A brand new Klein

Transportation commissioner Gabe Klein meets Chicago’s bicycle community

[flickr]photo:5843410576[/flickr] CDOT Commissioner Gabe Klein and 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly at the Bike to Work Week Rally.

[This article also appears on Gapers Block.]

Today’s Bike to Work Week Rally in Daley Plaza was inspiring, a far cry from last year’s lackluster event, thanks to big plans for bicycling from new mayor Rahm Emanuel and forward-thinking transportation commissioner Gabe Klein.

In 2010 Chicago’s efforts to become a world-class bike town had stagnated. The city had installed over 100 miles of bike lanes and over 10,000 parking racks, achieved bike access on transit and educated multitudes about safe cycling, but we seemed to be resting on our laurels. Meanwhile other U.S. cities were pioneering car-separated bike lanes, automated bike sharing systems, on-street parking corrals, traffic-calmed “bike boulevard” streets, car-free “ciclovia” events and more.

Part of the problem was a lack of bike-friendly leadership at the Chicago Department of Tranportation, which had five different commissioners in six years. At the 2010 rally new commissioner Bobby Ware, a former lawyer, seemed fairly clueless about CDOT’s bicycle projects.

I didn’t vote for Emanuel, but it’s clear that with new leadership at City Hall the dog days are over. The new mayor’s Chicago 2011 Transition Plan calls for a public bicycle share system with thousands of bikes. The document mandates building the long-awaited Bloomingdale Trail 2.65-mile elevated greenway within Rahm’s first term. After the sitting in limbo for two years, the trail’s design contract was finally approved by the city’s procurement department a few days ago and surveying work has already started.

The transition plan promises the construction 100 miles of car-separated bike lanes, called “cycle tracks,” over the next four years. 35 days after the mayor took office Chicago’s first cycle track, on Kinzie between Milwaukee and Wells is nearly done, although this week’s rains prevented completion in time for the rally.

The bike lane on the south side of Kinzie is almost done, with flexible posts installed to the left of the lane, even on the Chicago River bridge, which will soon get bike-friendly decking over its metal grate surface. You can now ride to the right of the parked cars, separated from them by the posts – a surprisingly liberating feeling.

The energy at today’s rally seemed to be a reflection of these exciting, fast-moving developments. Hundreds of commuters show up under the Picasso to grab free breakfast and bike schwag and to hear the annual state of the cycling union address. Rahm, away at a meeting of the U.S. Council of Mayors, is a no-show but the event serves as a meet-and-greet for Commissioner Klein and the local cycling community.


Cyclists in line for breakfast and t-shirts at the Bike To Work Rally.

Klein, 40, is a breath of fresh air at CDOT, a department that has traditionally focused its efforts on facilitating motorized traffic. A former employee at a bicycle manufacturer and executive director of Zipcar, a car-sharing service, he comes to Chicago following a successful run as Washington D.C.’s transportation commissioner. There he created Capital Bikeshare, the largest bike-sharing system in the country, and worked to improve the transit system and boost pedestrian safety.

A few years ago Andrew Velasquez, head of Chicago’s Traffic Management Authority, announced the city would be adjusting traffic signals to make it easier for cars to turn right on red and cracking down on jaywalkers, arguing that the scales were tipped too far in favor of downtown pedestrians. But in a recent Tribune interview Klein said just the opposite. He’s promising push walking, transit and biking over driving, arguing that urban life is better without private car ownership.

Accordingly, Klein bikes, walks and takes the CTA to work from his South Loop home. He’s showed up at today’s rally by bike and he takes the podium wearing a bicycle-wheel t-shirt and lycra shorts under his baggies. “I was really excited to take this job because Chicago is ripe to become the bike-friendliest city in the U.S.,” he tells the crowd. “The mayor is not just giving this lip service but he believes it to his core.”

There’s loud applause when he asks the cyclists if they’ve tried the new lanes on Kinzie. “We wanted to show it could be done quickly and inexpensively,” he says. “But [cycle tracks] can really make a big difference in people’s daily quality of life and get everybody back on a bike. We want people who are 16 to ride their bikes as well as people in their 70s and 80s.”

He argues that cycling needs to be a primary mode of transportation in Chicago instead of a secondary or tertiary one. “It meets the President’s goals of better air quality, better quality of life, better health and, most of all, more fun. People forget sometimes that we’re on this earth to have some fun as well.””

Afterwards Active Transportation Alliance’s executive director Ron Burke takes the podium and asks the crowd, “How cool is it to have a commissioner who really gets it?”

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John Greenfield

John has lived in Chicago since 1989 and has worked a number of bicycle jobs, from messenger to mechanic to managing the Chicago Department of Transportation's bicycle parking program, arranging the installation of over 3,700 bike racks. He writes regularly for Time Out Chicago, Newcity, Momentum and Urban Velo magazines and works at Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square.

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