As commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation, Gabe Klein almost always dressed for bicycling, not for business. One late October day in his office, Klein wore an oxford shirt with the top two buttons unfastened, blue jeans and rubber-soled lace-up shoes. If he needed to dress up, he could throw on an unconstructed cotton blazer in his closet. This was no hipster affectation, but a practical costume. Klein got around Chicago by bike, and he was ready to ride at any moment.
“This is a pretty good outfit,” he said. “I wore this today with a suit jacket, a sport coat. Wear as much cotton as possible. It’s breathable.”
At the end of his workday, Klein stepped out of his office building, which sits catty-corner from City Hall, and pulled the last Divvy bike out of a rack on the sidewalk for the 1.6-mile ride to his apartment in the South Loop. Divvy, the bike share service that debuted in August, was Klein’s baby — a bigger version of the Capital Bikeshare system he helped found as the District of Columbia’s transportation director, the position he held before moving to Chicago.
Klein lashed his leather satchel into the basket, ratcheted down the seat to accommodate his 5.5-foot frame, and tore off down LaSalle Street. Divvy doesn’t provide helmets, and as far as Klein is concerned, urban cyclists on short trips don’t need them. With no bike lane on LaSalle, Klein rode in the middle of the street, swooping in front of cars to make a left turn onto Monroe Street, like an agile blue darter swimming among lumbering sharks.
Klein looked reckless but insisted this was a defensive riding strategy. “It’s safer to take up the whole lane,” he said as I followed on my own bike, turning my head every few seconds to make sure a crossover vehicle wasn’t about to drive up my back wheel. “You don’t want to be squeezed into the curb. If you take up a lane, drivers will treat you more like a car.”
The commissioner soon turned onto Dearborn Street and, suddenly, he didn’t have to worry about cars. Soon after Mayor Rahm Emanuel hired the upstart official in 2011, Klein decided to retrofit the busy north-south corridor with “Montréal-style” protected bicycle lanes, an innovation he had discovered on a trip to Canada. The western edge of Dearborn is now a two-way bicycle thoroughfare, protected from traffic by ranks of 28-inch-high plastic bollards. The bikes even have their own set of traffic signals, set to a different cycle than those for cars. When cars on this northbound-only street have a red left turn arrow, a green bicycle lights up.
“We’ve even got sensors in the road to detect whether there are cars in the left turn lane,” Klein boasted. “If not, the bikes can keep going.”
Ten minutes after leaving his office, Klein slammed his bike into a Divvy station around the corner from his apartment building at Michigan Avenue and 14th Street.
“You think you’ll run the Transportation Department the whole time Emanuel is mayor?” I asked as we lingered in front of his gate for a few minutes, before he ran upstairs to “jump on a six o’clock phone call.”
“I can’t imagine doing any job for 10 years,” Klein said.
Four days later, the 42-year-old Klein resigned, to return to D.C. His departure, after 2.5 years, was not a surprise. Klein was never a Chicagoan — his wife, Stephanie Plummer, continued to work for the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, visiting Chicago only on weekends — and he’s never purely been a public servant. His résumé also includes selling bicycles, establishing Zipcar in D.C. and running a chain of electric food carts. But he was in Chicago long enough to move it toward the goal Emanuel set for him when he was hired: Making it the most bike-friendly city in America.
“I think Gabe is one of those transformational figures that comes around every so often, like a Jane Jacobs or Robert Moses,” said Aaron Naparstek, founder of the non-profit Streetsblog Network and a visiting scholar in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “For most of the 20th Century, we planned and designed cities around the automobile. Gabe is introducing a new paradigm: Streets that facilitate an urban lifestyle not oriented toward the car.”
