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Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Metropolitan Transportation Authority

The MTA reveals the 19 best ideas for fixing the subway

Written by
Rebecca Fontana

Is the solution for the NYC subway finally here? In May, the MTA announced a competition to source ideas for reconstructing the garbage fire known as the NYC subway system. So far this year there’s already been a Suicide Squad and an emergency plan to repair it, but one more attempt couldn’t hurt, right? Called the Genius Transit Challenge, this competition offers $1 million to each winning solution in three categories. There was a total of 438 submissions when the application deadline arrived in August, and now, they have been narrowed down to the final 19 finalists.

The competition was divided into three challenges: First, procure a golden dragon egg—no, wait; that’s not right. First, modernize NYC’s subway signal system. Second, rapidly deploy modernized subway cars, and third, increase communications infrastructure. 

To no one's surprise, many of the submissions came courtesy of big-name corporations like Alstom and Nokia. (A subway system built by Nokia sounds like not the best idea to anyone who was stuck with one of their phones instead of a BlackBerry back in 2006.) However, two individual people did manage to secure a position in the finals, Robert James and Craig Avedisian. 

In the first challenge, most participants proposed using cloud technology to transmit signal information, instead of the current system, which is telegraphs and smoke signals, judging from the transit service we’ve had recently.  Infrastructure company AECOM proposed utilizing artificial intelligence to track everything from train locations to weather and communicate with subway dispatchers. Alstom proposed ridding the subway of its middleman, the wayside signaling system, and having the trains talk to each other directly instead. (It wasn’t the only one to propose this—in fact, it’s fairly ridiculous that NYC’s subway still has such an old-school signaling system instead of smart trains.) 

For the second challenge, one of the individual entries, Avedisian's, was an interesting suggestion for modernizing subway trains: Add up to four cars that don’t necessarily stop at every station. (So if you’re riding a train for, say, 10 stops from Greenwich Village to Astoria, you can hide in the back and stop being one of those people who block the subway doors when you’re not getting off anytime soon.)

Another interesting idea comes from railroad manufacturer CRRC MA, which suggests moving to a shorter train lifecycle. It suggests that retiring trains after 20 years instead of after 40 years will actually be cheaper in the long run, since cars could then be lightweight and have the latest technology (and there wouldn’t be old subway cars in constant need of repair). 

For the third challenge, the infrastructure one, there were multiple pitches of creating a LTE network just for the subway. Doing so would bring Wi-Fi to the subway tunnels (not just the stations), assist with signaling and provide new opportunities for digital advertising. There was also the suggestion of letting robots run the subway, because that totally won’t lead to an apocalyptic uprising of an army of battle droids. 

If you want to check out the full list of ideas by the finalists, it's right here. (Please do pay attention to the names of the proposals, which range from “Acorn—Autonomous Car Operating Rail Network” to “The Big B,” since there were apparently no guidelines for choosing a title, hilariously.) 

In the next step in the competition, the 19 finalists will live in a mansion with Governor Cuomo handing out roses to the ideas he likes the most each week. For real, though, the winners will be announced by the MTA in the first quarter of 2018. There is no start time yet for the project itself, because of course there isn’t. 

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