Mark Gorton is perhaps best known for founding the peer-to-peer service LimeWire. But his real passion is transportation — specifically bicycles, and making cities friendlier to them.
Gorton makes no bones about his disdain for the automobile and its impact on cities, and he’s used his passion, and money, to promote more-equitable transportation policies. He founded OpenPlans, a nonprofit focused on promoting transparent government and civic engagement, and he’s tried to bring an open source approach to urban planning. He also launched Streetsblog.
He believes the automobile plays an unnecessarily large role in urban transportation and says it does more harm than good. He stops short of calling for the outright eradication of cars in our cities, but wants to see policies that aggressively discourage them.
Many will consider his views radical, but his call to rethink the car’s place in our urban landscape is moving into the mainstream. A growing number of urban planners favor the “complete streets” model of multimodal transit that embraces walking, cycling and transit alongside automobiles.
The Obama administration has been promoting a similar approach through the federal Transportation, Housing and Health departments. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood essentially codified the idea when he said the needs of pedestrians and cyclists must be considered with those of motorists.
Gorton’s views are sure to inflame, but that’s the point. He wants to start a discussion and get people thinking …
Mark Gorton, founder of Lime Wire and bike transit advocate. Photo courtesy Mark Gorton
Wired.com: How did you become a bike activist?
Mark Gorton: It started about 10 years ago. I just started riding my bike to work. After going through New York’s Central Park and almost getting hit, you start to think about how roads work and you realize how screwed up they are.
At some point I had the insight that our streets could function way better then they do today. Once you have a vision of a much better city and better world, it is hard to sit back and not do anything about it. A large part of what we’re doing is communication, just getting the idea out that there is a better way.
Wired.com: How so?
Gorton: About five years ago we started the NYC Streets Renaissance campaign. We focused on showing there are better policies out there in terms of how streets are being managed.
The ideas were set around bus rapid transit, congestion pricing, and bicycling. We made great progress, and now people can see these ideas being implemented. Now we are reaching a point in New York where there is a broad public debate about how we manage our streets. Some people are pushing back on the reforms we have been making, so now I am trying to articulate why the automobile is bad transportation technology in a dense city.
Wired.com: What are you advocating?
Gorton: A complete change of policy in terms of our society, particularly in how a big city deals with the automobile.
For the last 100 years the automobile was the favored technology, it was given dominance over the streets and preferred over light rail. New York City used to have 1,300 miles of light-rail track. It was the greatest streetcar network the world has ever known. It was completely ripped out because of this infatuation with the automobile. It killed an enormous amount of transportation capacity, making it harder to move around today than it was 50 to 70 years ago.
The fundamental problem with the automobile, beyond the social aspect, is that it does not fit in a city as dense as New York. It is physically impossible for all the people to drive who want to. The ultimate constraint is the amount of road space. That is not going to change in New York City.
Wired.com: How do you get a society that is inherently connected to the automobile to utilize something else?
Gorton: Step 1 is educate people that the automobile is a technology that should be discouraged. We should stop subsidizing it through things like free parking and priority road space. We should be promoting mass transit. We should be creating a safe bicycle network that makes cycling a viable option. In Amsterdam, you have 40 percent of the people making their daily trips by bicycle. The bicycle can be a serious transportation tool in a city.
Basically, the litmus test is this: If a policy makes it harder and more expensive to drive, chances are it’s a good policy. If it makes it easier to drive it is a bad policy.
Wired.com: People will argue that roads are designed for cars and more people drive than ride, so we shouldn’t yield space to bicycles.
Gorton: That has essentially been the policy for the last 100 years and it has worked out horribly. You can look at the places that have done the opposite of that and see if those places are happy. The places that have encouraged bicycling, which tend to be Northern European cities, are really happy with what they have and are trying to continue it. Look that the places that are the most auto-oriented, places like Atlanta and L.A. They know they have big problems. They are trying to deal with a disaster they have brought about themselves.
Wired.com: What about bike lanes? Good? Bad?
Gorton: I think it goes on a street-by-street basis. When you are in a big city and you want people to ride bikes, you cannot mix them with cars. It is unsafe. If you look at the cities with the most biking, they have a completely safe and dedicated bike network. Every street is safe for biking. Every major street has separated bike paths where bikes are separated from cars.
If we look at what other cities are doing around the world we can really do a lot without ever coming up with a new idea by just copying what has been successful.
Wired.com: So what are the major issues to work on?
Gorton: What I am trying to get people to understand is cars should be a disfavored technology. We should be consciously trying to minimize them and we should be making it harder — more expensive and more inconvenient — for people to drive. We should be rationing the ability for people to drive because it has so many negative social consequences. Most people don’t get that. Most people believe that driving is something that is protected in the Constitution and fundamental to being an American.
Wired.com: What is the world you envision?
Gorton: One with radically reduced automobile usage. I think you could have it done in a matter of a few years, if you just had a real dedicated effort. If there was a lot of societal consensus you could have automobile usage down by 50 percent, and with that you could make great strides in a making a city more livable. It is mostly policy changes, not a lot of expensive infrastructure. It doesn’t cost a lot to have a pleasant livable world.
Top photo: Cyclist in Amsterdam. (Ovejanegra/Flickr)