Uberdoxy

Say you live in a far-flung suburb or small peripheral locality that your national planning authority established for strategic reasons – a place where public transit is poor or nonexistent. Your country lacks the resources to subsidize transit in your area, at least not to a degree that would make it worth using.

After a while you get sick of driving. Or you can no longer afford to own a car. Or you become physically unable to drive. Or your kids are now teenagers and have transportation needs that you cannot meet on your own.

You could move to a city — say, the one to which you commute daily for work — thereby availing yourself and your children of reasonably efficient, if grungy, public transit. Or you could stay put, and restrict yourself to the very sparse economic and cultural opportunities available within walking distance of your home.

Neither option is acceptable to you. Your suburb/locality has no jobs, only the most rudimentary health services, school only up to Grade 6.You can’t live in this place without a reliable means of getting out of it — daily or even more than daily.

But move to the city? That is even less imaginable. You are not a city person. You need your space. You need your own yard/vegetable patch/farm/adjacent nature reserve. Or perhaps it is ideology that binds you to your isolated enclave. Not for you, the bourgeois amenities of city life. You can express yourself fully and self-actualize only when you are on the vanguard, in that place where others neither wish nor dare to live.

Moreover, you are attached to your community — you cannot give up that concentration of like-minded souls who get you as few would elsewhere, and whom you need around you as others need air (just not living on your quarter-acre). Your specialty tastes and minority orientation can be fully accommodated only where there is a critical mass of people who share your tastes/orientation (and, perhaps, an admissions committee to keep out those who don’t).

What to do?

Suddenly, into the transportation vacuum steps a new, disruptive technology that appears to offer the benefits of mass transit, without the downsides.

No longer are you faced with an array of harsh binary choices: city/idyllic enclave; convenience/personal space; crowded bus/private car; economic opportunity/soul-selected society. Now you can have the best of both worlds, thanks to this new, personalized, on-demand transit mode. You call it, it comes, and it even picks up others along the way, calculating the most efficient route to town by means of an algorithm that earned its creators a billion-dollar exit and a permanent spot on your nation’s Silicon honor roll.

Now, instead of wishing that the laws of geometry or economics would change so that transit to your area could be financially feasible— or that your government’s strategic vision would translate into massive transit subsidies — you start to wonder why public transit on the fixed-route model exists at all. Why shouldn’t city residents use the same kind of flexible, personalized service that you are using?

And you are not alone in these reflections. City residents — the more affluent, anyway — are starting to abandon noisy, crowded public transit for the personalized service. It costs more, but then you get what you pay for.

The reasoning goes like this: fixed-route transit, especially the kind that involves major infrastructures, is anachronistic. It emerged during the 19th century, in a context of industrialization and urbanization; it suited certain conditions of city organization and geography that no longer obtain; we need no longer be bound by it. The old monolithic infrastructures are suffocating us, holding us back. What we need today are flexible, agile and pluralistic transport models that maximize people’s opportunities for individual choice.

***

An issue that comes up in the discussions on open-, hetero-, and post- Orthodox Judaism is the continued usefulness of “Orthodoxy” as a term denoting halachic Judaism, or as a framework for personal and communal Jewish identity.

Orthodoxy, some like to point out, is a 19th century construct that emerged in response to specific historical conditions. Now that times have changed, its rigidities have been laid bare. It no longer serves us optimally. We need no longer be bound by it. What we require today are more flexible, pluralistic frameworks for halachic life, ones that accommodate individual tastes, orientations and aspirations.

This line of reasoning is rooted in, and appeals to, the empathy that anyone with a heart must feel toward those whose tastes, orientations, etc. are not aligned with the mainstream. It underscores the need to accommodate those who feel confined by the longstanding “construct.”

And it goes farther: it questions the construct’s legitimacy.

The analogy between Open Orthodoxy et al. and microtransit is by no means perfect. Still, I thought it might be fun — and possibly illuminating — to see how far the analogy could be stretched.

***

Microtransit has been hailed as transportation’s “missing middle.” However, some downsides have been identified.

Critics have noted that microtransit cannot actually replace fixed-route transit in areas that have already, over time, developed intensively (thanks in great part to the very existence of high-capacity mass transit) and that are already highly networked. Although shared taxis and minibuses are more space-efficient than single-occupant cars, they do not compare to big-vehicle transit. They have already been called out for clogging public roadways and monopolizing street curbs. Moreover, since the vehicles must return to their starting places unoccupied once the rides have concluded, they tend to increase total Vehicle Miles Traveled (emissions, fuel consumption).

Thus, what seems at first to be a quick and agile alternative can, if widely adopted, undermine the entire system. A lot of small-scale “flexible” initiatives do not, together, necessarily make one large public good. Uncontrolled, they can be detrimental to the public good.

Another possible outcome of proliferating microtransit is competition that harms existing public transit. Microtransit poaching of mass-transit ridership and fare revenues could make it much harder for mass transit to operate effectively and to make needed changes in response to changing urban realities.

Cities that were once highly centralized, with a single commercial and employment hub, have expanded and become more polycentric; accordingly, transit systems that were once oriented toward providing service to and from a single center are now restructuring into more equitable grid-like formations that facilitate access from any point in the city to any other point.

This restructuring is a slow, incremental and expensive process. Those who see microtransit as supplanting traditional mass transit would maintain that ride-share services can obviate such restructuring. Those attuned to the spatial and networked realities noted above would say, no way.

Finally: the availability of microtransit and its illusion of a “luxury” commuting option with no downsides could encourage further suburban sprawl— yet more diversion of scarce resources to scattered bedroom enclaves that require duplicate infrastructures and have no economic viability of their own. This would come at the expense of urban infill, which strengthens existing cities and their agglomeration economies.

Is microtransit necessarily bad? No. Critics have hastened to point out the potential benefits of microtransit that works in cooperation with public transit , offering niche services that the large operator cannot provide. It has also been noted that the emergence of microtransit service to previously underserved places can alert municipalities to the existence of demand and to the potential of those places for more intensive development. The trick is to work with the system, not against it.

***

Will “alternative” orthodoxies poach traditional Orthodoxy’s client base? Will a large, slow-to-change but time-tested system be allowed to adapt — to expand its grid — gradually and incrementally? Or will new upstart alternatives aggressively disrupt the change process, draining the demand and the resources needed for that process, and diverting them to inefficient and ultimately unproductive channels? Will the system know how to respond intelligently to the cues relayed by the upstarts, and allocate resources to places worthy of investment?

Time will tell.

About the Author
I am a Jerusalem-based translator and former academic librarian.
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