Along with outgoing New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan — his co-panelist at a recent Aspen Institute event titled “Getting There: Today’s Smartest Investments in Tomorrow’s Transportation Solutions” — Klein helped reinvent the role of urban transportation chief. A job once devoted to paving streets and filling potholes is now a platform for reordering the civic landscape so it appeals to a post-automobile generation. As Klein told the Aspen Institute crowd, “for many years, in the first half of the last century, cities played to their strengths. Then people went to the suburbs. There’s a natural sort of swing back… We’re reinventing the public space for people.”
Klein was transportation commissioner of one of the nation’s largest transportation hubs, which means his innovations — protected bike lanes, the nation’s most extensive bike sharing system, bus rapid transit lines — are bound to be adopted by smaller cities. What happened in Chicago in the last few years will be happening in the next few years in Columbus, Austin, Pittsburgh and Charlotte. Indeed it already is.
“Cities are sharing much more, in terms of information and best practices,” Klein said. “We’re telling a story to other cities, other urban planners about why this is going on, why this is important. I think cities are sort of maturing and evolving, and we’re learning from each other, and what’s really fascinating is that some of the second and third-tier cities in terms of size [are] looking at what Chicago’s doing, and New York’s doing and D.C., and saying, ‘We want to do that.’ So I think the next big wave is going to be smaller cities replicating what we’ve done.”
Gabe Klein was raised on a bicycle. His father, John, was a free spirit who traveled to Japan in the years after World War II to learn the electrical tape business, drove a Porsche when everyone else was driving Chevys, hung out in Greenwich Village with Allen Ginsberg, and was arrested as a Freedom Rider in Mississippi. By the mid-1970s, John had settled down to operate a bike shop in rural Connecticut. Klein’s left knee is still scarred from his first bike ride. He lifted the leg of his designer, American-sewn jeans to show it off when I visited his office.
“I in many ways grew up in the bike business,” he said. “I remember him teaching me how to bike. He took me to a big hill, like a really steep hill, and he had this really long bike he got from Sweden. He stuck me on it, and threw me down the hill. By the third time, I didn’t want to crash anymore, so I learned how to wobble. Then he took me to a paved hill and threw me down that…”
The family moved to Virginia when Klein was 10 so he could attend school at a yoga ashram. As a teenager, he worked in his father’s bike stores. Later he ran the family-owned regional chain while earning a marketing management degree at Virginia Tech. After college he went to work for Bikes USA, combining his passions for business and mountain biking. It was in Klein’s next job, as regional vice president of Zipcar, that he began to build a reputation as an innovator in urban transportation.
Zipcar founder Robin Chase hired Klein because she thought his cycling background would translate to the alternative transportation market. The company had only been in D.C. for a year at the time. “I saw him as an entrepreneurial guy who was with it,” Chase said. His most original move, she said, was persuading the D.C. Department of Transportation to set aside street parking for Zipcars. Washingtonians complained that the cars would worsen the parking crunch by occupying residential spaces. At neighborhood meetings, Klein argued that every Zipcar would take 10 to 20 private cars off the road. Now, he boasts, D.C. has a fleet of 1,000 Zipcars — and fewer motor vehicle registrations than a decade ago, despite an increase in population.
Rahm Emanuel hopes that making Chicago the “most bike-friendly city in America” will help attract young, tech-savvy professionals.
Klein does not, as some critics allege, hate cars. (He bought a Smart Car to Chicago, for occasional trips to the suburbs or far-flung neighborhoods, but drove it so infrequently that the battery ran down.) He has, however, predicted that in urban areas, “the era of the single-passenger automobile may be coming to a close in the next 20 to 30 years.” He tried to prepare D.C. for that date during his tenure at Zipcar, which now shares cars in 26 major metropolitan markets and is owned by rental car giant Avis.
At Zipcar, it was Klein’s job to convince people that you can use a car sometimes without using a car all the time. People should have the freedom to own a car, he believes, but they should also have the freedom to not own one.
“It’s not that we’re against the car. It’s that we don’t want people to feel that they have to spend $1,000 a month to own a car to live in a city,” Klein said. “Then it’s like, does the math work for people?”
