Mark Gorton is a seasoned entrepreneur and business leader. His eclectic background includes a career in finance, an education in electrical engineering, and the founding of a series of financial and technology companies, including the peer-to-peer file sharing program LimeWire. These days, Gorton is best known as an advocate for livable streets, alternative transportation and open government.
Gorton’s involvement with urban issues began in 1999, when he founded OpenPlans, a non-profit devoted to the pursuit of smart planning and civic engagement through media and digital tools. Since then, he has helped launch the New York City Streets Renaissance Campaign, which advocates for a more dynamic use of public space, and the online media outlets Streetsblog, Streetfilms and Gotham Schools.
Last week, Gorton took me on a walk through the Flatiron District to talk about cars, people and the future of New York City. He painted a picture of a New York free from car dependency, in which both policy and the design of our streets give priority to people, social vitality and safety. (Look back at this 2009 Omnibus feature on Ulrich Franzen’s 1969 short film “Street” to see another bold vision of how to reclaim our congested streets.) Read on to hear Gorton’s thoughts about the largely car-free city he has envisioned and how it can come to be. —A.R.
In 1999, you founded OpenPlans, a non-profit organization that uses technology to improve the way that cities and citizens interact. How and when did you start moving towards transportation reform specifically?
Five years ago, nobody was talking about transportation in NYC. It was a non-issue. There was this sense that New York is a big city, it has a lot of traffic, so what?
We consciously launched an agenda to raise awareness of different policy options. We started Streetsblog and Streetfilms. We formed something called the New York City Streets Renaissance Campaign and talked a lot about the potential of Bus Rapid Transit, programs like Summer Streets and bike lanes. We initially focused on leaders at the Department of Transportation (DOT), the mayor and other transportation policymakers, and we were very effective within that circle.
Now, thanks to the work of the DOT, people have seen change on the ground. It’s no longer theoretical. So all the people who couldn’t be bothered for years are taking notice. Whether it’s in The New York Times, The New York Post, on CBS News or amongst people in neighborhoods, there is a citywide debate about what we should do with our streets and people understand that there are policy alternatives.
So now that the current administration is supportive of your work and many of your initiatives have been enacted, how do you engage with transportation reform today?
The main point that I’m trying to make now is that cars are bad for New York and that the incorporation of the automobile into the fabric of the city was a big mistake. I want people to question, at the most fundamental level, the role of the car in the city.
Through both street design and policies, our city is programmed for driving and for maximum automobile throughput. But the needs of people and the needs of the automobile are completely different. The automobile asks for very simple, straight, distraction-free — people-free — places. Activity in a human context, at a human speed, won’t work with cars flying by.
Streets used to be safe places for kids to play, places where neighbors would gather. Now we have this definition of the street that was essentially promulgated by the automobile industry and the oil industry, in which cars dominate and people are considered only when absolutely necessary. It’s been incredibly pathological and as a result we have a much worse city than we could have otherwise. The automobile industry has been happy to tell people that the car is about freedom. It’s not about freedom for me. It’s an oppressive burden on my kids and my family.
Why do you think people are so protective of cars?
There are a number of reasons. First of all, I think there’s just an inherent bias towards the status quo. Most people are inherently resistant to change. Also, our society has been indoctrinated to see cars as exciting, fun and sexy, not dangerous, selfish, rude and annoying. Most people think that if they drive around and don’t crash into somebody, they haven’t done any harm. But much of the damage done by the automobile is social harm, invisible harm that degrades our neighborhoods and makes the city unpleasant and dangerous.
Donald Appleyard, a professor at UC Berkeley, did a series of studies on the societal impact of traffic. He looked at three streets in San Francisco, similar in every way possible except for how much traffic passed through. He found that people who lived on the lightly-trafficked street had more friends than those who lived on the heavily-trafficked street. 3.0 friends per person versus .09. The same went for acquaintances, people in heavily-trafficked areas had fewer. He also tracked where people congregated and how they engaged with their surroundings. He then asked the residents to draw their “home territory.” On the heavily-trafficked street, people drew their apartment building or maybe a piece of the sidewalk in front of their building. On the lightly-trafficked one, people included their entire street. At a certain level, Appleyard showed that traffic destroys people’s social connections with their neighbors and friends. [Watch a Streetfilm on Appleyard’s study below. -Ed.]
