Car Fighter: A Donor Goes All in to Build the Livable Streets Movement

Outdoor seating in Times square’s pedestrian mall. Tupungato/shutterstock

Outdoor seating in Times square’s pedestrian mall. Tupungato/shutterstock

If you’re a millennial like me, you’ve probably heard of Limewire, the discontinued free peer-to-peer file-sharing client that came out a bit after Napster. The company was launched by former Wall Street trader Mark Gorton, a Harvard, Yale and Stanford graduate. Gorton is the founder of Tower Research Capital, a trading and technology company that builds trading platforms.

Gorton is also involved in philanthropy, with an unusual focus: He’s been strongly engaged in the livable streets movement for some two decades, particularly in New York City, where for years, he was the primary supporter of Transportation Alternatives. I recently spoke to Gorton about the evolution of his philanthropy and his thinking about livable streets and civic space. In the process, I learned about a funder who doesn’t just like to write checks, but gets deeply involved in organizations and movement building.

You might wonder what got this finance and tech guy into this area to begin with. For Gorton, an Upper West Sider, it began simply, as a desire to solve a problem as a citizen. “I just started riding my bike around the city as a form of transportation. I discovered it was a better way to get around the city, and just a better way to live. Biking in traffic, though, you very quickly get sensitized to the dangers of it, the chaos on the streets, and the lack of planning.” Gorton started to do research and attend local civic meetings. He also started to realize how deeply embedded automobile culture is in the United States. “I developed this vision of the city that is just a much better place to live. Traffic really ruins the livability of our neighborhoods, and if you look at Northern Europe, particularly Holland, Denmark, all of Scandinavia and France, you don’t have that.”

In 1999, Gorton launched OpenPlans, a nonprofit, technology-based advocacy organization that aims to open up government and improve transportation systems. “I think Mark started Open Plans and had this sort of idealistic and hopeful notion that data should be open in general and that through tools and metrics, we can get the best outcome for the most citizens,” says Lisa Orman, Co-Director of Neighborhood Empowerment and Director of Streetopia UWS, when I connected with her, as well. “I think that’s the great thing about Mark’s giving. He’s unusual in what he funds, but it comes from a place of really trying to benefit the largest swath of people he can,” Orman adds.

OpenPlans runs both, a national publication covering sustainable transport, smart growth and livable streets, and, which produces short films demonstrating that smart transportation design and policy can result in better places to live, work and play. Gorton calls these two media sources “a sort of central information source for the livable streets movement community.”

Streetfilms is steered by Clarence Eckerson Jr., director of video production, who’s helped produce some 760 short films on various transportation issues. “His films touch everything from parking policy, bike lane design, and bus networks, to congestion pricing, and public plazas. And at the same time, he’s also been documenting movement and progress on what’s been going on in New York City,” Gorton adds.

In another endorsement of the power of “filmanthropy,” Orman speaks to the particular persuasive and emotional power of visual storytelling: “I think sometimes you need to show, not tell—no offense to print journalists. Sometimes, people are really visual and need to see changes, and Clarence just brings street changes to life. He travels around the world, and brings back tools and street designs that are really cool. I think a lot of the reason the streets in New York City changed wasn’t just because of the mayor or the DOT commissioner, but also because of the work of Clarence and Streetfilms.”

After two decades of work in this space, Gorton has a distinct perspective on the nature of civic change—and how patient philanthropy can move things along. “Change takes a willingness to work on time frames of many years or decades,” he says.

When Gorton first started out, the cycling advocacy and livable streets movement was on the fringe and had limited impact. Gorton has helped elevate these voices through his work with Transportation Alternatives, whose mission is to “reclaim New York City’s streets from the automobile and advocate for better bicycling, walking and public transit for all New Yorkers.”

For a time, Gorton was Transportation Alternative’s largest donor, giving at least $100,000 alone in the 2013 fiscal year, according to an annual report. Gorton explains that in the early days of the organization, it only had a handful of staff. Apart from just financial support, though, Gorton rolled up his sleeves and helped set strategy and priorities, and changed how the group approached advocacy.