After leaving Zipcar, Klein founded On The Fly, which used electric carts to bring high-quality restaurant food to tourists, instead of the usual steamed hot dogs. D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty was impressed with Klein’s ability to work with government agencies, and hired him as transportation director at the end of 2008. (On the Fly was carried on by Klein’s partners.)
The move to hire Klein, who had no professional experience or formal education in transportation engineering, was a risk, but one well suited to Fenty, a young progressive who had also not come up in D.C.’s insidery local political culture. “I think someone in the city was really thinking outside the box,” Chase said. “I think that was a genius and risky move. You’re taking a chance, because he’s a person who’s never run a public agency. He probably went from 10 employees to I don’t know how many people.”
When Klein took over, D.C. had a small bike share program, SmartBike DC, operated by Clear Channel as an adjunct to its bus shelter advertising contract. With only 10 stations, all downtown, SmartBike was not a commuting option for most Washingtonians. But Arlington County, just across the Potomac River, was planning a government-sponsored bike share program, and Klein wanted to get D.C. involved — not just because the district’s participation was essential to a regional system, but because he hated the idea of D.C. looking less progressive than one of its suburbs.
Klein, used to the nimble pace of start-ups, quickly got to work raising support in city hall for a bike share system, then something operating in only a handful of U.S. cities. Fenty got behind the idea after Klein convinced him that D.C.’s bike share would be the biggest such program in the nation — and a nice green feather in the mayor’s cap. He also pushed the National Park Service to allow stations on its property. Klein, already a bike commuter, “was almost daily engaged in bike sharing,” recalled Jim Sebastian, who still oversees the department’s bicycle program. By autumn 2010, Capital Bikeshare had launched with 100 stations across the District and another 14 in Arlington. Though new to the public sector, Klein had figured out the levers of power well enough to convince the U.S. Department of Transportation to pay for 80 percent of the $6 million project, with the remaining $1.2 million coming from city hall.
Capital Bikeshare got off the ground with minimal hitches, but that didn’t prevent Fenty from losing his bid for reelection, leaving Klein out of a job — temporarily. Thanks to a quirk in municipal election schedules, Rahm Emanuel was elected mayor of Chicago 2.5 months after Fenty was booted from city hall. Emanuel was looking for a transportation chief to execute a transition plan that called for a bike share system and 100 miles of protected bike lanes by 2015. Klein already knew Emanuel’s brother, Ezekiel, then an official at the National Institutes of Health in D.C., and the two were, in other ways, a perfect match: Slightly built overachievers who love bicycles. Emanuel is a competitive triathlete. Mother Jones magazine once wrote that he rides “as if he’s being chased by the Headless Horseman.”
“It’s not that we’re against the car. It’s that we don’t want people to feel that they have to spend $1,000 a month to own a car to live in a city.”
When Emanuel offered Klein the job, he made it clear that he was hiring the former bicycle salesman to make Chicago “the bike-friendliest city in the country.” It was not just a matter of the mayor’s personal transportation preferences, he said. It was an economic development strategy. Emanuel wanted to attract young, tech-savvy professionals to Chicago, and many young, tech-savvy professionals (such as Klein himself) enjoy riding their bikes to work.
As in Fenty’s City Hall, Klein was not an obvious hire for the commissioner job, but one that suited the sensibilities of a mayor who wanted to appear innovative. In the floundering final half-decade of Richard M. Daley’s record-setting 22-year mayoralty, the Chicago Department of Transportation went through five commissioners, most of them machine veterans shuffled over from other branches of city government. The commissioner’s job was a largely invisible post reserved for government insiders. (When Chicagoans thought of transportation, they thought of the Chicago Transportation Authority, which operates the ‘L’ and the buses, not the DOT, which tends to streets, bridges, rivers and rail.)
