The Future of Cities, as Gabe Klein Sees It

The outgoing Chicago Department of Transportation head on how we’re heading toward something more dense and automated—and maybe less happy.

Gabe Klein arriving at his office on North LaSalle Street in the summer of 2011.   Photo: Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune

In 2011, Gabe Klein came into town after a short stint as D.C.’s transportation head, with an unusual background for a transportation commissioner in Chicago—lots of private sector experience in startups, including a stint at ZipCar, and virtually none with the city itself. A couple years later he’s stepping down, heading back to D.C. and into the private sector.

Despite his short tenure, though, Klein rolled out a lot of high-profile projects, borrowing liberally from approaches used in other cities in America and around the world. As Streetsblog Chicago’s John Greenfield details, his list of changes include speed cameras, bike share, an ambitious network of bike lanes, bus rapid-transit, “people spots,” the planned Chicago river walk, and the 606 elevated trail, as well as the more typical, less exotic duties of a CDOT commissioner.

Klein leaves Chicago having accelerated the city’s shift, which began more slowly under Mayor Daley’s tenure, towards an embrace of new-urbanist transit principles: one that drives slower and walks and bikes more, reorienting towards an expected future of high density and high gas prices. Klein sat down with me on Monday to talk about what that future looks like in Chicago and the rest of the country.

You have an unusual background for a transportation commissioner—you didn’t come in as an engineer, or up through the ranks in a department, you came in through the private sector with a background in marketing and management. What advantages did that give you going in?

Certainly there was a learning curve because I didn’t know a lot about how government worked. I sort of knew how it didn’t work. In the private sector, for instance at ZipCar, when we were trying to negotiate with governments—D.C. included—and trying to be regulated or licensed as a car-sharing company, not as a car-rental company, which meant very different financial implications for our customers and for us, the government often just didn’t get it.

And it was very frustrating—you’re trying to innovate in the private sector, and government just doesn’t hear you. A lot of my experience with government was things like that. When I started my food truck company, it was the same sort of thing. Government just didn’t know what to do with it, because it was new and different.

The government has traditionally been significantly behind the general public in terms of innovation, and so what excited me about coming into the government was the idea to innovate at a private sector pace and skill level. In the public sector you have a tremendous amount of resources, and my argument’s always been that the biggest problem in the public sector has been career-level bureaucrats saying “no.” Because it’s easier to say no. It’s safer to say no. Saying “yes” means you might actually have to do some work, and you may have to change something. And to be honest, in big corporations you encounter some of the same stuff.

So the big advantage for me coming in is that I wasn’t used to saying no without a very good justification for it. When you come in with a more positive attitude, saying “yes,” it opens up a whole new spectrum of opportunities. As soon as you say “no,” that’s it, you’re done.

When you were starting your food truck business, what sort of problems did you encounter? It’s been a slow rollout here.

Overregulation. You had fear from the hot dog vendors—the mainstay of the street vending world, at least in Washington, there’s hundreds of them. Back when I started this company, there weren’t any food trucks. I’d seen the Mud Truck in New York, which sold coffee, but there weren’t food trucks.

So we had this idea—we’re going to have these environmentally friendly vehicles that we’re going to custom build, electric trucks, and we’re going to serve natural and organic food out of them. The public thought it was great. But getting the government to understand what we wanted to do… they were like “oh my God, we have to change the way we’ve been doing things for the past 50 years.”

The reason we got into the business is because the D.C. government said, “we want to change the way we’ve been doing things for 50 years.” But government is often big on talking and not big on walking. You have multiple agencies involved—you’ve got the consumer affairs bureau, the public space bureau that’s in the DOT.

Funny story: the woman who headed up public space in the DOT was blocking us from being successful. When I became the nominee to run the agency, and I did the big press conference with Mayor Fenty, she was the first person in line to meet me, and she’s like, “should I just pack up my desk and get my resume together now?”

