How did progressive transportation czar Gabe Klein get that way?


[This article also runs in Newcity magazine. All photos by Steven.]

“Gabe Klein has always viewed his work as a canvas to create a contribution, and is inspired by ventures that give something back to the community, versus strictly producing profit. This is why he only works on projects that invoke his passion.”
– From “Gabe Klein’s TreE-House,”

“True love knows no bargains. It is one-way traffic; giving, giving, giving.”
Swami Satchidananda, Klein’s childhood guru

When forward-thinking Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) Commissioner Gabe Klein reported for work on May 16 as part of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s new administration, it marked a sea change in the city’s priorities. After spending most of the 20th Century trying to make it easier to drive, City Hall was switching its focus to promoting healthier modes: walking, biking and transit.

Sure, Mayor Richard M. Daley was an outspoken proponent of bicycling, but the end of his long reign is widely viewed as a period of stagnation. During this time the city did relatively little to promote sustainable transportation, partly because CDOT was a revolving door, with five different commissioners within the last six years of the administration.

During this period our town fell behind other U.S. cities that were successfully pioneering green transportation initiatives like car-protected bike lanes, large-scale public bike sharing systems and “ciclovia” events which shut down streets to make room for car-free recreation. Meanwhile Chicago was still futilely trying to fight auto congestion by removing pedestrian crosswalks, shortening walk signal times, and installing slip lanes and right-on-red signals to help drivers make faster turns.

After Emanuel won the election, his choice of Klein made it clear the mayor-elect was serious about sustainable transportation. The new commissioner was fresh from a stint as transportation director for Washington, D.C., where in a mere 23 months he made numerous pedestrian safety improvements, launched a new streetcar system, expanded the downtown circulator bus system, piloted protected bike lanes, and created the nation’s first and largest bike share system.

Klein hit the ground running here as well. Within six months the commissioner racked up an impressive list of accomplishments and firsts. Just a few weeks after he took office, CDOT installed the city’s first protected bicycle lane on Kinzie Avenue, bumping rush-hour bike traffic from a 22% mode share to a high of 51%, meaning there are sometimes more bikes on the street than cars. New protected lanes on Jackson Boulevard and 18th Street are nearly finished, and the city plans to install a total of 100 miles of protected lanes within Emanuel’s first term.


Ribbon cutting for the city’s first on-street bike corral

Under Klein, CDOT has begun striping conventional bike lanes continuously through intersections, and at long last the agency has installed a bike lane on Madison Street, breaking the Daley-era taboo against lanes in the central Loop. Chicago’s first on-street bike parking corral, a common sight in cities like San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, landed in Wicker Park this summer.

Chicago recently issued a request for proposals for an operator to launch a 3,000-vehicle bike sharing system in summer 2012, adding 2,000 more bikes over the next two years. And while the contract to design the Bloomingdale Trail, an elevated rails-to-trails, had been stalled for the last two years under Daley, immediately following the regime change the city’s procurement department approved the contract and preliminary design work started – Klein plans to complete the trail by the end of Emanuel’s first term.

CDOT is currently working with the Chicago Transit Authority to launch bus rapid transit corridors, with pre-paid boarding and dedicated bus lanes. The transportation department is also now drafting the Chicago Pedestrian Plan, and in October CDOT launched a safety awareness campaign, with 32 mannequins installed along Wacker Drive representing pedestrians killed by cars last year, plus placard ads portraying the devastating effects of reckless driving. And while in 2005 Daley had the pedestrian crossing between Buckingham Fountain and the lakefront fenced off to speed car traffic on Lake Shore Drive, last month Klein re-opened the crosswalk, a powerful symbol of the city’s new attitude.


“With Gabe Klein we see a passion for innovation and a real respect for how sustainable transportation make cities better places to live,” said Ron Burke, executive director of the local advocacy group Active Transportation Alliance. “At least a third of all trips in Chicago are made by walking, biking and transit and in the past I don’t think that these modes were prioritized. It’s great to see that under Gabe they are.”

“Klein is running his department differently than other CDOT chiefs,” agreed Lucy Gomez-Feliciano, who manages health and sustainable transportation projects for the Logan Square Neighborhood Association. “It’s feeling like the commissioner wants to get things done and have an impact.”

At only 40 years old, Klein’s personal style is also very different than that of a typical Chicago bureaucrat. He’s the first CDOT commissioner to make full use of social media to promote his agenda, tweeting frequently about the latest transportation news. His Twitter profile lists pop culture, pizza, hip hop, and international beaches among his passions, and he gained a reputation here as a clotheshorse when he showed up for the July opening of the Kinzie protected lane, nattily dressed in a white linen suit.