Klein was the exact opposite of the invisible bureaucrat: An outsider who had never gone unnoticed and in fact, seemed almost magnetically drawn to the public eye. Indeed, Klein, upon taking his post at city hall, quickly made sure everyone noticed the Department of Transportation — and him. Soon after taking office, he installed an Emanuel-inspired sign facing his desk that read, CHICAGO: GETTING SHIT DONE IN EVERY MOTHERF*CKING WARD. He became, essentially, a less Napoleonic, less profane version of his boss.
Other than its location far from his wife in Washington, the post with headline-happy Emanuel seemed well suited to Klein, who says that he turned down a few governors who offered to put him in charge of a state DOT before taking the job with Emanuel. Those jobs, he felt, were too far removed from the public’s daily commute and, thus, too anonymous. (“Do me a favor,” he said, before pausing significantly. “Give me the name of a state DOT commissioner or secretary.”)
“I came here for a few reasons,” Klein said. “I came here to work for Rahm. I came here as a personal challenge to myself. The fact that I had this impact people can see I thought was interesting, but I wanted to prove to myself that I can do it again, and in a bigger city, and in a city that eats people alive from the outside, and in a city that is very complex in its transportation system. And in a city where, to be honest, the DOT was known for” — here he observed a moment of silence. “Nobody knew we that we existed.”
By the end of next year, Divvy will have 475 stations, more than any bike sharing system in the nation.
Within 30 days of Emanuel’s inauguration, the department installed the city’s first protected bike lane, on Kinzie Street. This was followed by the city’s first two-way protected bike lane, installed in December 2012, on Dearborn Street. Another protected lane on Milwaukee Avenue, the main commuter drag for the fashionable Northwest Side neighborhoods of Wicker Park and Bucktown, soon followed.
“In the ’90s, Chicago was a leader in bike lanes,” said Aaron Renn, a former resident who blogs as The Urbanophile. “In the 2000s, late administration malaise set in. Chicago ceased to innovate in transportation. The city got caught up in the Olympic bid. Emanuel comes in and says, ‘Who’s the best guy on the market to inject some life into this? He seems to have done a very good job in D.C.’”
Then there was Klein himself, who fit seamlessly into the city’s bike culture. He dressed like a 26-year-old Groupon copywriter but sported a beard with a patch of white, like a cat’s marking, to suggest maturity. He arrived at meetings on one of his four bicycles (a Klein Quantum Pro, a Wilier road bike, a Cinelli road bike, a Masi commuter bike) or a Vespa scooter. If you tweeted to @gabe_klein (an account where he describes himself as a “hip-hop head”), he often tweeted back.
“He has a really nice bike,” gushed a member of the Active Transportation Alliance, an organization founded to promote cycling in Chicago. “He’s got a wooden basket up front and a chain guard, and he wears vintage suits in the summer. He’s just cool.”
Aesthetic preferences aside, everyone agreed that this was a big job. Chicago became a great city because of its status as the nation’s transportation hub, and it is determined to remain so, with a third of the country’s rail freight passing through its borders. Klein had, arguably, been given the most important municipal DOT directorship in America.
I first met Klein in October, when he gave a speech at the grand opening of Grind, a shared workspace popular with bloggers and web designers. He was wearing a cotton blazer, this time with jeans and white sneakers, and he talked about how bike sharing is essential for attracting educated young people to cities, a pet topic.
“Chicago’s changing rapidly,” Klein said. “We’re into community versus silos, sharing resources versus exploiting resources. People are coming back to cities. Even though Chicago lost population [in the 2000s], the central core gained 40,000 people. We have the fastest-growing downtown of the country. This gives people the opportunity to be downtown without downtown rents. Divvy goes hand-in-hand with Grind.”
