What Does Chicago Need From the Next Transportation Commissioner?

State Street, Chicago
Pedestrians and transit on State Street. Photo: Mike Steele

This morning the Chicago Sun-Times published a fairly solid editorial with some interesting thoughts on the task ahead for whomever takes the reigns of the Chicago Department of Transportation after Commissioner Gabe Klein steps down later this month. “Too often in the past the city’s transportation chief has focused more on potholes and snow removal than on a vision of a city in which the streets work for everyone,” the paper states. Actually, Streets and Sanitation handles almost all snowplowing, but the sentiment is spot-on. “Gabe Klein… broke that mold. His replacement should be someone who follows through on Klein’s foresighted initiatives while addressing long-neglected problems.”

The editorial praises the commissioner for implementing protected bicycle lanes and bike-share, and launching construction of the Bloomingdale, as well as securing funding for the riverwalk, speeding up the repaving cycle, and publishing complete streets guideline that prioritize pedestrians. The editorial goes on to list qualities needed from Klein’s successor, and the challenges that person will face: “The top priority will be to nurture the programs already underway, which means we need someone with high-level management experience and a strong transit background.”

Inspired by the Sun-Times piece, we decided to contact some central players in the local transportation scene to ask what qualities they’d like to see from the next commissioner. Here’s what they told us.

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Klein bikes to work on Michigan Avenue. Photo: Steven Vance

MarySue Barrett, president of the Metropolitan Planning Council: “Gabe exemplified, as part of a short list of transportation leaders around the country, qualities that are a decent sketch for what the job description for his successor should be. The new commissioner has to reflect Mayor Emanuel’s impatience with how long projects take, and embody all those entrepreneurial and innovative qualities that Gabe exemplified, which are well suited to the times we face.”

Ron Burke,  director of the Active Transportation Alliance: “Like Klein, the next Commissioner should have a deep belief in creating streets that are safe places for everyone, whether you are walking, biking, in a car or in a wheelchair, complete streets where everyone gets their fair share and cars don’t overwhelm the public rights of way. He or she also needs the experience and ability to achieve this vision, including implementation of the city’s Streets for Cycling Plan 2020, the pedestrian plan, and new BRT lines in the Loop and on Ashland.”

27th Ward Alderman Walter Burnett: “Gabe Klein is an innovator and a free-thinker. He brought a lot of good ideas to Chicago, and I think the city is a better place because of him. The next person needs to be someone with a short learning curve who can keep things flowing, because 2014 is the last year of our aldermanic term, so we really don’t want any projects being held up. Working at City Hall, you can’t get much done if people don’t like you, so the new commissioner needs to have a personality that will move people to partner with [him or her] to get things done.”

35th Ward Alderman Rey Colón: “The next CDOT Commissioner must have a history of success in continuing the initiatives Gabe Klein has started i.e., protected bike lanes, Divvy, putting pedestrians first, etc.  While these big picture items are important for the City, the new Commissioner must also work towards reforming the culture of the department. [Colón mentioned problems with work backups in the CDOT sign shop, and the difficulty of completing a full slate of aldermanic menu items within a year, as well as a lack of transparency in the menu program.] Klein repositioned our infrastructure priorities, but was not here long enough to make necessary systemic improvements.”

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A CLOCC walkability assessment in Pilsen. Photo courtesy of CLOCC.

Dr. Adam Becker, director of the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children: “The key thing is understanding how transportation is directly related to health. Pedestrian and bike access, which Gabe Klein has championed, is critical to obesity prevention, and the general health of Chicagoans. We need someone with a collaborative and innovative spirit, who’s interested in partnerships outside of the traditional transportation world. We also need someone who can keep our city on the national radar, because that allows them to bring in federal funding for infrastructure improvements.”

Scott Bernstein, president of the Center for Neighborhood Technology: “We would like to see someone who continues the passion that Gabe brought to the project like bike initiatives. What hasn’t happened yet is capital improvements that would expand transportation options for everyone in Chicago, like the Red Line extension, experimenting with BRT and streetcars, and increasing round-the-clock transit service. The Chicago Infrastructure Trust is a great tool, but we haven’t seen much progress here in using it for sustainable transportation because we haven’t tried hard enough. It would be great to see someone come in and lead the orchestra on this.”

Maria Barnes, owner of Uptown Bikes [a Streetsblog sponsor]: “I’d like to see a commissioner who brings more transparency to CDOT, as well as more coordination with the CTA. CDOT has been using active transportation advantageously, but there’s always room for improvement. In terms of plans and where new infrastructure’s going to be, they’ve been having town hall meetings, but a lot of these seem more like show-and-tell, and I’m not sure how much input they’re actually taking from community members.”