Klein is also far more accessible than most of his predecessors. In the early 2000s I spent several years at CDOT’s bicycle program working under Commissioner Miguel d’Escoto, who eventually resigned in the wake of a trucking scandal, and I barely met the man. In contrast, Klein is already a familiar face at rallies, ribbon cuttings and galas, and it’s easy for the public to contact him via Twitter and Facebook. In October at Active Transportation Alliance’s Open Streets on State Street, Chicago’s first downtown ciclovia, he even volunteered for the dunking booth, and Ron Burke threw the pitch that dropped the commissioner into a tank of 55 degree water.

So I wasn’t surprised when Klein agreed to let me join him on his morning bike commute on a frosty Thursday in early December. A few days prior I’d interviewed him in his CDOT offices about his biography. I was curious about the path he’d traveled to become a self-described “fiscal conservative who’s as liberal as they come.”

We meet up for our ride at 8 am under cobalt skies at 14th and Michigan, near Klein’s South Loop apartment. True to form, he’s wearing a 1950s brown pinstripe suit that he bought used for $56, spending another $25 for alterations. His bike is a Masi Soulville seven-speed cruiser with silver fenders and a wooden beer-carrying crate in front that holds his Italian leather briefcase. It’s freezing out but he’s not wearing gloves.

Klein was born on Valentine’s Day 1971 in Hartford, Connecticut, to parents that were part of the Beat Generation, he said during our interview at CDOT. His Irish-Catholic mother was a lifelong artist. His Jewish father dropped out of NYU in the 1950s and moved to Japan, where he established a successful adhesive tape import business. “Supporting himself with this company basically allowed him to follow his dream, which was to be involved in civil rights and politics,” the commissioner said.

Klein’s father campaigned for liberal candidate Adlai Stevenson in his 1960 race against John F. Kennedy for the Democratic presidential nomination. In the early Sixties he was as a Freedom Rider who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Stokely Carmichael at demonstrations in the South. Later that decade the elder Klein opened a cafe called The Sign of the Fool in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, befriended poet Allen Ginsberg, and was housemates with Neal Cassady, the inspiration for the central figure in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.

We mount our bicycles and pedal west on 14th Street. Turning north on recently repaved Wabash Avenue, we’re in a new “buffered” bike lane, with double-striped lines on either side to provide extra space between cyclists and moving vehicles to their left, and the swinging doors of parked cars to their right.


Although a November 27 Tribune opinion piece by John McCarron trashed CDOT’s protected bike lane, bike sharing and bus rapid transit plans as being part of the city’s new “war on cars,” as we roll by a sleek orange Lotus Esprit sports car Klein says, “Wow, beautiful car.”

The commissioner traces his not-so-secret love of classic automobiles back to his father. When Gabe Klein was three the family moved to Putnam, Connecticut, and his dad opened the Silver Bike Shop, where Gabe helped out as kid, but autos also fascinated his father. “He got a different car probably every six months,” Klein said. “So the infatuation with transportation runs in the family.” His father also had a keen interest in yoga and meditation, and on weekends he helped maintain the fleet of vintage Cadillacs belonging to his guru, Swami Satchidananda, the holy man who gave the opening benediction at the Woodstock festival. The swami’s Integral Yoga institute was headquartered down the road from Putnam in Pomfret, Connecticut.

In addition to bikes and cars, Gabe Klein’s youthful obsessions included computers and yoga. He bought an Apple II at age ten with a loan from the local credit union, planting the seed for his current affinity for technology, and he decided he wanted to study under Satchidananda. When the guru opened the Yogaville Vidyalam, an interfaith school along the banks of the James River near Buckingham, Virginia, Klein followed him there at age eleven.

While studying at the ashram he lived with various families, including that of classmate and future Dave Matthews Band bassist Stefan Lessard, until Klein’s family moved to the area to open a second bike shop. Other Yogaville contemporaries included actor Liev Schreiber and Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, with whom Klein played Dungeons & Dragons. “There were some very creative kids there,” Klein said. “It really changed my life.” He still practices yoga every week with his wife Stephanie, and he said the spiritual lessons he learned from Satchidananda have strongly influenced his life choices. “I’m half Jewish and half Catholic, but I grew up more Hindu,” he said.

The commissioner has stated that he wants Chicago’s street design to follow the “8 to 80 rule,” with facilities that make it easy for everyone from children to seniors to travel the city safely, and I asked him if his background in Eastern philosophy informs this humanistic perspective on urban planning. “I don’t know,” he replied. “This is just how I am. I think that you have to take a holistic approach. Everything is related to everything else, which is sort of Eastern, I guess. But it just seems logical.”