Divvy was launched in June, and now has 300 stations and 2,035 three-speed bikes, painted a watery blue to match the stripes on Chicago’s flag. Users pay $7 for unlimited 30-minute trips within a 24-hour time period, or $75 for a year of unlimited 30-minute trips. In the summer, the service ran between 5,000 and 7,000 rides on weekdays, and between 7,000 and 10,000 on weekends. During the month of August, a red bike, matching the four stars in the civic flag, was inserted into the fleet. Riders who posted a photo of the bike on social media won coffee, Zipcar memberships and nights in a “sustainable” hotel. (After a month the red bike was withdrawn, ending up in Klein’s office as a conversation piece.)
Originally, Divvy planned to add 100 stations in 2014. Then the city won a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement program, which will pay for 75 more stations. (The first phase of Divvy had been funded in part with $25 million in federal funds.) By the end of next year, Divvy will have 475 stations, more than any bike sharing system in the nation, surpassing New York’s total of 330.
Klein was integral to getting Divvy up and running, said Elliot Greenberger, the company’s deputy general manager. “There was the comfortability of having done this before, “ he said. [Klein] understood simple concepts like trips per bike per day, which is a key metric.” Then there was his influence as a rather popular public personality. “[Klein] lives in the South Loop and people who know him see him riding,” Greenberger said. “His Facebook profile picture is of him riding. He uses it every day, not just for PR.”
But Klein alone couldn’t solve the immense challenges facing his department. On his first day in office, only 1 percent of trips within the city were taken by bicycle, compared to 6 percent in Portland and 3.5 percent in San Francisco. While the city’s grid system facilitates bike travel, its vast size — 227 square miles — makes it tough to extend a bike program to all corners of the city. That has created political problems that neither Klein nor Emanuel perhaps anticipated.
Chicago lost 200,000 residents during the last decade, many of them African-Americans who were driven out of the city by public housing demolitions and high crime rates, leaving for suburbs far from downtown’s skyscrapers. But the Loop, the inner-core lakefront neighborhood where Grind set up its office-sharing space, nearly doubled in population, drawing young people, new energy — and bikes— to the area.
“He has a really nice bike,” gushed a member of the Active Transportation Alliance. “He’s got a wooden basket up front and a chain guard, and he wears vintage suits in the summer. He’s just cool.”
Klein chose this growing, dense and already bike-assimilated part of the city to launch Divvy. But while the lakefront is thriving, its population is not representative of the city as a whole. The Loop, for example, is 62 percent white, with a median household income of $78,124 — both nearly twice the city’s average. When the program launched, a Chicago Tribune survey found that nearly 50 percent of white residents lived within a quarter-mile of a station, compared to 19 percent of Latino residents and 16 percent of black residents. (Compare that to smaller, more integrated D.C., where 31 percent of black residents live within a quarter-mile of a station.) The fact that bike lanes and bike sharing have so far been concentrated in well-to-do neighborhoods was one of the most controversial aspects of Klein’s tenure. It doesn’t help that he often frames bike sharing as a tool to attract the same educated demographic that many perceive as responsible for the surge in land values that gentrified 16 percent of the city’s land tracts between 2000-2007, according to a 2013 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.
Renn called Divvy a manifestation of “gentry liberalism,” or lavishing resources on the wealthy at the expense of the poor. He pointed out that Emanuel had spent money on a bike share program while simultaneously closing 50 inner-city schools, and criticized the mayor for using a transportation program that should have served the entire city to cosset the creative class.
“This is directly an attempt to pander to the hipster techie elite people we want,” Renn said. “We’re not even going to pretend it’s about the rest of the city.”
That attitude was on bright display at the dedication of the Dearborn Street bike lane, in December 2012. There, Emanuel gloated that his bike friendly city would steal IT professionals from Seattle and Portland. “I expect not only to take all their bikers, but I also want all the jobs that come with this, all the economic growth that comes with this, all the opportunities of the future that come with this,” the mayor said.