And I said no. While I thought she didn’t do a very good job in that situation, you can’t combine personal with business. And I actually became very friendly with her, and I think she became more innovative over the next couple years when I was running the DOT. I think sometimes the career people in the agency just need to know that you have their back and that you are open to making change. And that if something does go wrong, that you will stick up for them.

That’s why a lot of the things we did are pilots. Because pilots allow the people in the agency to experiment without this incredible fear of failure that everybody has. Particularly in government, people are like “oh my God, what if it doesn’t work?”

Well, that’s fine. We tell people we’re going to try this. We’re going to try these people spots. You can disassemble them and put them away if people don’t like them. Or we’re going to put this Kinzie bike lane in in the first 30 days we’re here. Pilots have been key for me, because they’ve shown the people in the agency, and the public, and stakeholders like in the mayor’s office, that it’s ok to experiment. And if you have a little bit of failure, you set the expectation that it’s not failure; we know some things are going to work and some things won’t.

What’s been the resistance to pilot projects in state and local government?

I think people don’t know how. I think the whole process of experimentation is not in the DNA of the typical agency head. I think people like Adrian Fenty and Rahm Emanuel are open-minded, they’re innovative, they’re aggressive, and they encourage you to make change.

People say, “why do you think people like you and Janette Sadik-Khan get so much attention for what you’re doing?” Transportation and public space are part of it, but it’s really about change. It’s about managing change, and getting things done at a faster pace, so that people can see the thing happening before their eyes instead of experiencing it over a couple decades. They can wake up in the morning and see things that are different—see a new bike share program, see new bike lanes, see new parks, see a new riverwalk we’re going to build, see the Bloomingdale Trail actually happen, watch new CTA stations get built. Quickly.

What differences did you see in transportation and infrastructure, coming from D.C. to Chicago?

Another benefit of having someone like me coming in from somewhere else, if you’ve lived here for 30 years, you drive down the street and there are no markings on Ashland Avenue—you may not notice it. The fact that people are doing 40 to 50 miles an hour through the city on a lot of the arterials, you may not notice it. When I came here I was shocked—I was shocked—by the speeds I saw, by the lack of basic markings on the streets, by the pavement conditions.

Now, I wasn’t shocked by the pavement conditions, because I knew budgets were tight, but the number of potholes, the number of bumps you hit in your car or on your bike. And I spent the first three months or so here just riding my bike, because I really wanted to see the city at street level. April, May, and June of 2011—I would hit a pothole on my bike, and you really get a sense of how bad it is. So I basically did an inventory in my head of the most severe problems that we needed to address.

Some people might be able to go back in their head and remember how bad it was when the mayor took office, some people don’t. But if you look at the striping in the city, and the pavement condition—we’re out for the first time doing a computerized pavement condition index, where we’re using lasers to look at all the arterial streets. It’s night and day. We have delivered on the basics in a way that the city, I’ve heard, hasn’t in over a decade.

I assure you that you have the beginnings of a safe system. If you don’t have any lane markings on the road, how do expect people to obey the traffic laws? You can’t innovate if you don’t have lane markings.

Speaking of lane markings, I’m embarrassed to say that I went on a road trip to California after having lived in Chicago for a few years, and I didn’t stop at the crosswalks, because… people just don’t do that here.

You’re making my point about how it’s important to be in other places…. Chicago can be a little bit insular.

You mentioned your trip to the Netherlands—I had a good interview the other day with Peter Furth, a professor at Northeastern, who’s an expert on their transit. How do you see us being able to implement those sorts of infrastructure changes without quite as strong a history of cycling culture?

I was touring some areas with government officials in the Netherlands, and I said we have something you don’t—we have bike share. And they said, “we don’t need bike share. We have 2.7 bikes per person. And I said, “oh, I can see that.” Because they have the same congestion and parking problems that we have with bikes. Multi-level tenements with bikes and bikes and bikes.

