In Forefront this week, writer Ted McClelland takes us on a ride-along with outgoing Chicago Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein, exploring his leadership and legacy in the Windy City and how he changed the way directors of local DOTs can influence the shape of their hometowns.
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.”