Klein, for his part, defended the decision to debut Divvy inside the Loop as a principle of transportation design: You start any new system in the most congested part of the city. Then you expand outward. And Divvy was conceived as an element of the public transportation system, intended for trips too long to take on foot and too short to take by bus (“The last mile,” as planners call it.)
“Think of when the CTA was built,” he said. “It’s a network. It’s a system. You can’t stop at [63rd Street] with Divvy, and then say, were going to drop one at 130th. It doesn’t work. No one’s going to use it because there’s nowhere to go. When you launch a city, you’re going to the densest part of the city, where it’s the most painful to park, and where you have the maximum number of people that are looking for alternative transportation options. More density means more customers. Every city that’s been successful with bike share/car share has launched in the densest areas and then fanned out. We have a better distribution of stations across socioeconomic lines in any other city I’m aware of.”
Elected officials who represent areas left off the Divvy map have implored the city to include them, though the issue is largely symbolic to populations far more distressed by the specter of ongoing school closures and sky-high unemployment rates.
“They’ve got to dig deeper,” said Alderman Ricardo Munoz, who represents a heavily Latino ward that received no Divvy stations. “If they’re going to do these programs, they have to make sure they include the entire city, not just downtown and the Loop and the lakefront.”
Dustin Gourdin, a University of Chicago graduate student and member of the African-American cycling groups Red, Bike and Green and Bronzeville Bikes, said the issue is also one of consumer economics. Divvy placed its first stations to reach “the majority of cyclists with economic means of using that system,” and created a system to appeal to those people. Its credit-card payment system freezes out people without bank accounts, he said. (Gourdin suggested allowing riders to pay with Ventra cards, which are used to board the CTA.)
“Yes, you start the program in one part of the city, but the program should have a chance with other parts of the city,” Gourdin said. “It seems to be some of the ‘Two Chicagos’ developing.” On the other hand, he said, “there’s kind of an apprehension in some parts of the black community that ‘cycling may not be for me.’ There is a presupposition that a certain kind of person rides a bike. They see lycra-wearing cyclists and think, ‘It’s not something I could ride to work, or ride on an everyday basis.’”
The ambivalence about cyclists cuts across racial and class lines. Recently, the Chicago Tribune editorialized in favor of a City Council proposal that would require cyclists to go to a traffic safety class, just like drivers, pointing out that bicycle commuting has increased 214 percent since 2000 — and as a result, bike-car collisions have increased as well.
“In the corridors shared by two- and four-wheeled commuters, the morning and afternoon rush hours are mayhem,” the paper wrote. “Last year, 1,675 crashes between bikes and vehicles were reported in the city. Every driver or biker has a near-miss story to tell.”
Others have been less diplomatic on the topic. Also writing for the Tribune, columnist John Kass put a finger on the growing tensions between cyclists and drivers by mocking the “Little Bike People” whom, he wrote, constitute a “hipster vote” that Emanuel “lusts” after. The article was shared hundreds of times and spawned two follow columns in the Tribune, both, like the first, with the words “Little Bike People” in the headline.
At the Grind opening, Klein’s speech was followed by a presentation from Jake Nickell, founder of Threadless, a T-shirt manufacturer headquartered in the West Loop. (Emanuel’s plan to attract the bike-riding bourgeoisie may be working. Google recently opened an office in the West Loop and other young companies have put down roots there.) Perhaps not coincidentally, Klein’s Twitter backdrop is one of Threadless’ user-generated designs, an urban skyline called Stone City. Threadless is deeply enmeshed in bike culture. It gave a $3,000 custom-made Surly/SRAM to the winner of a contest to design a T-shirt and messenger bag for World Bicycle Relief, a charity that distributes bikes in the Third World. Some of its most popular designs are bike related.
“I want to point out my Divvy,” Nickell said, holding up his membership card. “I take Metra and it’s a mile from Threadless, and I take my Divvy bike and it’s awesome.”
