National News

An Einstein for the Subways? A Lawyer Suggests a ‘Genius’ Fix

Posted January 14, 2018 4:26 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — It has been about a month since Craig Avedisian was declared an almost-genius, a finalist in a “genius challenge” contest with a $1 million prize. Whatever else is going on in the right and left hemispheres of his brain, the designation has not sunk in yet, he said.

“Here’s a guy, a solo lawyer, who thought he had an idea, and I got this far,” he said. “It was David versus Goliath, and David got heard. That’s the essence of it.”

Avedisian, 54, is not one of those a disheveled-looking Nobel Prize types who has tramped around an Ivy League campus the way Albert Einstein or John F. Nash Jr., of “A Beautiful Mind,” did. He is tallish and looks trim in a dark suit, a crisp white shirt and a carefully knotted tie. A commercial litigator, he lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

Unlike Beethoven, he does not complain of a “wretched existence.” Nor does he have Beethoven’s maladies — no abdominal pain, digestive trouble, chronic bronchitis, repulsive body odors or bad breath. And of course Beethoven had the hearing problem.

Avedisian’s hearing is fine.

Other measures of exceptionalness? He said he did not know his IQ. He said he had a B average in law school.

But then, he is only an almost-genius. For now. Maybe he will win the contest and become a full-fledged genius.

He reached his current status because of an idea he submitted when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced the “genius challenge” last summer, a few days after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo declared a state of emergency for the city’s failing subway system. By the agency’s count, Avedisian’s was one of 438 entries from 23 countries.

The “genius challenge” has 11 judges, including Joseph J. Lhota, chairman of the transit authority, and Patrick J. Foye, the president. But like the No. 2 train on a bad morning, the “genius challenge” is behind schedule. The authority said when it announced the contest that it would name the finalists last October and the winners by the end of 2017.

It took until last month to narrow the field and release the names of 19 finalists in three categories. Most of the finalists were large companies like Alstom, a manufacturer of the R160 subway cars that passengers have been riding since 2006.

Avedisian and Robert James were the only individuals among the finalists, and the authority has not said when it will name the winners. The authority said James’ idea involved combining two technologies to keep tabs on where trains are. This would help control things up and down subway lines.

As for Avedisian, he said his idea could expand capacity on subway trains by 40 percent on average and by 65 percent on some trains. He called it “simple” and “user-friendly.”

He was ready when the transit authority held a conference about the genius challenge last June. In fact, he said, he was practically the first person through the door at the Hammerstein Ballroom in midtown Manhattan.

“I was in the middle of the front row” in the section for ordinary attendees. Only “the preferred-seating people” in front of him were closer to the stage, he said, adding that he found the presentations, aimed at professional transit types, “intimidating.”

“You felt like you were in there with the heavy hitters,” he said, “and you wonder whether you’re up to it.” Einstein once declared, “If everybody lived a life like mine, there would be no need for novels.” Avedisian could say the same thing.

Captivated by flying as a child, he earned his private pilot’s certificate the summer after high school, attended Florida Institute of Technology and graduated in three years. By 19, he was a multi-engine, instrument-rated pilot, eligible to charge passengers for flying them around.

But when it came to settling on a career, he decided there was not enough real piloting involved. “We were told, ‘Nobody flies above 10,000 feet, they’re all on autopilot. You’re a glorified backup,'” he recalled. “Whatever romance was left in commercial aviation, the jet engine killed.”

He was not interested in stunt flying or becoming a military pilot, so he abandoned aviation and found a job managing a branch of a courier company in Silicon Valley. Jobs at a consulting firm that handled transportation planning issues and at another trucking firm followed.

Then it was on to law school at Boston University and a summer job as a volunteer law clerk, drafting opinions for administrative law judges from the National Transportation Safety Board. “None of the judges were pilots,” he said. “I understood the facts better than they did, no offense. They said they wanted to hire me on a paid basis during law school.” So they did, and also after he finished law school.

The slowest part of a conversation with Avedisian is the tell-us-all-about-it part, because he will not discuss details of his idea for the subway while the contest is still going on.

The transit agency said he was a finalist in a category called “Rapidly Deploy Modernized Subway Cars to the Subway System.” (The other categories involve modernizing the antiquated signal system and improving the communications infrastructure.)

The transit authority said Avedisian had proposed “adding up to four cars to trains currently in operation to increase both train capacity and passenger comfort.” The agency said Avedisian’s longer trains would stop at every station, but not every car would open. “Some cars at the front and back of a train will not platform at every station,” the authority said, “but generally will platform at alternating stations.”

In plainer terms, using an existing 10-car train as an example, the first four cars would open at one station, leaving the last four beyond the platform with the doors closed. At the next station, the train would in effect overshoot the platform, allowing the last four cars to reach the platform and open while the first four stayed shut. Six cars in the middle would open on the platform at every stop.

Such an arrangement could be disconcerting, at least until passengers figured out which ends of the train open at which stops.

He is unfazed. “I believe nothing else comes close to what this can do,” he said.

He mentioned “the money they’re not going to have to spend” by not excavating new tunnels, laying new tracks and building new stations. He acknowledged that it would not expand the subway geographically. “But the good thing is, if ridership patterns change, you can shorten the trains,” he said. “This is a very flexible idea.” As for his competitors in the “genius challenge,” he said, “They’re coming at it as companies.”

“If you’re Bombardier, this is what they do,” he said. “I come at it with a total blank slate, with one idea: Make the subway better. That’s it. I don’t have teams of people behind me, and resources.”

Geniuses tend to have lots and lots of ideas — Thomas Edison obtained more than 1,000 patents in this country, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote more than 600 compositions. Avedisian said the idea that made him a finalist was not the only one he had submitted. He would not discuss the details, except to say that the one in the finals was the less creative one.

“In retrospect,” he said, “it is the one that’s more beneficial and more practical.”