Tuesday, April 22, 2008

How Transit Needs To Work In The New York / New Jersey Area

After yesterday's post, I did some reading.  I like reading, especially about transportation services all across the fruited plain.  My favorites, of course, are the local services in NY and NJ - PATH and NJ Transit.  These services are very similar in a number of ways - both have stations in Newark and both have endpoints in New York City (NJT's is New York Penn Station, PATH is about a block away, at 33rd and 6th), both serve Hoboken (PATH requires switching trains in Jersey City's Journal Square, NJT requires either direct from Newark or switching in Secaucus), both happen to be quite cheap (NJT for monthly commuters allows rail tickets to be used as bus passes as well, PATH is good for cheap day or week trips) and both are far beyond the point where the term "overwhelmed" would apply.  

"Grossly unable to handle current or future capacity" would be a more apt description.  Both services are taking steps to combat this, but at this point it's too little, too late.  Yes, the new cars both systems are introducing are very nice, very pretty, and may help offset the capacity issue for the next few months or so, but it's a kid-sized band-aid on a six-inch knife wound.  

Raising fares doesn't help anyone - both services did that recently too, presumably to take advantage of the increase in daily passenger traffic (they know you need to take their train, so they'll stiff you as much as possible).  NJT is the worst offender here - they've had two fare increases in the past four years, while PATH has only recently upped its rates after a nearly eight-year freeze.  

Capacity isn't just a problem on the trains themselves - it's a problem in New York, where almost seven hundred thousand people pour through New York Penn Station from the four major services - NJT, Amtrak, LIRR, and the NYC Subway - and almost three hundred thousand are pouring in on PATH by itself - forget bus travel, because that's a whole other can of worms.  

Think about it this way - when you ride any of the major lines in the area, can you find a seat or are you standing shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers?  Unfortunately, the answer is too often the latter.  Now, don't get me wrong - there's standing room set aside for a reason, but what I mean is that any train coming through Newark, Secaucus, Hoboken or New York at this point is crowded to the point where people are standing in the aisles and the standing room only areas.  On PATH it's even worse - good luck getting onto the train at Harrison Station, a stone's throw from Newark Penn Station, or getting on the Journal Square-33rd Street line after it leaves Journal Square.  

The major carriers in the area have their strengths and their weaknesses, but they are all operating independent of one another.  I'm not proposing lumping everything together - the MTA's flagrant misuse of funds over the past quarter century is proof enough that they shouldn't have any place in NJ's transit systems.  I'm proposing combining the resources of the Port Authority and NJ Transit under one roof.  Right now, NJ Transit is a quasi-governmental body operating under the auspices of the Department of Transportation of the State of New Jersey, while the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is a bi-state agency operating, in many ways, on the federal level, but answering to the governors of the states of New York and New Jersey (who are chairs of the PA's Board of Directors).  With regard to mass transit, the Port Authority has a very minimal footprint (comparitively speaking - PATH stations operate above or below five NYC Subway stations, and the AirTrain system, operated by the PA, operates strictly between Jamaica Station and JFK Airport) in New York, while it has a far more extensive system in New Jersey (the majority of PATH's stations are standalone and in New Jersey, specifically in Newark, Harrison, Jersey City and Hoboken, and AirTrain operates between NJT's Newark Airport stop and the terminals of Newark Airport).  New Jersey Transit's operations are almost exclusively based in New Jersey with the exception of its terminus at New York Penn Station for all but three of its lines (exceptions are Raritan Valley Line, Pascack Valley Line and Atlantic City Line) and its other terminus at Philadelphia's 30th Street Station for the Atlantic City Line.  

For New Jersey, having the PA absorb NJT, or at least their rail operations, makes a lot of sense, and here's why: 

One entity responsible for mass transit throughout the state and with the authority and clearance to take on projects that wouldn't normally make sense for either system on its own (a perfect example is the long-spoken-of PATH extension from Newark to Plainfield - or even just the airport).  The systems could pool their resources with far less red tape and with the combined income from these systems could make parts of either PATH or NJT's systems free at certain times or remove fares entirely.  Ways could be found to combine certain aspects of the systems (adapting Newark Light Rail vehicles for use on PATH's system, or vice-versa) or to establish a uniform train carriage that would work across all covered systems (cars that would work just as well on NJT, NJT LR, PATH systems).  Frankly, I think this would be a good idea - what do you think?  

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Technician's Approach To Political Issues

I went to a desktop built into a stage at NBC several months ago, back when I still worked for them.  A call had come in reporting that the machine was abysmally slow, and that there was a plethora of pop-up windows splashed across its screen where there ought to have been just one or two windows open.  I brought my USB flash drive, full of portable applications and diagnostic tools, and plugged it into the front port.  I launched the two programs that make every technician's life better, Ad-Aware and HijackThis!, and started scans on both.  

Let me take a moment to go a little further into detail on these things, because while another technician would read that and understand and follow me, I want regular people (read: non-geeks/nerds) to be able to understand me.  

HijackThis!, as many techs will tell you, merely looks at all the stuff that's touched Windows recently and left its mark in one way or another - it doesn't tell you whether or not what you're looking at is necessarily good or bad - and what is running, both now and when the system starts up.  If you don't know what you're looking at, it's like sending a suburbanite to a restaurant in a remote Chinese village and asking them to be able to read and understand the menu.  

