The Man Who Closed Times Square to Traffic

Standing along a busy downtown Manhattan street, Mark Gorton lamented all the traffic.

“It’s not that cars are inevitable; it’s that we’ve tried really hard to jam these cars in here,” said the founder of The Open Planning Project (TOPP), a nonprofit dedicated to transportation reform. On a wall of the nonprofit’s office, just north of the vehicular chaos of Canal Street, sprawls a map of Manhattan. To Mr. Gorton, it represents a kind of Platonic Ideal—that of a city designed before the automobile and, therefore, destined for a future in which cars are banished.

“With a little bit of effort, they go away,” he went on about the abundance of cars, as if he was up against a deeply dug-in army. “And, actually, congestion goes away, traffic moves better, people move faster, it’s safer for kids, it’s better for the environment.”

Lanky with a head of wiry black curls, the 41-year-old, who also founded the file-sharing service LimeWire and the hedge fund Tower Research Capital, is the Ralph Nader of congestion. He’s voluble on the subject, given to dispensing idealistic predictions about Americans forsaking their cars for bikes and buses. Last year’s congestion pricing debacle may have proved that New York drivers aren’t so sanguine about that prospect.

Still, Mr. Gorton has been right before: The tangible, everyday fruits of his influence, through TOPP and other initiatives, include the pedestrian plazas in the meatpacking district, beside Madison Square Park, and in Herald and Times squares, along with miles of new bike lanes installed since Mayor Bloomberg appointed Janette Sadik-Khan as transportation commissioner. As the mayor decides in the coming months whether to make the Broadway plazas permanent, and the Department of Transportation implements bus-only lanes on First and Second avenues, the streets of Manhattan will continue to be remade Mr. Gorton’s way.

Mr. Gorton stood among dozens of Buddha statues a few blocks from TOPP, in the office of Lime Group, his umbrella company. He wore a blue shirt untucked, with its top two buttons undone, and a pair of khaki jeans. He speaks loudly, and when finished with a thought he seems to withdraw slightly, as if surprised by his own vehemence. He seems like the kind of guy you might have bought physics notes from in college. Like many such young men, he went into finance. Like not so many, he was astoundingly successful.

 

HE STARTED THINKING ABOUT road design 10 years ago, during his harrowing daily bike commute from the Upper West Side to his office. “Almost getting killed a bunch of times really focuses the mind,” he said.

In the early 1990s, after getting his M.B.A. from Harvard, Mr. Gorton moved to New York and got a job on the proprietary trading desk at Credit Suisse First Boston. In 1998, he left to start Tower Research Capital, a quantitative hedge fund, with a combination of his own money and contributions from friends and family. After a couple of years, Mr. Gorton discovered that Tower needed faster execution for its trades than any of the electronic brokers could offer. So he started his own, Lime Brokerage. But his heart wasn’t in it. “I realized that what I liked was starting the company.”

The Man Who Closed Times Square to Traffic