By ABE SELIG
When Oren Hirsch arrived in Israel last summer, he thought he would be spending a year working with the post-college World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS) program, not tackling the capital's entire transportation system.
And while Hirsch, a 23-year-old with a degree in urban planning from Cornell University, has been actively engaged in WUJS activities since his arrival, it has been an extracurricular activity - creating and posting a comprehensive Jerusalem city bus map online - that has earned him his accolades thus far.
The story begins nine years ago when Hirsch created Oren's Transit Page, the Washington, D.C. area native's Web site that was originally meant to be an online home for his impressive collection of landscape and transportation photography. Indeed, the site continues to serve, in part, as a veritable library of photographs - including skylines, buses and trains - from across the United States, Europe and the Middle East.
But the key addition to the site came with Hirsch's arrival in the capital in July and a subsequent recommendation from a friend that he try to create a map of the confusing web of Jerusalem's myriad bus routes - a step that hasn't been taken by Egged for over 10 years and one that is sorely needed in a city of more than 760,000 people.
While not all Jerusalemites use the city's buses, many capital bus riders nonetheless would likely approach such a task out of sheer frustration with the current lack of information concerning which buses go where and when their routes are changed - a well-known source of chagrin for the city's veteran commuters.
Hirsch, on the other hand, took the project on as a labor of love - an enjoyable and fitting challenge for a bona fide transportation enthusiast.
"Whenever I go to a new city, the first thing I do is check out its transportation system," says Hirsch. "And when I began considering the idea of tackling Jerusalem's bus map, people told me, 'If anyone can do this, it's you.' So I decided to give it a shot."
Hirsch began the mapping process slowly - at nights and on weekends - using the Google Maps and Google Earth applications to pinpoint each bus's route in the city.
"I would put up one bus line a night or so," he recalls. "It took a couple of months to get them all up, and after I finished I posted the link to my transit page."
But it was at that point that another friend made an additional recommendation.
"He said I should start up a Facebook page for the bus map," Hirsch says. "So after the map was finished, I created a Facebook page. That was three months ago and it already has 1,245 members." The page, entitled "Jerusalem Bus Map," bears testament to the almost overnight success enjoyed by Hirsch's project.
"Wow. This is awesome!" a comment from one of the Facebook page's users reads. "Thanks for bringing the bus system into the 21st century."
"I love you, whoever you are," reads another wall post.
"Thank you so much. I hope that Egged Jerusalem recognizes your genius and puts you on the payroll. Have you shown this map to them?"
As a matter of principle however, Hirsch has made his independence from Egged quite clear.
"I've made a point of not including anything related to Egged (except for a link to its Web site) on the transit page," Hirsch says, for the obvious legal reasons.
"That said, I also assume no official responsibility for the information on the site, even though I unofficially stand by it," he says. "It's completely free, and the fact that people are using it and enjoying it means everything to me - I just can't be held accountable for all the route changes and different traffic fluctuations that might come up here and there."
The map itself is quite user-friendly. Visitors simply follow the bus routes they want - or the locations they want to arrive at - by clicking on the various color-coded lines that depict each bus. Users can also turn on and off the routes that are not applicable to their particular journey.
"A lot of this information is already out there," Hirsch says. "But it isn't being provided for the layman."
When the map opens, the first thing users see is a smattering of colored lines and pinpoints depicting all the city's buses, major destinations, points of interest and major streets. However, a quick toggle of the buttons on the left-hand side of the screen can easily reduce the clutter to a custom-made map.
"It's not a trip planner," Hirsch says. "I don't include times on the map, but it will show you which buses go where and how to get from point A to point B."
And that in itself is quite a feat. While others have attempted and even succeeded to detail the maze of bus routes that intertwine throughout the city, Hirsch is the only one to do so free of charge. And he is the first to post his up-to-date, accurate information online - easily accessible for all.
While many commuters have complained in the past about the void Hirsch has now filled, Egged has maintained that the ongoing track work for Jerusalem's light rail has impeded the production of a new bus map because routes are continuing to change.
But Hirsch has taken that risk to heart, and while he stresses that the map shouldn't be relied on as a guaranteed product, he invests his own time scanning the Internet and relying on tips from users to constantly update the routes he's posted.
"Once I know that a route has changed - be it due to light rail work or other reasons - I simply go on and update the changes," he says.
While Hirsch recently added English and Hebrew instructions to the site, he's now weighing options for the future - for the Jerusalem map and possible new maps to come.
"One suggestion that has been given to me is that this might be a niche of sorts," he says. "Maybe there's a demand for contracted mapping, or maybe this will just be a fun thing I've done while I'm here. I've done some other work in transportation in the US, and I'd love to take that forward," says Hirsch.
"And if there's an opportunity out there or a job that comes my way because of this, that would be great. But in the meantime, I'm happy to have provided this service to Jerusalemites. Have I gotten what I wanted out of this project? Definitely. I learned the city's buses and have gotten so much great feedback, that I'm satisfied. It's really been remarkable."
The map and its Facebook page can be found at Jlembusmap.com.
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