An interview with CDOT’s Gabe Klein


[This piece also runs in Time Out Chicago.]

Traditionally the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) has focused on making it easier to drive in the city, but new commissioner Gabe Klein has a different philosophy. Klein, a former executive with national retailer Bikes U.S.A., as well as Zipcar car sharing, came to town fresh from a stint as transportation director for Washington, D.C. There he launched a streetcar system, installed about 100 leading pedestrian interval traffic signals, introduced a circulator bus route and built the nation’s largest bike-sharing system.

Klein and Mayor Emanuel are promising big improvements to walking, biking and transit here, including building the Bloomingdale Trail elevated greenway, creating 100 miles of car-protected bike lanes, and rolling out a robust bike sharing system. They’re also working on creating bus rapid transit corridors and considering novel approaches to improve conditions for walking, including “pedestrian scramble” intersections.

I recently met with Klein, 40, in his CDOT offices, where he’d parked the bike he rode in on, a single-speed Masi cruiser with a beer-carrying crate. He discussed possible locations for ped scrambles and bus rapid transit corridors, the feasibility of the Bloomingdale and bike lane projects, the possibility of reopening the Queen’s Landing crosswalk, and whether he’d ever consider riding in Critical Mass.

[flickr]photo:5960133408[/flickr]Klein mingles with transportation professionals last Monday on a river cruise organized by Active Transportation Alliance

You’ve discussed the possibility of creating “pedestrian scramble” intersections here. Where would you like to do this?

We piloted the pedestrian scramble at 7th and H in D.C., and it’s worked extremely well. But it depends on how you do it and where you do it. In Chicago I’m interested in attacking one of the five- or six-way intersections, like Milwaukee, North and Damen, because they’re so challenging.

I’d also like nothing better than to try something right outside our offices [at LaSalle and Washington]. I have been yelled at by taxi drivers while I’m crossing in the crosswalk with the walk signal and told to get out of the intersection. The thing that surprised me the most about Chicago is how friendly people are and how mean they get behind the wheel.

There’s confusion in that people think their speed dictates how fast they get somewhere and that’s something that we’re going to have to change through education, enforcement and redesigning our streets so that they’re inherently safer and more efficient. We want to focus on getting people to their destinations more quickly but without speeding.

Rahm has committed to building the Bloomingdale Trail within four years. It took roughly two years just for the city’s procurement department to approve the design contract. Is it even possible the trail can be completed that soon?

Fair question. The mayor doesn’t seem to think that it’s impossible. He doesn’t seem to think that Procurement or CDOT or anybody else should be an obstacle. Where there’s a will there’s a way. We launched bike sharing in 13 months in D.C. There were a lot of things that made it work, but ultimately we said we’re going to do this in 13 months and we got it done.

He also committed to creating 100 miles of car-protected bike lanes within his first term. The first half-mile on Kinzie cost over $140,000, not including labor. How are we going to pay for all of these?

You’re often much smarter when you don’t have a lot of money because you have to come up with innovative ways to do things. We immediately started looking at where we had overlap between where we wanted to place these in the next four years and where we had resurfacing and reconstruction projects where there’s already money budgeted.

Now we also have to have some budget, but the return on investment is very high for projects like this. When you look at what it costs to build a mile of urban highway, $40-60 million, versus putting in a mile of protected bike lanes, there’s no comparison.

Where’s the next cycle track coming in. Stony Island?

That one’s going to take a while because it’s got federal funding so there’s a long approval process. We’re looking at a few options. The only thing I’m nervous about is getting ahead of the outreach to the neighborhoods. But we’re looking hard at Jackson. A couple mile stretch of Jackson into downtown is being resurfaced – this would be an ideal street for a protected bikeway.

Maintenance seems like a big issue – how are we going to keep the cycle tracks clear of debris and snow?

We worked with Streets and Sanitation on this issue. They said if you can just make these X number of feet wide, which is easy to do in most cases, we can just get a regular street cleaner or snowplow down them. So we’re going to design to a standard that makes sense for all the government agencies.

CDOT is involved with creating bus rapid transit (BRT). What’s going on with that?

We’ve got three corridors we’re working on: Jeffrey, East-West [Union Station to Navy Pier] and Western Avenue. Jeffrey is the furthest along but East-West has a $25 million circulator grant and I think we’ll be making some exciting announcements by the end of the summer.

Are you interested in reducing the number of cars in Chicago and, if so, how?

I absolutely support reducing the zoning requirements for parking at new construction. I think we should have a maximum and no minimum. But to reduce the number of cars, the best thing we can do is give people other transportation options. Driving a car is not inherently bad. Driving a car by yourself, for everything you do, is.

In 2004, shortly after Millennium Park opened, the city removed crosswalks on Michigan near the park, most notably at Randolph, where you now have to make three street crossings to get from the Chicago Cultural Center to the park.

Soon after that the city took out the pedestrian traffic light and crosswalk from Buckingham Fountain to the lakefront. The reason given at the time was expediting car traffic on Lake Shore Drive. Would you consider reversing these changes?

Let’s start with Lake Shore Drive, because I was actually on a tour recently and they described how that crosswalk was taken out. I would like to put it back, as long as we can make it safe. What I realized, just standing there and watching, is that people are crossing anyway and they’re running across Lake Shore Drive.

The Randolph/Michigan issue is interesting. I don’t like it from the standpoint that I would like to give priority to the pedestrians that we’re relying on to populate the park. Having said that, if the crosswalk was taken out because of safety concerns then we really have to look at Michigan Avenue, which I think is just a problem.

It’s bad enough you have [Lake Shore Drive] between the park and the lake. I think Michigan has got to be a slower street. I live on South Michigan so I’m very tuned in to how fast people drive there. I’m working on a plan to slow people down to make it generally more pleasant, keeping people at or below the speed limit.

You’re a bicycle commuter. What’s your favorite thing about biking in Chicago?

I never get tired – it’s so flat. In D.C. it’s all downhill to downtown and all uphill on the way home. So you see a 12% difference in the number of people using bike sharing to get to work and the number using it to get home – they’ll take Metro or a cab instead. Here it’s so easy.

The other thing is biking makes me feel better. When I bike to work and I get that air in the morning and I get out and see the city from that perspective, my head is clearer and my day is better.

What’s your opinion of Critical Mass – would you ever consider riding in it?

I haven’t studied Critical Mass’ mission or tactics so I’m not going to give you answer on that. I’ve heard through the grapevine that, “Oh, they can be kind of anarchic, so you may want to look at that before you go ride with them.” [Laughs.]

What I like about the name Critical Mass is that’s something I’ve been saying for a long time, that if you want to make the streets safe you need a critical mass of cyclists and pedestrians, and you have to deal with the automobile problem.

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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.

26 thoughts on “An interview with CDOT’s Gabe Klein”

        1. Hi John, having paid little to no attention to previous CDOT commissioners, I’d like to know how much of a sea change Gabe Klein represents with his views. Have we heard similar promises from previous commissioners, or is Gabe Klein truly different?

          1. We have not heard similar views from previous commissioners. I think John will have a better answer because he’s been paying attention to them longer.

            When I worked for CDOT, none of the three commissioners (Powers, Byrne, Ware) I “worked under” paid any attention to bicycling initiatives. Only Ware actually showed up to MBAC – I think.

  1. Man I love this guy.

    Re: downtown bike lanes – I just got word that they’re resurfacing Monroe. I think that would also be a great spot for a protected bike lane. Similar to Jackson, it’s one-way headed east, but Monroe is more centrally-located. Either way, great to hear they’re thinking about this option.

  2. Man I love this guy.

    Re: downtown bike lanes – I just got word that they’re resurfacing Monroe. I think that would also be a great spot for a protected bike lane. Similar to Jackson, it’s one-way headed east, but Monroe is more centrally-located. Either way, great to hear they’re thinking about this option.

  3. I really like his comments about removing the parking requirements on new construction. The zoning code is really bad there. By fiat, it damages transit’s ability to compete by removing a direct cost of driving.

    What I really hope is that he listens to my plea to remove the ban on group taxis. Just that stroke of the pen would solve the S side transportation problem. No offense to bikers, but that is a far more serious problem than bike lanes, and I can’t understand why it isn’t being given priority. I guess serious proposals are just not inoffensive crowd pleasers as much as fluff.

    1. I’m not familiar with group taxis. And what does that have to do with “the south side transportation problem”?

      I hope no bikers take offense – I think many people who bike realize that our transportation system needs a better balance, and not really in favor of biking but a balance that ceases to constantly favor driving a car alone.

      1. One group to target is employers. They have a lot of impact on transportation, whether it’s their location choice, whether they subsidize employee cars and parking, whether they allow flexible hours and telecommuting….

    1. Actually, there is the dedicated busway, mostly underground and just east of Michigan, that leads from McCormick Place to Millennium Park. I always forget about that one.

  4. Wow! Parking maximums instead of minimums in the zoning code. I wish Klein had been around during the zoning codes rewrite a few years back.

  5. What would really send a signal is creating dedicated bike and bus lanes on Michigan, and bury the roadways by renovating/amplifying the existing underground system, and charging toll for entry. Cities like Barcelona have done exactly that, and in doing so have greatly stimulated commerce and eased traffic flow. Much of Michigan is wide enough, and no one can seriously claim that the present congested situation serves anyone. It does however negate its nickname, as there is little magnificent left in that stinking, noisy and dangerous mile.

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