And I said, “look, we put you on a pedestal when it comes to your infrastructure. It’s safer for cars, for buses, for pedestrians.” It’s not just about bikes; their infrastructure’s just safer for everybody. I love that when you leave an arterial or collector, going onto a little street, instead of having speed bumps, they have continuous sidewalks. So the car is a guest. And they even have markings that say that: the car is a guest on the street.

But the cool thing about bike share is that you can mainstream something like cycling so much faster, when people don’t have to acquire an asset, make a capital investment in a car or a bike or whatever.

That’s why the sharing economy—car sharing, bike sharing, AirBnB, this utilization of lazy assets that are just sitting around, or putting in systems that allow people to share versus own, are the future for dense cities.

We’re not the Netherlands, because they also built their system over 30, 40 years. We have plastic bollards in our bike lanes, they have grade-separated [tracks]. We’re going to put some of those in in 2014, but you have to reconstruct your roads for the most part.

And we’re not even on a 30-year reconstruction cycle on our streets. So that’s going to take awhile.

When you say that we’re not on a 30-year cycle, what does that mean?

Typically you pave streets between every 10, 15 years, and you reconstruct them… let’s say every 30, 40 years. It really depends on the city and the weather, and what their standards are. We don’t reconstruct our streets often because we don’t have the money to do it. And that leads to sinkholes, and collapses, and all that type of stuff.

We are retrofitting our streets with bike facilities, with the intention, when we rebuild them, of putting in more Dutch-style, Netherlands-type separated facilities. But you don’t necessarily do that until you reconstruct the streets, redo the curb and gutter, and all that kind of stuff.

You’re returning to the private sector?

That’s my plan, yeah. So people ask me, “do you have a job yet?” And I say, “no, no.” I’m not really big on jobs per se. I’m interested in what kind of change I can make. And it’ll probably be working for myself, or starting something with some other people, where I can take what I’ve learned working for cities and what I’ve learned in the private sector, and put it together and work with cities. But I still have to figure that out.

One of the things I’m really interested in is how to make a lot of impact in as little time as possible. I was recently asked to write a little book on how to do that—public and private.

You mentioned that earlier—using the shared economy in a public-private function. What technologies do you like right now that you’re seeing either in the U.S. or in other countries?

Application-wise, I think the open data that started in D.C. and spread to New York and Chicago and all over has been great, because people are creating interesting applications, or heat maps, or using it for their articles, and writing interesting perspectives based on the data.

I’m very interested in the correlation between traffic, lawbreaking, and traditional crime, and I think that’s something that you’re going to see more of in the next couple years—that correlation where you have people speeding, running stop signs, drunk driving, where you also have rape and muggings and murders. And I think it’s a broken windows effect.

If you get control of the traffic crime, I think it can go a long way.

I’ve read some of the research on that, and the correlation seems to be very strong.

Oh, it is. It’s very high in Chicago. We’ve run the heat maps. It’s the only correlation we can find: that correlation between traditional crime and any other metrics that we’ve looked at.

I think it’s fascinating. Things like the speed cameras, the speed indicator signs, using that type of technology can have a real effect. Not that we want people to feel like they’re being watched, but we want people who are apt to break the law to know that they might be watched. And that around every corner, if they want to break the law, there could be a camera there.

This is the newest speed indicator sign [points to huge electronic sign on the table]. It can flash at you, like a camera flash; it simulates a camera. I think that kind of street-level technology is important.

I think parking technology is improving, and it’s amazing [too]. One of things I’m proudest of in D.C. is the overhaul of the parking system, where we added pay-by-phone to all the meters. It’s got the highest penetration in the country—over 50 percent of people pay by phone now.

We picked meters and a pay-by-phone system that talked to each other, so you pay on your phone, it beams up to the satellite and back to your phone within seconds and starts flashing green.

That type of technology is great because government often focuses on, like, “let’s raise the rates on this.” Well, if you add value, you can get the same increase in revenue. Revenue’s up 400 percent in D.C. on parking meters with very little increase in rate, but a lot of increase in usability. Government does not look hard enough at, “how do we make things easier, simpler, more fun to use.” If you do, people are fine paying more.

