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Photo by Harry Zernike
Mark Gorton in TribecaMark Gorton, photographed near his office in the Tribeca neighborhood, New York City.
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Photo by Harry Zernike
Mark Gorton in Tribeca OfficeMark Gorton at work in his Tribeca office.
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Photo courtesy of Clarence Eckerson Jr.
Clarence Eckerson Jr. and Mark GortonClarence Eckerson Jr. interviews Mark Gorton in October 2006.
Mark Gorton in Tribeca
Mark Gorton in Tribeca Office
Clarence Eckerson Jr. and Mark Gorton
"Cars are mostly unnecessary," said a voice on the phone from Manhattan. “They’re dangerous and unsustainable, destroy public spaces, endanger citizens, and breed feelings of entitlement and tribalism. If we want to live in dense, healthy, inclusive cities, we need to reduce speed limits, stop building roads, and ban private car ownership. They spent 100 years trying to cram the car into the city, only to realize it was physically impossible. And when you try to do physically impossible things, you get some dysfunctional outcomes.”
For a moment, I wondered if I had the right number since I had arranged to interview a financial-trader-turned financier, and I don’t know too many Wall Street types who opine with such vehemence about the motorcar. But the man on the other end of the line assured me that I was speaking to the right person: sustainable-transportation advocate Mark Gorton.
“I never expected to become a sustainable-transportation advocate,” admitted Gorton, founder of OpenPlans, a nonprofit group dedicated to improving cities through technology, planning, and community engagement. OpenPlans is the legal entity behind open-source mapping software OpenGeo, public education news source GothamSchools, and multimedia transportation-advocacy projects Streetfilms and Streetsblog.
But before getting to know Gorton the advocate, it’s worth getting to know Gorton the businessman.
Gorton lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. At the Tribeca office he was calling me from, he spends his days immersed in the world of finance, math, and strategy. He holds multiple degrees, in engineering and business, from the likes of Harvard, Stanford, and Yale. He first gained pop-culture notoriety with his peer-to-peer file-sharing client LimeWire, a platform that had a large user-base until it was shut down in 2010 by a federal-court injunction. During this same time, Gorton was growing Tower Research Capital – which he founded after leaving Credit Suisse – into a company of 300 engineers, economists, mathematicians, and programmers, all focused on coming out on top in the risky business of high-frequency stock trading.
And Gorton the advocate? He emerged only after the businessman got fed up with his dangerous bicycle commute.
Gorton continued: “You would never swing a baseball bat two inches from someone’s face, but you have no problem driving two inches from them in a car going 30 miles per hour (48 kilometers per hour), which is way more dangerous. If you cycle around New York City, on the streets of Midtown, it doesn’t take too long before you’re almost killed a few times. And that really sensitizes you to how the streets are programmed. Our streets aren’t just a little wrong; they’re completely wrong.”
Gorton’s next move was to give me a history lesson about city streets. As Gorton sees it, the problem with city streets dates back to the Roaring Twenties, a period marked by sustained economic prosperity in many metropolitan centers, New York City included. Along with giving us some American literary classics, brooding expats of the Lost Generation – the generation that came of age during World War I – also gave us the US automobile industry, which immediately began mass-producing millions of private automobiles and letting them loose on our streets and roads. And with this automobile production came a glut of road construction projects.
By the time World War II came to an end, it had become clear that trying to squeeze countless motorcars onto the streets of rail-oriented cities had created a floor-space problem – one made worse by returning soldiers, who were crowded into a limited housing supply. Officials of the day responded with calls for a building boom, which, in turn, led to the prefabricated suburbia of the American Dream. New homes and new lives centered on daily use of the automobile.
Gorton explained that this freshly minted way of life was gradually cemented into the American psyche by relentless advertising campaigns from a booming car industry. “They were completely successful. This is the idea that came to dominate the United States, and the vast majority of cities followed this plan almost completely,” he said. “It basically drained the life out of the central cities.”
By the time a backlash finally organized – decades later – the fabric of American cities had been fundamentally altered, the car iconized into a symbol of status and freedom.
“Luckily,” said Gorton, “it wouldn’t last. This suburban dream is now a nightmare as people in the suburbs realize it’s not a very good life. You’re trapped in your car all day. As a parent, you have to shuttle your kids around everywhere because it’s not safe for them to walk or bike anywhere. There’s horrible traffic. It’s very sterile and boring.”