So is the primary challenge to change the discourse? What comes after that?
This is going to be a decades-long process. There are a number of things we have to do. A lot of people assume that the car is important, essential and properly used. Therefore, if there’s not enough space to park, you need to create more parking. If there’s not enough road space, you should create more road space. That’s essentially what the story of the 20th century was. Sidewalks were narrowed, parking was added, the city became more friendly to cars and more hostile to people. But all of those efforts still failed to make the car work in New York City. The automobile does a bad job as a transportation technology in the city because it’s so spatially inefficient.
We want to communicate an alternative vision. We’re talking about changes that will get people out of their cars, that will make it difficult and expensive to drive. Of course, some drivers just don’t want to get out of their cars. And some people don’t want to consider alternatives, because it forces them to question their own behavior, to accept that every time they get in their car, they somehow, in some small way, harm their neighbors and use an unfair share of the scarce public space of the city. They don’t see how change can give us healthier children, improved social activity and a better economy.
What is your alternative vision? Do you want to completely eradicate cars?
I don’t want to eradicate cars, but I think we could reduce them by 90%. The automobile is one of the most significant technologies in this country, but it is fundamentally misused. Capable, healthy people should not be driving within the city at all. Any trip that you make on a regular basis, whether it’s going to school, work or the grocery store, should be possible without driving a car. Automobile trips should be limited to those where people are leaving the city or the occasional trip that requires a vehicle, such as carrying cargo.
The remaining traffic, whether it be automobile or truck, could be concentrated in space and time. Some streets could be fully pedestrianized and some could be auto-oriented. Maybe a street allows traffic from 6am until 10am, but then from 2pm until 5pm, when kids get out of school, auto access is radically reduced. You can concentrate the harm onto the auto-oriented streets and free up more space to be beautiful, peaceful and safe.
I think 20% of the streets in Manhattan alone could be fully pedestrianized, with no cars, buses or bikes. We should have a comprehensive network of pedestrian streets. Broadway, for the whole length of Manhattan, could be fully pedestrianized. On the east side, maybe Lexington Avenue. We could do that.
This is also good for business. Kalverstraat, a fully-pedestrianized street in Amsterdam, has the highest retail rents in all of Holland. Here in New York, the street with the highest retail rents outside of Manhattan is Brooklyn’s Fulton Street on Fulton Mall — which has no cars. No one wants to live on a street that’s choked with a lot of nasty traffic. No one wants to work, shop or eat dinner on a street that’s polluted, loud, dangerous and unpleasant. Automobiles are bad for business.
Property owners are one of the constituencies we want to reach. The easiest way to increase property value in the city is to get rid of cars on the street. When the real estate industry realizes that, we’ll start to see more change.
Of course, the transportation dynamics in Manhattan are different from those in eastern Queens or parts of the Bronx. There are neighborhoods in which getting rid of cars simply doesn’t work. But things can be done in every neighborhood. It’s just a question of engaging the residents and finding how they want their streets to be.
You say that automobiles are bad for business, but what about car-dependent businesses, necessary truck traffic or the taxi industry?
Yes, I want to be sure to distinguish between truck traffic and automobile traffic, because you certainly need freight delivery, garbage trucks, things like that – though I think with conscious effort we can probably improve efficiency and reduce truck trips by 30-50%.
But there are very few auto-dependent businesses, particularly in Manhattan. Restaurant and store owners worry that their patrons won’t be able to show up without their cars. They will, they’ll just be using different means to get there. The idea that people need to drive to go shopping is simply not true. Only 6% of shopping trips in the central business district of Manhattan are done by car.
That’s not to say there aren’t losers if there are fewer cars – parking garages, auto-parts supply stores, there are businesses directly related to vehicles. But in New York there is always a process of creative destruction in the economy. And the alternative is endangering our children and having an obesity epidemic because people can’t live an active lifestyle.