It does seem like the next step, after open data, will be usability.

The public sector and the private sector are very much alike, but the public sector can take more time to get things done because they have a bit of a monopoly in a bunch of areas. And when they stop having the monopoly, like taxi cabs versus ride share, it’s interesting to watch what happens.

In D.C., the ride shares and the Ubers are eating the taxis’ lunch a little bit, because the taxis won’t even take credit cards most of the time.

When I got to Chicago you pretty much had to have cash for a taxi.

With the convergence of public and private, private companies are saying “look, government, if you’re going to offer a shitty service, then we may offer a service on our own that’s so much higher quality that people will pay more for it, and we’ll be profitable.”

And if that happens, the government is either going to have to evolve, raise the quality of their requirements, or lose.

This has been a pretty significant issue in San Francisco. They have a private bus line that’s running on a really busy route from a pretty wealthy area—the Chicago equivalent might be the Clark bus—and if private companies start being able to jump on those routes and make a profit, that’s going to leave the city running the routes that the city has to in order to maintain an equitable transit system. Is that something you worry about?

Not really. What ends up happening is the public and private sector become partners. Let’s say it costs the transportation authority $125 an hour to run a bus, which is pretty common. And let’s say the private operator can run it for $50 or $60. A smaller bus, you know.

So you look at it this way. At peak, when the buses are at capacity in a lot of these cities, and you can’t get on a bus, everybody is going to make money. At midnight, when those buses are running empty at $125 an hour, perhaps they partner with the private operator that costs $50 or $60, and the taxpayer wins. Maybe that jitney bus service is a little different.

Innovation is good. The only thing that scares me a little bit about innovation—and it’s not limited to transportation—is that we’re going to reach a point where we’re so productive, and we need so few people…. We’re getting so efficient that eventually it’s like, “where are the jobs going to come from?” If we have fast food restaurants that basically don’t need people to run them… we’ve gotten rid of manufacturing, some of it’s coming back a little bit, but we’re basically a service economy.

So if we have autonomous vehicles, we don’t need bus drivers anymore. And we have automated restaurants… what do people do for a living?

That’s a fascinating question that people haven’t figured out. It’s going to start to be an issue that people are going to be talking about a lot over the next decade: is productivity leading to, perhaps, a less happy society?

One thing a lot of people I know are worried about, because they see it happening in cities as they’re able to get more efficient, is that a lot of cities have residency requirements—and a lot of the middle class population in the cities has been supported by government work. And as that declines, you lose that middle-class base.

That doesn’t bother me as much. I think if you look at some of the problems in Illinois, it’s that. The government can’t be a jobs program. I don’t believe in that. Because, if the government can’t do something efficiently, the private sector will come in and do it more efficiently, and that person that could have worked in the government will work in the private sector.

It’s like the argument about the Illiana expressway—we need the Illiana expressway because we need the jobs. Well, is that the best project? Because if we go build a CTA station, those people are still going to get jobs, and the CTA creates ongoing jobs for people operating it.

What I’m saying is that, in the bigger picture, when we get so productive, when you don’t really need people to do anything, what do you do?

The irony is that the technology is so amazing that we may end up back where we started, sharecropping our own front yard, producing our own electricity, owning our own home, and basically that’s what you do. Because there aren’t necessarily as many jobs.

Transportation’s going to be a problem. Cities will get so dense over the next century that you won’t be able to drive 30 miles to a job, anyway. So you’ll have to work in place.

The suburbs will densify and urbanize. When we did the 2050 plan in D.C…. D.C. was going to grow explosively by 2050. And what they figured out is that you might not be able to drive from Adams-Morgan to Fairfax for your work anymore. There won’t be enough capacity on the trains, you won’t be able to drive anywhere, because it’ll be too busy. So what they said in their plan is that more people are going to work in place, produce their own energy and food in place, and basically neighborhoods are going to become little mini-cities again. Like they used to be.

