How to be a transportation policy expert in 15 seconds

N. Ramakrishnan
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Let’s cycle: Mark Gorton, CEO, Tower Research Capital LLC. — N. Ramakrishnan
Let’s cycle: Mark Gorton, CEO, Tower Research Capital LLC. — N. Ramakrishnan


If you want to become a transportation policy expert in 15 seconds, you need to take your lessons from Mark Gorton, a resident of New York City.

“Anything that makes it harder to drive, more expensive to drive, more inconvenient to drive is a good policy. Anything that makes it easier to walk, to cycle or take transit is a good policy. It is that simple. It is all you need to know,” says Gorton, with evangelical zeal as he talks of the need to discourage use of private cars for transportation.

Every government official can be an expert in 15 seconds flat. “If you can communicate that, you can make all the right moves going forward,” says the 45-year-old Gorton, the founder and CEO of Tower Research Capital LLC, a money management firm.

Gorton, who was in Chennai recently at the invitation of Institute for Transportation and Development Policy and City Connect, is passionate about the need for cities to be more pedestrian and cyclist friendly, and have a good transit infrastructure. He is emphatic that building infrastructure that encourages the use of cars is the not the way forward for cities. He runs a not-for-profit organisation in New York City – OpenPlans – that promotes all these concepts.

What was the trigger that got him working on this project? “I ride my bicycle to work (in New York City). I have been riding my bicycle to work for the last 14 years. I use the cycle all year round, when it is minus 15 in the winter to 35 in the summer,” he says. It is a 10-km ride, that takes him about 25 minutes. “Every single day of my life I get 50 minutes of exercise. I look forward to going to work and I look forward to going back home. I don't think many people who are stuck in traffic look forward to that every day,” he adds.

Cycling in New York, particularly a decade back, was not all that easy, especially with so much traffic. It puts your life in constant danger, he says. “That got me sensitised to the danger of the automobile.” Cycling, he says, is environmentally friendly. Why are we making policies that make it a deadly thing to do, he wonders. New York City, according to him, has started building a protected cycling network – it has about 60 km of this now and is expanding it every year.

He describes his efforts through OpenPlans at promoting sustainable transportation as civic entrepreneurship. These are projects that help cities work better. They have been incubated internally. OpenPlans has about 50 employees and Gorton says he ploughs back some of the profits from his corporate activities into OpenPlans. The organisation uses open source tools that can be adapted by any city.

New York City, according to him, is in the process of rolling out a bike sharing system and it is going to be identifying locations for 1,000 stations in the next few months. To help the government decide on these locations, public can come forward and give their suggestions.

“Every single thing I said about transportation is feasible in India. It has the engineering expertise and acumen to build great systems. It needs the political will and foresight to build the right sort of transportation system,” says Gorton.

Flyovers and expressways, he argues, destroy cities, increase congestion and make cities unsafe to live in. There is a better way and a smarter path that involves explicitly trying to limit the private car or rationing the car like they do in Singapore, or taxing the cars heavily as in Denmark. These are wise policies to follow, according to him. The emphasis must be on making cities pedestrian friendly. Right now they are discarded and left to pick up the scraps.

It is much cheaper, argues Gorton, to develop cities with a good transit infrastructure and pedestrian friendly systems. The auto oriented cities in the US – Houston, Phoenix, San Diego, Atlanta – spend between 12 per cent and 15 per cent of their metropolitan GDP on transportation. In comparison, the “smart, multi-modal cities” – Munich, Copenhagen, Tokyo and Singapore – spend between four per cent and six per cent of their metropolitan GDP on transportation. That is a huge amount of money to save, he adds.

Gorton points out that when city administrations in the West are reversing their transportation policies that originally encouraged the use of cars to making them more public transportation friendly, Indian cities should also learn a lesson and act accordingly.

(This article was published on February 12, 2012)
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