Almost all Threadless employees are under 40, and at least 10 percent bike to work on any given day. One morning I rode the 2.5 miles from Ukrainian Village to Threadless with the company’s 32-year-old community partnership manager, Jess Hanebury. Hanebury rode a bike with a smart phone cradled between handlebars, in case she got a call.
“I bike all year long,” Hanebury said. “I hope to never have a car. I think in the city, it’s really inconvenient. It seems like a luxury, but it becomes a hassle. It’s bad for the environment, and it takes up room. I was on Lake Shore Drive, and I was thinking, ‘Sixty of you can take the bus.’ I got so fired up.”
Hanebury had the sense that cycling in Chicago has become easier since Emanuel became mayor, particularly because of the protected bike lanes. “On Kinzie, there’s this bike path, it’s like a magical fairytale,” she said. “There’s room for two bikes. I felt like I was being spoiled. There’s so much respect for bikers in the city.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel tasked Gabe Klein with adding 100 miles of protected bike lanes to the city of Chicago.
Klein was present on a sunny November morning for the dedication of the two-mile extension of South Lake Shore Drive. Built on the site of a U.S. Steel mill that closed in 1992, it will serve a lakefront housing development that hopes to bring new residents to South Chicago, a neighborhood that has never recovered from the Rust Belt era. Signs along the new roadway spelled out, “IMAGINE RETAIL” and “IMAGINE OBAMA PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY,” an attraction coveted by several Chicago neighborhoods, as well as the president’s hometown of Honolulu.
Having recently sold my car, I decided to follow Klein’s philosophy and multi-mode it. I made the 20-mile trip from my home on the Far North Side by taking my bike on the ‘L,’ getting off at 79th Street and riding four miles to Lake, past a repeating streetscape of beauty salons and chicken shacks relieved only by the New Regal, a Moorish revival theater with a mural of Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway and other performers who passed through the South Side in its heyday. (Having always driven to South Chicago, I had never seen the New Regal before.)
“I actually didn’t ride my bike here,” Klein confessed, when I found him standing in front of an impressionistic stainless steel statue. “I took a car. Don’t report that.”
The excitable DOT commissioner was happy to be at the park that day. “This is the first project the mayor and I broke ground on,” Klein told me. “I often say we’re the Department of Transportation and Public Space. This new park — the statue, the LED lighting — it’s a fantastic space.” Then he pulled the D.C. move of excusing himself to talk to someone important.
“I see my counterpart at the state department of transportation there,” Klein said before dashing off, this time on foot.
Klein said he spent only about 10 percent of his time as commissioner on bicycle issues. The other 90 percent was spent on projects such as the Chicago Riverwalk, a downtown pedestrian court, and the Bloomingdale Trail, a High Line-inspired park being developed on 2.7 miles of abandoned railway on the city’s Northwest Side. Klein also oversaw the addition of an $81 million rail line to speed freight trains through the city. And he brought to Chicago “Potholepalooza,” a campaign he started in D.C. to encourage residents to report road damage.
Klein’s most controversial project in Chicago was the installation of speed cameras. Placed alongside schools and parks where children are likely to cross the street, the cameras issue fines of $35 for six miles an hour over the speed limit, and $100 for 11 miles per hour over. In a city where parking meter rates recently quadrupled as the result of a privatization deal gone amok, and where red light cameras spit out hundred-dollar tickets for rolling right turns, motorists were outraged over what they saw as an another nickel-and-diming, especially after the city estimated the cameras would generate between $60 million and $70 million in their first year. “I guess this is just going to be a city for wealthy people,” Alderwoman Leslie Hairston told the Chicago Tribune. But to Klein, the cameras were an element of his intermodal strategy: If you want people to walk, you have to make sure cars don’t run them over.
