Gorton first turned anger into action in 1998. Rudy Giuliani was into his final term as mayor of New York City. Gorton remembers him as a man who was openly hostile to cycling, a man whose administration once considered banning bicycles from the Queensboro Bridge, linking Manhattan to Queens. By then, Gorton’s experiences of trying to stay alive in traffic had also connected him with Transportation Alternatives, a local group with cycling-advocacy roots reaching back to the 1970s. When Gorton realized that these like-minded advocates had a funding problem, he stepped in as strategist and financier.
“It’s hard to sit still and let it continue to suck when it’s so clear that there’s a better way out there,” he said with a laugh.
Gorton took to advocacy the way he took to business: with energy, skill, and a desire to come out on top. He started by getting his nonprofit group OpenPlans into producing films about the urban environment: streets, public spaces, and problem areas. These films later found a dedicated home online as Streetfilms (founded in 2007). In recent years, Streetfilms film crews have turned their lenses abroad, looking to import progressive transportation lessons: the Bus Rapid Transit system and Ciclovia celebrations of Bogotá, Colombia; the world’s biggest public bike-share in Hangzhou, China; the congestion pricing of London, England; and the covetable cycling mode share of Copenhagen, Denmark.
Gorton also became a speaker on transportation reform and hired an editor to find and produce content for what would become Streetsblog New York City (a website that attracts some 5,000 readers a day); for Streetsblog satellites in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, DC; and for the Streetsblog Network, which curates news from more than 500 transportation blogs.
“There are a lot of people who hate traffic, who want their streets to be safe. But a lot of them feel really isolated,” he said. “You feel like a communist, or something like that, for saying you shouldn’t have an auto-dominated world.”
With a nod to his financial roots, Gorton often argues that multimodal transport options that combine cycling, walking, and transit are more fiscally sound than private cars. Speak to him long enough, and he’ll tell you that cars are also the culprits behind obesity, a misguided sense of entitlement, global warming, and urban collapse: obsolete machines to be exiled from most urban trips.
At one point, our discussion shifted from history and politics to philosophy, with Gorton’s stories of street battles often reminiscent of the tragedy of the commons. First explored in 1968 by ecologist Garrett Hardin in the journal Science, the tragedy of the commons refers to the long-term effects on parcels of land shared by individual herders in medieval Europe. Acting in his own self interest, each herder looked to maximize the number of cows grazing on the shared land – after all, each herder would receive the whole benefit of each extra cow while sharing the land’s overgrazing concerns among the entire group. Substitute cows for cars and overgrazing for congestion and collisions, and the comparison becomes a lot clearer.
This tragedy of the commons persists to this day. And this is exactly where Gorton finds hope for the livable city of the future.
“Even drivers hate traffic in their own neighborhood. So you can create a political dynamic where people fight to save their street. And you can win each of those 10,000 battles to make individual streets better,” he said. “The cities with the happiest transportation departments are in favor of killing the private car.”
Gorton told me that, slowly but surely, the status quo is changing.
He points to New York City’s current visionary commissioner at the Department of Transportation: Janette Sadik-Khan. Since 2008, Sadik-Khan has led the city’s Sustainable Streets strategy, implementing new bus routes, plazas, car-free events, and more than 280 miles (450 kilometers) of onstreet bike lanes. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been building bike infrastructure with astonishing urgency, even quarreling with the Illinois government to let Chicago build protected bike lanes on roadways under state jurisdiction. This is all a part of Emanuel’s plan to bring 100 miles (160 kilometers) of protected lanes to Chicago by 2015. Even officials in Los Angeles are flirting with congestion pricing à la London, England, to make driving a less-desirable option.
Most importantly, Gorton told me, America’s young people are ignoring the private automobile like never before, buying fewer cars, and driving less thanks to flurries of other transportation options from transit authorities and car-sharing arrangements.
Gorton insists that even his bike rides around Manhattan have gotten safer: “One of the things I’ve learned is that it’s more terrifying than it’s dangerous. You actually can ride most of the time without dying. A big part of the secret is sticking to the handful of safe, protected bike routes out there.”
Luke Brocki is a freelance journalist based in Vancouver, Canada. His favorite way to get around town is on his rusty old 10-speed because it’s faster than walking, cheaper than driving, and more fun than squeezing through elbow-to-elbow transit crowds. @lukebrocki