We turn east into another bike lane on Roosevelt Road, then head north onto Michigan Avenue. “I love riding on Michigan because it’s a great example of something that looks scary, but actually if you take the whole lane and act like a car, it’s really not scary at all,” Klein says. “Knock on wood. Watch, we’ll probably get sideswiped by a cab today.”


We ride by Grant Park and the headless, armless bodies of Magdalena Abakanowicz’s “Agora” sculpture to our right, as we pedal towards the white monolith of the AEON Tower and other gleaming skyscrapers. Soon we’re at the Art Institute of Chicago museum, whose famous lions sport Christmas wreaths.

Klein rides briskly ahead and then stops behind a taxi from a suburban company. “I got in trouble back there because I wasn’t taking the lane,” he says. “So the cab driver was actually right to honk at me because he didn’t know if I was going to go into his lane. If you take the whole lane, even if somebody’s got to go around you, it’s much safer.”

The commissioner went to high school in Charlottesville, Virginia, and then majored in Marketing Management at Virginia Tech. After college he worked for Bikes USA, the nation’s largest bicycle retailer at the time, eventually managing operations for the entire chain and helping expand it from about 10 stores to about 20.

Following a stint doing sales and marketing for a start-up that connected Fortune 500 executives to consulting companies, work he found “soulless,” Klein took a post as at Zipcar as regional vice president for Washington, D.C., from 2002-2006. There he helped grow the company into a billion-dollar enterprise and the largest car sharing service in the U.S. “With Zipcar I once again found that passion,” he says. “It was an exciting ride.”

At Madison Street Klein rides up onto the sidewalk below the Millennium Park Bean, preparing to make a pedestrian-style left turn. “Sorry, I forgot to get in the left lane,” he explains. We continue west in the new Madison bike lane, situated between car lanes to our left, and bus-only lanes to our right, and it’s a bit unsettling to pedal with motorized traffic on either side.


Due to the Wacker Driver rehab project, when CDOT originally striped the bike lane this summer it stopped at Wells Street, but it was recently extended to Wacker. “I just got a picture of it tweeted to me by a constituent,” Klein says. “He thanked us for it.” The commissioner forwarded the tweet to the mayor as an example of how residents are grateful for the new bike facilities. Now we’re pulling up to LaSalle Street. As Klein is about to turn north a cab speeds by, inches from his front tire. “That was almost bad,” he says with a smile.

In 2006 Klein left Zipcar to launch to On the Fly, a D.C.-based boutique food service company, where he helped develop electric “smartkarts” as an alternative to gas-guzzling food trucks. Two years later, new mayor Adrian Fenty tapped him to lead the District Department of Transportation, where he quickly achieved the aforementioned milestones. “It was a fascinating job.” Klein says. “It was a chance to use the private sector mentality and show that the only thing holding back government is government itself and its focus on sustaining itself rather than serving its constituents.”

After Fenty lost reelection in 2010 and the administration changed at year’s end, Klein traveled to Costa Rica, did consulting work and pondered his next move. He’d been offered positions leading various state transportation departments of transportation, but these jobs didn’t spark his imagination.

After Rahm Emanuel won the election in February, former Active Transportation Alliance director Randy Neufeld served on the transition team and recommended Klein to lead CDOT. “I had seen Gabe’s work in D.C. on protected bike lanes, and an amazing bike lane on Pennsylvania Avenue,” Neufeld said. “I knew that his boss, Mayor Fenty, did not get re-elected, so I connected him to Emanuel’s people.”

“One of the things that appealed to me about working for Mayor Emanuel was that he really had this holistic vision for a sustainable transportation system in Chicago and he also understood the economic benefits and the health benefits,” Klein told me. “So I’m really excited to be here to carry out that vision.”

We arrive at the CDOT offices at 30 N. LaSalle, where a dozen or so bikes are locked on the racks out front. Klein rolls down an alley to the loading dock where he pulls out a large U-lock from his briefcase and secures the Masi to a low-security bike rack on the dock. “You’re not going to bring your bike upstairs today?” I ask, since I’d previously seen it sitting in his office. “No, the building management gets a little irritated about that,” he replies. “If I do, I need to bring it through the freight elevator, which is why I’m saying to them, you guys really need to provide better parking. But they’re working on it.”


We walk back to the main entrance of the building. Before heading to the 11th floor for the first of the day’s meetings, he grins and says, “I’ve got a quote for you. ‘A bike ride to work in Chicago in the winter wakes you up better than a cup of coffee.’”