He says, “In the beginning, Transportation Alternatives was very small, working in a hostile environment, and advocating for marginal change. If you’re just advocating for a bike lane here, or a bike lane there, people aren’t going to get it. It’s not just about a lane, it’s about completely changing the way the transportation system of the city functions, and ultimately, changing the way people in our city experience it every day. This is a big thing, not a little thing.”

Gorton helped foster a partnership called the NYC Streets Renaissance Campaign, consisting of Transportation Alternatives, Open Plans and Project for Public Spaces, and helped fund all of these outfits. “We came together and put together this vision, this desire for livable cities that had never been done in such a large-scale way. What we were saying was so radical, so everything needed to look professional. This couldn’t look fringe,” he explains.

“It felt like you were a communist on some level when you came to a board meeting wanting to get rid of cars,” Gorton says, laughing.

Through these formative experiences, though, Gorton started to see that there were a lot of New Yorkers just as passionate about these issues as he was. “Quietly in their own living rooms, they were hating traffic, wanting to get rid of cars, and desirous of public space. But many of these people felt marginalized,” he says. For Gorton, this is where Streetsblog and Streetfilms especially enter the picture. “We can educate these people and activate this latent base of people across the city, and give them the courage to kind of stand up.”

Today, Gorton sees the movement as much more established and robust. And as far as impact, he points to the now-pedestrianized Times Square, for instance, devoid of automobiles and full of benches, greenery and precious space. “It’s a slow process. Fighting the automobile in the U.S. is an enormous challenge because of culture, and society is so automobile-oriented. But we’ve been able to make real progress with just a small number of people and comparatively small funding,” he says.

Away from this funding area, Gorton’s second focus is on government transparency, particularly it relates to new technology, open data, and open source government. Giving revolves around the fundamental theme of leveraging new technology to make government work better. Chalk Gorton up as yet another tech businessman with a keen interest in this area. Gorton also sees this work as a long, drawn-out battle, perhaps even more of a slog than the livable streets space: “The nice thing about livable streets is that if you’re fighting for a bike lane, you may very well see a bike lane, though it may take a while,” he says. “If you’re talking about building processes, and open data, you’re talking about many, many decades, and these changes are so diffuse. It’s very slow and very hard, but I think that over time, that is super-important.”

If you’re sensing a theme of Gorton’s attraction to the philanthropic fringe, this is by design. He considers causes like healthcare and education valuable, but finds he can make more of a mark through his current work: “Part of what I try to do with my philanthropy is find high-leverage things, which are oftentimes the overlooked things,” he says. “I think certainly that healthcare and education are important, but those things have massive funding structures and very large established institutions that are aimed at those problems. I want to find areas where I can have a bigger impact and where I have some strategic insight as far as how to make difference.”

This spring, OpenPlans launched a new effort called Neighborhood Empowerment Project, aimed at empowering local stakeholders to take charge and solve their problems at the local level instead of letting bureaucracy control things. And in October, OpenPlans will also launch Streetopia UWS, which continues to dig into quality-of-life issues targeted at the Upper West Side community in Manhattan.

Gorton chimes in about one more new effort he’s digging into—electronic vote rigging. “I don’t think many people know how commonly elections are rigged using electronic vote-counting machines. The system is far more corrupt than most people believe. So I’m working with a few organizations to build good, transparent, open source voting technology.” To that end, he’s been working with Democracy Works, which describes itself as a group of “software developers, policy wonks and civic organizers building the tools needed to update the infrastructure of our democracy.”

When I asked Gorton what his biggest hope was for his philanthropy, he says that on the livable streets front, his main focus is on accelerating and building on the progress he’s already made. He says, “Structural challenges make it hard to make small changes in neighborhoods, which is discouraging for residents. Why should it take eight years for an intersection to be built near a school to make things safer for kids? Why is it so hard to do this thing that really, if you were empowered, would take one day? Once we give neighborhoods a say in what they want, the neighborhoods will have a choice. It might not save the whole city, but neighborhood by neighborhood, we can start peeling back some of this automobile dominance.”

As for his work in open government, Gorton also remains bullish: “The time scale for some of these changes is going to be measured in lifetimes, not just decades, but if you come back in a few hundred years, you’ll see the needle moving. We will get there. Government will function a lot more efficiently when it’s not a black box that citizens really have almost no opportunity to engage, and ultimately, fix.”