“I wanted to make pedestrians in particular a lot safer, and the only way we were going to achieve that in Chicago is having that be a big component of the strategy,” he said. “We have a serious speeding problem, like a five-to-ten-times problem of anyplace that has speed cameras. It’s a cultural shift. I’ve seen it happen in Washington. Part of it is peer pressure. One person drives the speed limit, everyone behind him has to drive the speed limit. Part of it is more people walking, biking drastically changes the way cars behave. When it’s all cars all the time, they have more of a tendency to drive recklessly.”
Klein didn’t speak at the South Lake Shore Drive extension groundbreaking. For that project, he remained behind the scenes, the invisible bureaucrat like so many before him.
Klein said he left Chicago to be closer to his wife and family on the East Coast and because, when he went to work for Fenty, he had only planned to spend four years in public service. He’s now done five. His next venture will be in the area of “technology and transportation,” and he hopes to form partnerships with cities that can no longer afford to fund all their projects with public dollars. The rest of the country follows Chicago’s lead in transportation policy. As a consultant, he can duplicate his accomplishments there in dozens of cities.
“I think there’s an opportunity to make more national change and social change in the private sector,” he said.
Not everyone was sorry to see Klein go. City Council Transportation Committee chairman Anthony Beale told the Chicago Tribune that Klein was “looking big picture all the time” while neglecting housekeeping matters such as informing residents of street closures. “I just think he just saw that it might be time to depart the city of Chicago.”
“His bike lane legacy has left traffic jams all over the city,” one alderman said. In Chicago’s ward-based system of government, aldermen hear the complaints about — and get the blame for — driving hassles.
“This is directly an attempt to pander to the hipster techie elite people we want. We’re not even going to pretend it’s about the rest of the city.”
But Ron Burke, executive director of the Active Transportation Alliance, believes that, more than any of his predecessors as transportation commissioner, “Gabe got the notion that for a city to be vibrant, you have to have all transportation options working well. He has a deeply held belief that we need streets that are safe places for everyone, whether walking, biking or driving.”
Will his successors do the same? Klein is leaving Chicago with several ambitious transportation blueprints. The Streets for Cycling Plan 2020 calls for 150 miles of protected bike lanes and a network of seven bike commuting “spoke routes” converging on the Loop. Overall, the city wants to add 500 miles of bike lanes by the end of the decade. An update to the Chicago Forward Plan, released the day before Klein announced his resignation, expanded upon goals such as increasing the number of bicycle trips to 5 percent and establishing a bus rapid transit system to complement the ‘L,’ in which buses would get their own lanes and trigger green lights on major streets. Chicago’s transportation policy is not going to change, because Rahm Emanuel will still want his CDOT director to make it the most bike friendly city in America.
Even in D.C., where Klein’s patron was replaced by a mayor less dedicated to alternative transportation, Capital Bikeshare continues to expand. The number of stations in D.C. has nearly doubled, and Slate named the system “the best bike sharing program in the United States.” Klein has been an innovator everywhere he’s gone, but he’s also been an entrepreneur in the sense that he recognized what his customers or constituents wanted — a way of life that doesn’t depend on the automobile — and gave it to them more efficiently than they’d gotten it before.
“His legacy is going to be how well he served the mayor’s priorities, and brought his own knowledge and experience to bear better than anyone in Chicago could,” said Stephen Schlickman, executive director at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Urban Transportation Center. “I can’t think of anyone in Chicago who can fill his shoes.”
Maybe his shoes don’t need filling. Klein identified a destination, drew a map and showed Chicago how to get there. A transportation director’s job is to help us travel somewhere. We have to take the journey ourselves.
Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.
Edward McClelland was born in Lansing, Mich. His book Nothin’ But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland was released in May 2013 by Bloomsbury Press and was inspired by seeing the Fisher Body plant across the street from his old high school torn down. His book The Third Coast: Sailors, Strippers, Fishermen, Folksingers, Long-Haired Ojibway Painters and God-Save-the-Queen Monarchists of the Great Lakes won the 2008 Great Lakes Book Award in General Nonfiction. Like so many Michiganders of his generation, he now lives in Chicago.