Randy Neufeld, director of the SRAM Cycling Fund: “Gabe was implementing Rahm Emanuel’s vision, so what we’re really looking for is the next commissioner to implement the mayor’s vision. I’m confident Emanuel will choose someone who can do that. The commissioner’s skill set was key for all the things he got done, but Gabe Klein couldn’t have been Gabe Klein without the mayor having his back.”

What qualities would you like to see in the next CDOT commissioner, and what’s your short list of candidates? Sorry, it looks like Janette Sadik-Khan isn’t available.

  • I don’t have a list of people in mind. But I’d like to see a few things:

    – continue building bike infrastructure but adopt international standards. And try to build safer infrastructure at intersections
    – build pedestrian plazas, closing off lanes to expand street space
    – work with IDOT (ha) to do something about Michigan Ave. it should not all be car traffic lanes. Close off one for bikes. One to create ped space. One for buses and taxis or a light rail to connect to the lake shore drive redesign.

    That’s my list for now!

  • OH: and a greenway within a 10 minute walk/3min bike ride of every Chicagoan. Seriously, you can built great friendly streets and also build a bike network that works if you build more greenways, especially if they feature ways to slow traffic and divert it to larger streets.

  • HJ

    – Road Diets
    – Expanding the protected lane network
    – Beating back the idiots at IDOT
    – Getting RPM financed and underway

    I dont care about feel good stories, I want to see things get done.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t know who candidates might be, so I don’t have a short list, but I definitely would like to see a CDOT Commissioner who prioritizes all means of transportation higher than private automobiles. I’d like a Commission who fights for the infrastructure, public outreach, and policies which discourage driving and facilitate transit, (safe and pleasant) pedestrian use, and cycling. I’d love to see one who could find some way to eliminate a lot of street parking, so that sidewalks could widen, bikelanes could be built, streetviews could be more attractive.

    I don’t know how much traction a really bold vision for a non-car-centric city could get–because people always feel you’re trying to tell them they can’t drive if you try to make it more convenient and attractive and better to NOT drive–but that’s what I’d like to see. We need a culture shirt–a real understanding that not driving everywhere all the time is not an actual loss but a benefit–and I’d like to see a Commissioner who finds some way to promote those beliefs.

    Shaun’s comments below about greenways, pedestrian plazas, and reducing traffic lanes on Michigan Avenue to accommodate the large numbers of pedestrians (and make those Divvy stations more attractive!) are great.

  • TM

    I actually think a lot of people in the city are not thinking rationally. You cannot change too fast. But go ahead. Knock out a lane of traffic on Michigan Ave. See what happens. Cater to all the pedestrians who do not follow the rules as well as the bikers in the downtown area. If you want to walk without stopping, go to the lakefront where they spent millions of tax dollars to implement a walking and biking path that extends from the north to the south side of the city. Oh did I mention, It also comes with a Beautiful view of the lake. So Take away our lanes of traffic. You see , we have the largest Convention Center in the western Hemisphere. Lets see if the shows stick around when they realize the buses cannot get to their hotels in a timely fashion. They ALL cannot take the “Secret Road”.

  • Good point about the buses. What do you think about converting two lanes on Michigan Avenue to car-free bus lanes?

  • Karen Kaz

    Pointing cyclists and pedestrians to the lake front path misses the point – the lake front path doesn’t have stores, restaurants, offices, places of employment. We walk, bike, and take transit to do things, to shop and get to work and enjoy the activities this city offers. Not just for recreation. (If it matters, my office is on Michigan Avenue. I typically bike or take transit to work. I also own a car and am a driver and sometimes do drive downtown.)

    I think there’s a way to figure out the buses. Maybe center-lane running buses with stops in those wide medians?

  • Shlabotnik

    can you define greenway?

  • Anonymous

    I think they should finish double decking Michigan Ave, and leave the upper level for busses, cabs and bikes only. Cars can zoom freely under Michigan Ave, and straight off onto LSD.

  • Anonymous

    Oh because the right lane of michigan avenue ever has anything but busses in it anyways…. Come on. Cars hardly use it as it is, and the ones that do slow everyone down because they’re usually turning off the road. You know what would make Michigan Ave. great? Getting rid of right turns. Actually. I think you could almost eliminate congestion with that one move, because you’d have 3 lanes end to end on the road instead of 2 that goes down to one when busses try to pass turning cabs. But also, Michigan Avenue doesn’t really need 6 lanes of vehicles. Either we need to close Rush or St. Clair St, or take a lane away from Michigan in each direction, and give whatever we close to pedestrians, because there’s too many on that road for its current set-up. Busses absolutely can take the McCormick Busway as much as they want, its not a particularly low capacity way to get to the convention center. Besides, work rules are going to kill McCormick long before congestion does.

  • My informal definition is a street that discourages through car traffic, slows vehicles, and prioritized the bike and people walking as modes of transit.

