The Man Who Closed Times Square to Traffic
By Matt Frassica
Standing along a busy downtown Manhattan street, Mark Gorton lamented all the traffic.
"It's not that cars are inevitable; it's that we've tried really hard to jam these cars in here," said the founder of The Open Planning Project (TOPP), a nonprofit dedicated to transportation reform. On a wall of the nonprofit's office, just north of the vehicular chaos of Canal Street, sprawls a map of Manhattan. To Mr. Gorton, it represents a kind of Platonic Ideal--that of a city designed before the automobile and, therefore, destined for a future in which cars are banished.
"With a little bit of effort, they go away," he went on about the abundance of cars, as if he was up against a deeply dug-in army. "And, actually, congestion goes away, traffic moves better, people move faster, it's safer for kids, it's better for the environment."
Lanky with a head of wiry black curls, the 41-year-old, who also founded the file-sharing service LimeWire and the hedge fund Tower Research Capital, is the Ralph Nader of congestion. He's voluble on the subject, given to dispensing idealistic predictions about Americans forsaking their cars for bikes and buses. Last year's congestion pricing debacle may have proved that New York drivers aren't so sanguine about that prospect.
Still, Mr. Gorton has been right before: The tangible, everyday fruits of his influence, through TOPP and other initiatives, include the pedestrian plazas in the meatpacking district, beside Madison Square Park, and in Herald and Times squares, along with miles of new bike lanes installed since Mayor Bloomberg appointed Janette Sadik-Khan as transportation commissioner. As the mayor decides in the coming months whether to make the Broadway plazas permanent, and the Department of Transportation implements bus-only lanes on First and Second avenues, the streets of Manhattan will continue to be remade Mr. Gorton's way.
Mr. Gorton stood among dozens of Buddha statues a few blocks from TOPP, in the office of Lime Group, his umbrella company. He wore a blue shirt untucked, with its top two buttons undone, and a pair of khaki jeans. He speaks loudly, and when finished with a thought he seems to withdraw slightly, as if surprised by his own vehemence. He seems like the kind of guy you might have bought physics notes from in college. Like many such young men, he went into finance. Like not so many, he was astoundingly successful.
He started thinking about road design 10 years ago, during his harrowing daily bike commute from the Upper West Side to his office. "Almost getting killed a bunch of times really focuses the mind," he said.
In the early 1990s, after getting his M.B.A. from Harvard, Mr. Gorton moved to New York and got a job on the proprietary trading desk at Credit Suisse First Boston. In 1998, he left to start Tower Research Capital, a quantitative hedge fund, with a combination of his own money and contributions from friends and family. After a couple of years, Mr. Gorton discovered that Tower needed faster execution for its trades than any of the electronic brokers could offer. So he started his own, Lime Brokerage. But his heart wasn't in it. "I realized that what I liked was starting the company."
So, in the spirit of the tech boom, he started looking for the next company to start. His main obsession was street design, so he conceived TOPP as a transportation advocacy group in the mold of a software start-up. Getting Americans to give up their cars would be an impossible feat, but by 1999 it seemed like only an insoluble problem could keep Mr. Gorton's attention.
TOPP is a cross between a software start-up and a progressive policy think tank, and is made up of several smaller working groups. One group customizes and provides tech support for open-source mapping software that transit agencies use to keep track of their routes. Another works on applications that make it easier for people to communicate with city agencies-letting cyclists propose sites for bike racks to the city's DOT, for example. Another group produces Streetsblog, an opinionated blog on transportation issues.
Mr. Gorton "has a borderline obsessive sense of urgency," said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group formed in the early 1970s. "He dreams about this stuff. He thinks about this stuff in the shower every day. He's taken with this notion that we can dramatically improve our cities, our quality of life and go a long way toward solving the world's problems along the way."
Under Giuliani and Bloomberg's former transportation commissioner, Iris Weinshall, there was no question that city streets existed for cars alone. Despite installing about 200 miles of bike paths, Ms. Weinshall focused on increasing the efficiency of automobile traffic.
In 2003, TOPP was still a small group of programmers and planners with more ideas than practical know-how. The 30-year-old reform group Transportation Alternatives had a staff full of activists who were veterans of New York's bike-lane wars. According to Mr. Steely White, Mr. Gorton said over lunch that "he was very, very passionate about the cause" and had considerable resources to offer. He soon became Transportation Alternative's largest single source of funding, and now provides one-fifth of its $2.2 million annual budget.
But that funding came with strings. Mr. Gorton wanted a big-picture approach to reform, with an emphasis on livable streets, the idea, widely held among European officials and urban planners, that streets are not just arteries for cars but public spaces to be shared by pedestrians, cyclists and mass transit. He envisioned an larger group called the New York City Streets Renaissance that would publicize these ideas through public events and activist networking.
"He can be kind of a pain in the ass sometimes," Mr. Steely White said fondly. "He has very specific ideas about where the movement needs to go. That can be a little off-putting to some people."
Mr. Gorton hosted events with business improvement district members. He also flew in experts like Danish architect and planner Jan Gehl, and Enrique Peñalosa, who as mayor of Bogata had instituted an annual car-free day.
In 2006, Mr. Gorton launched Streetsblog to push livable streets. "We had this audience of one," said former Streetsblog editor Aaron Naparstek, referring to then deputy mayor for economic development and rebuilding, Dan Doctoroff. "We wanted him to know that New York City transportation policy was really an embarrassment. We were being lapped by London and Paris."
Streetsblog held up European cities' policies-like slower car traffic and bus rapid transit lanes-as examples of best practices. "That's probably been their greatest impact to date," said Jon Orcutt, senior policy adviser for the DOT. "When they go to Europe and they bring back new ideas, we take a look. It just heightens the conversation in general."
Ms. Weinshall resigned in April 2007. Her replacement, Ms. Sadik-Khan, was more sympathetic to livable-streets ideas. She had overseen long-term transportation planning under Mayor Dinkins, and was known for having a reformist policy bent. She brought in top aides from Streets Renaissance. In line with PlaNYC, Mayor Bloomberg's 25-year scheme for managing the city's growth, Ms. Sadik-Khan has started enacting those plazas and bike lanes proposed by Mr. Gorton's campaign.
Gale Brewer, a councilwoman representing the Upper West Side, credits Mr. Gorton with building a constituency for the changes. "Janette did it, but she couldn't have done it without the support of Mark and TA."
Mr. Gorton had produced results, earning him the grudging respect of more veteran activists, according to Mr. Steely White of Transportation Alternatives. "He won over people who initially saw him as a pushy billionaire type."
Inside the DOT, Streetsblog is considered part of the mainstream media, according to Mr. Orcutt. They have been effective at "giving voice to the constituency for these projects when these things are being debated." But even Mr. Gorton finds life difficult without a car-he confessed, sheepishly, to owning a Chevy Suburban, citing his four children. "I recognize it's a sin every time I get into it, but until the world is better planned and there are better transportation options, there's a certain amount of necessity for it."
Still, Mr. Gorton is no limousine liberal, according to Ms. Brewer, who says she often spots him riding around the Upper West Side with his daughters. "He has a bike that fits them all."
Submitted by volunteer on February 8, 2010 - 15:25. categories [ ]