CDOT Commisioner Scheinfeld Discusses Her Background, Zero in Ten

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Scheinfeld with a Stop for Pedestrians sign, which was modified for a holiday party. Photo: John Greenfield

Here’s the second installment of my interview with Chicago Deparment of Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld, in which we talked about her background, commuting habits, and the city’s Zero in Ten campaign to eliminate traffic fatalities.

John Greenfield: When I interviewed Gabe Klein, I got some really interesting material about his perspective on transportation by asking questions about his background and his personal life. So, if you don’t mind, I’d like to ask you about that too. I don’t suppose you went to school on an ashram like Gabe did…

RS: Actually, my parents spent some time on an ashram. In the ‘70s they were involved in the Siddha Yoga movement. My mother’s actually from New Zealand, and my father was originally from Milwaukee and grew up on the North Shore. They met as graduate students at the University of Chicago. I grew up in Lincoln Park, and so I’ve been pretty much a life-long Chicagoan. I went away for college and started my career in New York in city government after college, but otherwise I have been here. And so a lot of my work is informed by that very personal knowledge of the city.

JG: Gabe acknowledged that his background with Hinduism might have had a little influence on his perspective on transportation…

RS: I didn’t actually grow up on an ashram. In the ‘60s and ‘70s there were lots of people experimenting with culture and a lot of opening of horizons. I would not describe my parents as hippies, or anything like that, but they got involved in things like meditation. The Siddha Yoga movement is not physical practice yoga, it’s more meditative yoga. My parents aren’t active practitioners anymore.

JG: Do you meditate and/or do yoga yourself?

RS: I have a young child at home, a nine-month-old. She’s my first. I would say it’s a successful day when I am able to fit everything else in and get home in time to put her to bed and get enough sleep. [Laughs.] I do enjoy yoga and I enjoy walking a lot – those are my two primary forms of exercise. So if I can get to a yoga class once a month these days, that’s great.

JG: It seems like, under the Emanuel administration and Gabe Klein, there was a shift towards paying more attention to the needs of vulnerable road users, and creating safer conditions for walking and biking and transit use. Has becoming a parent influenced your perspective on those issues?

RS: Certainly — but I would also say, just as someone who uses all modes, whether I’m biking, taking the train or the bus, walking, driving, I can appreciate how important it is that the roadway be designed to support all users safely, and that we also give people the cues and the spaces to move safely and efficiently.

So I think a big part of the bike program, for example, is recognizing that growing population of people who are biking — not just for pleasure, but on a daily basis to get to work or school or whatever. That’s a real trend that we’re seeing, especially with the Millennial generation. So it’s important to build infrastructure to support that trend, so that it’s safe not just for bicyclists, but also for pedestrians and people in vehicles — so that the users respect each other and that we eliminate conflicts as much as possible.

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Ad from the “We’re All Pedestrians” safety campaign.

JG: What do you see happening with the city’s Zero in Ten goal of eliminating pedestrian and bike fatalities?

RS: We’re still doing a lot on that front. We’ll be rolling out a lot of advertising materials supporting pedestrian safety. You still see the “We’re All Pedestrians” campaign ads out a lot now, and we’ll be continuing that. It’s a serious concern that all Chicagoans should be aware of — whether it’s about your own personal safety, or it could be your child or your parent or a loved one.

We still have the Mayor’s Pedestrian Advisory Council. That’s the clearing house, in many ways, for a number of the projects that are coming up, and for getting feedback from a variety of stakeholders in the community. We issued the Complete Streets policy guide, and are implementing that in terms of our own projects. We’re doing a lot to target specific intersections, or sections of roadway, where there have been pedestrian injuries or fatalities, and trying to incorporate improvements to make those areas safer.

When we are doing a resurfacing project, we may also do a street median, or put in a pedestrian refuge island, in an area where there have been issues with pedestrian safety, or where it’s a particularly wide crossing. So those things are permeating all aspects of our agency. It’s not just a very narrow discussion that’s siloed from our ongoing operations. Improving pedestrian safety is something that we take very seriously, and look to integrate into all of our projects.

JG: What neighborhood do you live in, and do you commute by transit at all?

RS: I live in Logan Square, a block from the Blue Line, so I take the Blue Line in every day.

JG: Do you ride a bike at all?

RS: I do. I ride a bike for recreation. My child isn’t old enough to go on a bike yet. My husband, actually, is a big biker. He commutes to work on his bike every day, weather permitting, and he’s pretty aggressive about what “weather permitting” means, to my chagrin. [Laughs.] He teaches English at Pritzker College Prep, one of the Noble Street charter schools in the Hermosa neighborhood, and he rides about two miles each way.

JG: So it sounds like you probably don’t get the opportunity to use Divvy much.

RS: I don’t use Divvy as part of my daily commute, because I don’t need to. Divvy is really good for that last mile or half mile. I’m really lucky to live close to the train. But I am a Divvy member, and I’m looking forward to using Divvy as much as possible in the future. It’s one of those things where, as we are continuing to grow and expand the system and as people are trying it out, everyone’s discovering more opportunities to use it — whether as part of your regular commuting pattern, or as a one-off thing.