The taxi industry is more of a grey area. Cabs produce noisy, dangerous traffic. But in some ways taxis complement the public transit system. They make cars available for people who need to use them without relying on private ownership. There are also options like car sharing. We’re not talking about banning cars, we’re talking about making them available for the rare trips where people really need them.
What else needs to be done in order to make your vision a reality?
We need to improve our buses and expand Bus Rapid Transit. Buses are much more spatially efficient than cars. And the surface route infrastructure is mostly there. The select bus service routes that New York City has already put into place have increased bus speeds by 20% and that number can definitely increase. But it takes funding, innovation and willingness to dedicate road space to bus-only lanes.
We also need to take the bicycle seriously as a transportation technology. Other big cities do: in Tokyo, 20% of all trips are carried by bicycle; Osaka 25%; Berlin 13%; Amsterdam 40%; Copenhagen, 37%. Without much difficulty, we could see 20-25% of all trips in New York being taken by bicycle, which would reduce congestion, increase mobility and make the city safer and more livable. But right now, our street network is implicitly hostile to the bicycle. And it’s unreasonable to expect people to take their lives in their hands just to get around, so they’re going to resort to other alternatives. The city has begun to take steps to make our streets safer but we still have a long, long, long way to go.
In some ways this is a generational issue. The automobile used to be a symbol of progress and economic might. But it doesn’t represent the future anymore. Now it’s part of this nasty, mechanized, dystopian world that we have to deal with.
How does your work with participatory planning come in to all of this?
In order to achieve significant change in how the city behaves, you have to engage the public as deeply as possible. People have to understand why this in their own self-interest. I’m talking about creating a process where people come together and decide how they really want their streets to function. Do we want them to be thoroughfares for people outside the neighborhood or places for our children to play
Do you see a role for the recent crop of web-based, interactive, democratic tools, like ChangeByUs or SeeClickFix, in doing what you’re talking about?
Software and internet tools definitely have a role to play in this participatory democracy, because they can help disseminate information and create a forum in which to build social consensus for change. Each of the tools you mentioned is good for what they do. But to really see change, I think we need more government agencies deploying them. Because the government controls the streets. It doesn’t matter how many people join a group or “like” something on Facebook, that doesn’t change government policy.
But if we can integrate these tools into a public input process and get the DOT to adopt them, there’s significant potential to galvanize communities. A lot of people feel that they aren’t being asked about changes made to their streets. New York is a huge city, and the only mechanism the DOT has to gather input from communities — Do you want a bench here? Do you want to put in a loading zone? Do you want that intersection daylighted? — is to have its staff facilitate tens of thousands of local dialogues, which is impossible. As a result, that happens only in a rare handful of circumstances
What’s your strategy moving forward? Are you still focusing your advocacy efforts on policymakers?
The strategy now is to try and engage with and talk to the media and the thought leaders in the city. We’ve been faced with a lot of knee-jerk reactions against change. It amazes me how thoughtless a lot of coverage in the media is on this topic. Many reporters who don’t know anything about transportation show up to cover these issues — and much of the media drives around the city as they cover it, which gives them a very windshield-oriented perspective. The Posthas been particularly awful. CBS news too. So what I’m trying to do now is to speak more publicly about these things, to reach both the media and a broader audience.
Will you continue to work with smaller groups or do you want to focus on changing the way the big outlets cover the topic?
It’s a combination. We’ve been working through the more niche-oriented media channels for the last five years, and we’ve made great progress. But to take it to the next level and get people all over the city who are now seeing the changes on their street to understand what these changes are for, why they should want them, and why they should ask for more, then we have to talk to them through the media that they’re used to consuming.
A lot of people feel that they aren’t being asked about changes made to their streets. I want people to understand that the automobile is a flawed technology for our city and that we need change. I want them to see the positive things that can happen if they embrace that change. I want my street to be safe for my kids so they can play. And I’m not content to wait for that. I want it to happen now.
Interview conducted by Alicia Rouault.