in delivering New York a 21st century subway system‎.”

The finalists submitted solutions to three proposed challenges pertaining to modernizing the subway’s signal system, deploying modernized cars, and increasing system communications infrastructure. The vast majority of finalists are established corporations—AECOM, Alstom, and Nokia among them—and include Transit Wireless, which has an exclusive, 27-year contract with the MTA. There are also two individuals in the running, Robert James and Craig Avedisian.

For the first challenge, “Modernize New York City’s Subway Signal System,” most finalists proposed different ways to bring the subway’s aging Communications-Based Train Control (CBTC) system into the 21st century with “smart,” cloud-based technology or, in one proposal, in-train augmented reality devices.

For instance, AECOM proposed “Genie,” which it describes as an “artificial Intelligence transit advisor” that would mine subway data for insight—“the location of trains, flows of customers, incidents, weather, and other data”—and then help dispatchers decide where to make adjustments in service.

Finalists for Challenge 2, “Rapidly Deploy Modernized Subway Cars to the Subway System,” focused on the MTA’s aging fleet of cars. One of the individual finalists, Craig A., had a wonky proposal: add up to four cars to trains, which would then perform something like skip-stop service where not all passengers can exit at every station. This would, in theory, “increase both train capacity and passenger comfort.”

Another contestant had the MTA commissioning lighter trains with shorter vehicle lives—they would be replaced every 20 years instead of 40, but would be less costly in the long run.

The final challenge, “Increase Communications Infrastructure in the Subway System,” is the most technical of the three, and finalists submitted a range of ideas including a semi-automatic robotic system capable of installing a communications network and various alterations on how to increase wireless service in the subway network.

A matter of hours after the announcement of the finalists, the New York Times published its own list of suggestions for fixing the subway, identifying many of the same issues, including the ancient signal system and the need for upgraded subway cars.

In part due to the obviousness of the issues at hand, not all MTA board members were in support of the Genius Challenge, including Veronica Vanterpool (who was nominated by Mayor Bill de Blasio. “It is a crushing amount of debt,” she told the Times in May, regarding her belief that the MTA should not take on further debt to source proposals.