In 30 seconds.  

While it's difficult to understand for most people, technicians know what to look for - things like MySearchNow or MyWebSearch or AOL.COM Toolbar usually don't belong in here, though they frequently take liberties with your machine and put things where they don't belong and cause problems.  It's like turning the TV on to watch the news and having Brian Williams drag his desk into your apartment and work from there - not really all that helpful and prevents you from getting around your home, just to say you're getting news and alerts directly from Brian Williams himself.  

Yet a lot of people don't realize that's what they do when they install toolbars from search engines (yes, Google included) or "search assistants" or programs like that.  Yes, you're getting a service from this company, but the hassle and load on your system isn't worth it.  

Getting back to the stage computer, HijackThis! finished its scan and came back with about 75 objects.  Sounds like a lot, until you realize that maybe fifty of those are actually required, and the rest aren't.  So we're down to twenty-five and of those twenty-five, ten were installed with "good" programs, and fifteen were installed surrupticiously by toolbars or search assistant programs - "bad" programs.  The ten good listings are OK - they're pulling down some resources but not that many.  It's the fifteen bad listings that I'm worried about - they aren't supposed to be there, and they open up programs that slow down the computer by a significant margin.  There doesn't have to be more than a handful of them - one is usually more than enough - so you probably see how fifteen is a bad thing here.  I cleared out the twenty-five offenders, finished a spyware scan by Ad-Aware which basically did nothing more than clear out the programs associated with those fifteen listings and cleared out the cookies and temporary files Internet Explorer had downloaded to make browsing quicker, and restarted.  

As with any machine that this procedure is done with, the system was immediately quicker and far more responsive.  It was almost as though this was a new computer.  

There are times where I feel as though this procedure would work with government in general - find the crap, filter it out, and watch everything perk back up quickly.  I'm sure something along the lines of HijackThis! would work wonders if it were possible to apply it to the government - we could watch the mighty federal bureaucracy melt away and the economy and free expression bolt upright, ushering our nation into a new golden age.  I want to see a flowchart of our government right now and start snipping off parts that aren't necessary and are ridiculously outdated.  Pruning, basically.  

I'm a firm believer in the concept that government isn't the solution, it's the problem.  Pull the government out of anything and the free market takes over.  For example, let's take the education system here in the US.  Completely unnecessary.  It doesn't take a federal bureaucracy to raise a child - it takes two parents and love and dedication to that child.  Yank out the federal government, allow the private sector to take over education and you'll instantly have a highly educated workforce.  Why? Competition.  Private schools compete now - they'll really dial it up when the government isn't involved.  

I'm not saying that all government services are non-essential and useless - I'm saying that we have a lot of things that we just don't need.  The services provided by NASA, for example, are almost completely unnecessary and being handled by private-sector organizations at this point.  Is it nice to think that the government can send scientists into space?  Sure.  Is it worth using taxpayer dollars?  Nope.  Let the private sector take over - they do a much better job with research anyway.  FEMA is another big example: do you really need an agency to manage the government in an emergency?  Think about that for a second - we already have mayors, state congressmen and state senators, so why do we need the federal government to step in?  If the government wants to supply funds to take care of getting essential services up and running, they can do so independent of local governments.  I'm sure I don't have to say it but the situation after Hurricane Katrina is a perfect example of why FEMA is more of a hinderance than a help.  The entire situation could have been resolved much faster if, pardon the phrase, private businesses and organziations had been allowed to open the floodgates of charity without limit on the area.  As it turns out, though, there are giant portions of the city which sit uninhabitable thanks to the still-existing flood damage in the area.  Contractors from other areas aren't allowed to come in and assist except in a volunteer capacity or under a strict policy where their prices are fixed at a certain point and cannot be raised or lowered.  Supposedly this is to prevent price gouging and to allow common citizens to be able to rebuild.  As I'm sure you realize, government control over markets is a bad thing.  

So let's start on a project.  I'm going to start reviewing government entities and we'll, together, you and I, start removing or reducing those departments or agencies which can be privatized or removed or combined together.  Here are some ground rules, though:

1) We're sticking with the federal level.  States are in some cases more corrupt and more in need of help than the feds (believe me, I live in Northern NJ's largest city and work in NYC - I'm no stranger to political corruption around me), but if you take pressure off the feds, it will trickle down to the states anyway.  

2) Let's keep it nice and happy (or at least neutral) in the comments - no attacks on this politician or that politician.  I will delete your comments and have you blacklisted.  I want this to be an open forum and I strongly believe in and support the right to freedom of speech but I believe more strongly in responsible speech.  If you have a qualm with a particular politician or movement, you and I can communicate via email.  

3) DoD is off-limits.  We're in the middle of a war, so defense/war spending is off the table.   Yes, I know there's a lot of money being spent on the war, but my point in doing this is long-term planning and budgeting.  Even if the war ends tomorrow, we're still going to need to keep our defenses funded and maintain our forces.  There are a million other places we can pull funds from - let's try and find them in the budget and move on from there.  

4) Homeland Security is not off-limits, though scaling back certain operations is not a good idea.  If its operations can be accomplished by using less expensive resources and less overhead, then tell us all how.  

Have at it!