  • That could get expensive building underground. There’s already lake shore drive just a few blocks east. There doesn’t need to be another high capacity street right next to it. Michigan Ave is a destination street where the actual street is designed more like a suburban road.

  • V Remark

    Someone who understands what it’s like to bike, walk, and take transit daily and looks to other more progressive cities’ infrastructure as a future reality for Chicago. My favorite dreams I hope she or he will share: creating bike boulevards, making weekly street closures for cyclovias sponsored by the city, and putting streets with a lot of bike and foot traffic as pothole fixing priorities. Mostly, I want him or her to do just 2-3 big, popular transit/ped/bike projects very well.

  • “Our” lanes of traffic, who is “our” and what justifies “our” claiming it?

  • Better yet, I want a mayor who supports and enables our next commissioner to do what’s best for the city. Not what’s best for each individual “fiefdom” as it seems alderman have accepted their wards to be known as.

  • TM

    “OUR” Meaning Vehicles. You cannot eliminate the streets in Chicago. WE “Vehicles” Need room to travel. We cannot drive on the sidewalks.

  • TM

    Im sorry but that would not work. See you cannot pick passengers up in the middle of a street. Thats great that you use multiple ways to get to work. The fact that people want to reduce the lanes of traffic in a city this size is just shameful. I cannot ride a bike and carry 50 people to their hotels. Turning is a big problem in this city. City busses have to turn as well. When we get pedestrians who cant read , its a problem.

  • TM

    NOT. Cannot happen and would not work.

  • TM

    For all you who cannot see my point of view, I invite you to step into my world. Just take a half hour ride with me on any given show day and I’ll show you the problems we have. Oh yeah, and take a ride down Dearborn in a bus.they reduced the width of the lanes for bike lanes that are not nearly being used constantly.( A bus is a tad wider than these lanes )Then when you see bikers on it they don’t follow the rules of the road. You know they even put up “bike stop lights” ? ??

  • alexfrancisburchard

    You also “cannot” drive in the bike lanes, but you seem to manage that one pretty well…

    Streets are for everyone buddy. Not Just cars. EVERYONE needs space to move about. Bikes, Cars, Walkers, Motorcyclists, Skateboarders. If you don’t want us to have bike lanes, then deal with bikes being in your way in your “Car” lane.

  • alexfrancisburchard

    Tour busses shouldn’t be stopping right on Michigan Avenue anyways, if that’s what you’re talking about. They should be staying to the side streets (Rush, St. Clair, Wabash, Grand, Ontario, etc) City busses could get either left side doors (as Ashland Avenue will) or they could Run on the left side of the street (Like Istanbul, Turkey’s BRT in the middle of the D100 expressway)

  • alexfrancisburchard

    Yeah, but for a ton of people, Michigan Avenue is a throughway from downtown to LSD, and if you take that segment of traffic, and put it underground, you could Really make Upper Michigan avenue quite… perfect. You’d have to have the cross streets mostly cross under like grand and illinois do now, but really, it could be brilliant.

  • TM

    yep and run the tourists right outta here.

  • “Gabe Klein of Chicago DOT: Make as many mistakes as possible, as quickly as possible, and don’t repeat them if possible. #ULIFall13”

    That was a tweet paraphrasing the commissioner at last week’s Urban Land Institute conference (held in Chicago).

    It is how to know if ideas work.

  • Karen Kaz

    Glad to see that you’re so flexible and open to alternative solutions!

  • David Altenburg

    I accept your invitation. I expect it will be illuminating. Perhaps we could each write up our observations from our point-of-view. I bet a lot of folks hear would be interested in reading such a thing. What do you say?

  • The Dearborn protected bike lanes have increased red light compliance by cyclists by 161 percent: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-06-10/classified/ct-met-getting-around-0610-20130610_1_cyclists-signals-bike-traffic

  • Then they can switch to driving a few blocks over to LSD instead. You could do a ton more with the hundreds of millions (billions?) it would cost to tunnel under Michigan Ave, and your idea of lowering streets to meet the level of the new lower Michigan. Seriously, how do you do that?

  • alexfrancisburchard

    I don’t know how you do that, I just think it would be nice, finishing an important piece of the two-level grid. That’s just my opinion.

  • alexfrancisburchard

    I’m sorry, how exactly would it run the tourists out to not have their busses stop directly on Michigan Avenue? Like, 90%+ of the busses already don’t, they just need to increase it to 100% The sidestreets are like 50 feet more walking. Not gonna kill a tourist to walk an extra 50-300 feet. It will do them some good. People don’t stay on Michigan Avenue to be ferried from point to point, they stay there to enjoy the magnificent urban landscape. If they want to be ferried from point to point they can stay in rosemont or something, and not bother with the hassle of staying in the center of the city. Or they can stay in the South Loop Hotel, or somewhere else.

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