What’s interesting, as we re-urbanize and densify, and the technology continues to escalate, I think the irony is that we might end up more where we started.

Do you think this feeds into the pushback we’re getting for funding urban transit in Congress? You have a lot of rural and exurban congressmen who are seeing population loss in suburbs.

They’re scared. They’re seeing what happened in the ‘70s and ‘80s in cities happen in their suburbs. They’re seeing McMansions boarded up, and homeless people living in them. They’re seeing people fleeing the suburbs back to the cities, massive amounts of foreclosures. Not everywhere, but this is a pattern that we’re seeing, and it scares them.

Whether that is leading to their support or not support for cities I don’t know, but that certainly makes some sense that it could be part of the problem.

And the way the system’s set up… you have two senators in Wyoming with 500,000 people, and two in California with, what 30 million people… I think our government’s breaking down, too. As the rural areas get even more rural, and cities get more dense, I don’t know what’s going to happen with our system of government the way it’s set up. Something’s going to have to give, because it’s not working now and it’s only going to get worse.

What do you think Chicago will look like in 50 years?

I think Chicago will probably be the beacon of the Midwest. It’ll be the biggest city, it’ll be a transportation hub as it is now.

When you talk to the Chinese—I was with the Chinese minister of transportation a couple weeks ago—they think of Chicago first, before New York or L.A. Chicago’s a big deal for them.

If we continue to grow and evolve and add great services, like Divvy and bus rapid transit, and transit-oriented development, and we are smart about our growth, we lure more companies to the city, and have more people live, work and play in place in the city, I think Chicago will be very successful.

If we don’t, and we retrench, and we say “let’s continue with the land-use patterns that got us into this mess with the suburbs, let’s give the roads over to the cars,” I think we could be Detroit. Not Detroit, but we could head in that direction, instead of the direction the mayor wants to take us, which is a successful world-class city with great infrastructure.

Why are we such a big deal for the Chinese?

I think there’s a few reasons. Mayor Daley had a good relationship with the Chinese and went over there quite a bit. He really built a rapport with the Chinese. I think it’s the ease of flying in, getting in at O’Hare, coming right downtown and going to Louis Vuitton and Burberry and all that.

It’s on a number of different levels. At the government level, there’s a relationship and experience with Chicago. Our transportation system mirrors a lot of what they have. Wuhan and Guangzhao—although Wuhan is much bigger, they have a 60,000-bike bike share system, and they’re adding high-speed rail, which we don’t have. But in many ways they mirror each other.

And they love to shop. And they love the high-end shopping we have on the Magnificent Mile, and how easy it is to get to all of it at once. So there’s a lot of Chinese tourism here.

I have one more question about public-private partnerships. You talked about how that can improve infrastructure, but you came in and had to face what’s a pretty restrictive public-private partnership with the parking meters.

Oh, God.

What can future commissioners of transportation, and other officials, what should they be careful about if they want to avoid that?

You never want to be rushed. As I understand it, the parking meter deal happened because there was a rush to get something done before a deadline, and to generate enough revenue to cover shortfalls in the budget.

Yeah, it went through City Council in, like, two days.

That’s probably a recipe for a problem. These are complex contracts. Let’s say I’d been here. If they mayor had said, “we need some money,” I would have said, “let’s bond against the parking meters, let’s put them up as collateral, we can get a billion dollars, but we still control them, and we control our own public space, and we can upgrade the technology and see the huge increases in revenue that they’ve seen in D.C., here.” Without giving them up, you can basically borrow against them. So that’s what I would have done.

In general, though, public-private partnerships are the future. And there’s no question that things like the parking meter deal have given them a besmirched reputation. But the fact is that we need the expertise and the dollars that the private sector has to offer.

It’s not that public-private partnerships are good or bad. It’s like saying, “I bought a lemon, so that makes all cars bad.” No, the car you bought was bad. There are other cars that are great. So we have to be careful to be too biased against P3s because of the parking meter deal.

 

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8 months ago
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