Now that we’ve seen how Klein arrived here, let’s look at his plans for the near future. Last Saturday, December 10, CDOT held an open house downtown, the first of four community input sessions to help determine locations for the next 97 miles of protected bike lanes. This selection process will lead to the Streets for Cycling 2020 Plan, and Klein said the city will install the next 22 miles of protected lanes by mid-May.

CDOT recently won $36.5 million in federal and state funding to help finance the Bloomingdale Trail, estimated to cost $50-70 million. Another $18.5 million grant will pay for the bike sharing system. Klein said the city will choose the contractor to run the system in early 2012 in preparation for the summer launch.

The commissioner said the final draft of Chicago Pedestrian Plan will be published in February and CDOT will also be installing 100 new “leading interval” walk signals, which give pedestrians a head start over turning cars, as well as more countdown signals and high-visibility crosswalks. Construction will start on the Jeffrey Boulevard bus rapid transit corridor on the South Side next year, and work on a downtown corridor from Union Station to Navy Pier will begin in 2013, including a new bus terminal at the southwest corner of Jackson and Canal.

Klein is particularly excited about the Chicago Fast Forward Agenda, CDOT’s upcoming two-year master plan. It will cover everything from specific metrics like determining the kind of materials to be used for permeable alleys, to broad policies like “complete streets” guidelines dictating that roadway projects must provide good accommodations for all users, not just drivers.

Besides John McCarron’s op-ed in the Tribune there have only been a handful of negative newspaper articles about the commissioner’s plans, but will there be a large-scale revolt once CDOT starts taking significant amounts of real estate away from cars for protected bike lanes and bus rapid transit? With his background in marketing, Klein thinks he can prevent a major backlash by educating his constituents about how better walking, biking and transit facilities can make the streets safer, more efficient and more fun for all Chicagoans, even reducing congestion for motorists.

Here the commissioner takes a page from another technophile and devotee of Eastern philosophy, Apple founder and Zen Buddhist Steve Jobs. “He was able to give people what they hadn’t even envisioned that they needed yet,” Klein has said. “And then once they had it they couldn’t live without it. I think all of us in the transportation industry could learn from that.”

Published by

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.

27 thoughts on “How did progressive transportation czar Gabe Klein get that way?”

  1. Great article!  Klein’s got a lot of good ideas, and I think his approach to “selling” the ideas ahead of time to ward off the opposition that’s sure to arise.  It will be a fun summer to watch as cars start to wonder where all the bikes are coming from!

  2. I’m very glad that we’ve got Gabe Klein here.  His accessibility has been a breath of fresh air.  How ironic that he’s facing the same issues regarding bike parking and bike access at his office building that so many of us have faced.

    1. I think he has the skills, too. The ideas and plans that he and Mayor Emanuel have expressed are definitely helping to motivate the staff at CDOT as they get to complete projects that haven’t been done before. Less “business as usual” over there. 

  3. And there will be huge backlash once he starts using cameras to
    Ticket speeders. But wait, it’s all about the children, right? Right….

    1. I was wondering the same thing! Here’s an excerpt from our interview at the CDOT offices:

      Grid Chicago: There was a rumor circulating that you’ve got these goals that you want to accomplish, the three big bike initiatives in the transition plan and then after you accomplish these goals you’re going to go back to D.C., that you don’t really see this as a long-term job. Do you see an end to this job or what’s your game plan?

      Gabe Klein: Well, I can tell you my wife would love to move here [she currently splits her time between Chicago and D.C., where she still works] and we love Chicago. So, no, that’s not the plan. And, to be honest, as much as I love the bike stuff, there’s a lot of other stuff that I want to do here too. There’s bus rapid transit, there’s enhancing our paving program, all of the safety initiatives. And everything’s related. Like pavement quality, pavement conditions, are related to safety. So there’s a lot of work to be done on a lot of fronts. I think what you may have heard is I’m working on a two-year plan. It’s called the Chicago Fast Forward Agenda and we’ve been working on it pretty hard for the last few months. We plan on putting that out early next year.

  4. I’m all for more cyclists/less cars, but I have to say as a pedestrian (I gave up the car 15 years ago and now walk/bus everywhere) we need to actually Enforce the rules of the road for the majority of cyclists, especially in the Loop. 

    It is a daily occurrence to watch cyclists disobey traffic signals and weave there way through a crowd of pedestrians trying to legally cross the street. 

  5. I’m glad to see his helmet. As I once said to his father, “If you don’t use a helmet, you probably don’t need one.” (His father paused to ponder… laughed out loud, and said he would put it up as a sign in his bike shop). You go, Gabe!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *