Catching Up With Former CDOT Chief Gabe Klein

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ELF Power: Klein shows off a solar-and-pedal-powered trike by Organic Transit. Photo: John Greenfield

Since former Chicago Department of Transportation commissioner Gabe Klein stepped down in November, he has been far from idle. He’s been active as a visiting fellow with the Urban Land Institute and a board member with the National Association of City Transportation Officials, and last month he joined the board of OpenPlans, the parent organization of Streetsblog and Streetfilms.

Klein is also serving as an advisor, consultant, and sometimes equity stakeholder to numerous transportation and technology companies and organizations. These include TransitScreen, RideScout, Phone2Action, Transit Labs, and Serco. On top of all that, last month, Klein and his wife, Stephanie Plummer, become the parents of a baby girl, Simone Maisie Klein.

I caught up with Klein yesterday, during a visit to his present home of Washington, D.C., where he led the transportation department before moving to Chicago. He gave his take on recent transportation developments in the Windy City and talked about his many current projects. He showed up for the meeting in an ELF solar-and-pedal-powered trike, manufactured by Organic Transit, another company he’s in talks with.

John Greenfield: Have you been following what’s been going on in Chicago since you left?

Gabe Klein: I try to. At least once a week I try to hop on Streetsblog Chicago and the Sun-Times. And I occasionally catch up with someone like yourself or [SRAM Cycling Fund director] Randy Neufeld, or [former CDOT deputy commissioner] Scott Kubly, or [CDOT project director] Janet Attarian, or [CDOT deputy commissioner] Luann Hamilton.

JG: What do you think about what’s been going on with the projects that you launched? For example, the Chicago Riverwalk extension has started construction. It’s pretty crazy: there are these big barges in the river with huge cranes dumping infill to widen the shoreline.

GK: I’m super-thrilled about that project in particular. When I go out and talk about how government can do more with less, or work more quickly on behalf of its citizens, I always use the riverwalk project as an example, because of the fact that during Rahm Emanuel’s first term, we will will have undertaken the conceptual design, the funding, the engineering, and the construction of the first half of the project. Projects like that on average take about 12-15 years to get together, so I think it’s a national example of how to get things done more quickly.

The Bloomingdale Trail had been talked about since 1998. And before Rahm even hired me, he told me, “This is one we’re going to really get done fast, so I need you to jump on it.” There was no funding for it. It was a great partnership too, with the Trust for Public Land, the park district, and the planning department. And we all came together and figured out how to get it done, and it’s under construction, again in his first term. So I’m really proud of those megaprojects, as well as the Wells Street Bridge reconstruction, and the new bridge at 130th and Torrence.

But then also, I’m really hoping that other things stay on track, like bus rapid transit and the protected bike lanes. There are always forces at work against progress and innovation, particularly from people that don’t understand those projects. So I’m just hoping that the projects that haven’t started yet, or haven’t finished yet, continue to stay on track.

JG: Anything you’d like to say about how Rebekah Scheinfeld is doing as commissioner?

GK: I haven’t talked to her in a while, but Rebekah is really smart, super-knowledgeable about transit and transportation, and I think she’s a great person to carry out the mayor’s vision and my vision.

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Dumping gravel to build out the shoreline for the Chicago Riverwalk extension. Photo: John Greenfield

JG: So nowadays you’re basically on a bunch of different boards, correct?

GK: I’m a fellow at the Urban Land Institute. It’s a really top-shelf organization that’s focused on, for the most part, progressive land use policies in urban environments. Not just cities, but also suburban areas, like Chicago’s collar counties. They hadn’t had as much of a focus on transportation the last few years. So they wanted me to come in and sort of shake things up a bit and start talking, particularly to the trustees, but also to the district councils, which is what they call the local ULI councils throughout this country and the world, about what’s coming in terms of transportation policy, because things are changing at an exponential rate. It’s no longer linear change.

So that’s one of my main gigs. I also do various consulting gigs here and there, for small companies as well as major companies, usually in technology and transportation. And I’m also on your board. I’m trying to work with Clarence [Eckerson Jr., director of Streetfilms] on a little film that we want to do over in Sweden. He sent me the proposal to read through, and I’ve been so busy with the baby, I haven’t read it. But I’d like to think it would be a little bit beyond just transportation, and focus a bit more on culture. I think it would be fun to do a movie that was maybe like a typical Streetfilm meets Anthony Bourdain.

Also, NACTO created a new strategic advisory board, because NACTO has really reached another level in terms of its growth — we’re now taking on cities throughout North America, instead of just the U.S., including Toronto, including Mexico City, so it’s sort of a new era. And NACTO is also, with the incredible work done under [Former NYC DOT chief] Janette Sadik-Khan’s leadership, is now in a position where it’s got very reputable planning and design documents out there on the street. I’m actually working on the ULI adopting NACTO’s Urban Street Design Guidelines.

As you know, Malcolm Dougherty at CalTrans endorsed the design guidelines. So it’s just reaching a new point. The NACTO board members are, on a day-to-day basis, running their own agencies. So it’s useful to have some outside leadership on the longer-term vision, as well as someone looking at the Designing Cities conference and how to make it as effective as possible. We’re working on having a startup day, where we bring all the new technology startups, particularly the West Coast startups, in, so that all the people like myself and DOTs get exposure to all the latest technologies.

And that brings me to my next thing, which is that I’m getting a little bit back to my roots. I’ve spent five years in government, and I spent 15 years in the private sector, mostly with startups. There are these guys who I’m just starting to work with now at Organic Transit. RideScout, which is a really cool, multimodal transportation app, sort of like the Kayak of local transportation, just launched in Chicago last week, and will be announcing a huge expansion next week. Transit Screen provides real-time information in the public way. These are all things that I’ve been passionate about for years.

I’m very interested in the future of how people are going to be getting around cities and next-generation transportation options, the nexus between land use and transportation, telematics and technology that make it very easy for people to switch between modes or share modes. And so I’m still looking at how to approach this business plan [for his own transportation technology startup], but a lot of the companies I’m working with, their services or products play a role in what I ultimately would like to do. But we’ll see, you know.

JG: We haven’t talked about the business you’re working on yourself. That’s kind of under wraps at the moment?

GK: It’s still being formulated.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    One comment. Why does he think Rebekah Scheinfield is a great person to carry out his and the mayor’s vision, but leaves off whether she may have a vision of her own. I find it kind of condescending. Is she just a water carrier in his mind?

  • Pete

    That stupid little car reminds me of the one made by Mr. Garrison on South Park.

  • I’m sorry, my friend, you seem to have a case of ELF-hatred.

  • Selective Reporting

    He also is an adviser to Alta Bicycle Share where Scott Kubly is also employed. That is where both of them were before CDOT as well. It just goes to show the totally unethical revolving door they engaged in. Please, report all the facts.

  • Gabe Klein

    Not my intent at all We-Willie. I was thinking of the CDOT/Mayors 2 year plan that was put out a few weeks before I left that will have her busy through 2015. When you come in to one of these jobs you always inherent major initiatives and projects that have to be fulfilled along with setting your own course. In this case there are a tremendous number of both.

  • Gabe Klein

    Not a car my friend, it’s an electric assist bicycle. it’s also super fun to drive, zero emission and powered by you, and the sun. Welcome to the future. They are having a hard time producing enough they are so popular. Today’s “that looks funny” may be tomorrow’s normal. Think Divvy.

  • BlueFairlane

    I wasn’t even ELF-aware until just now.

  • BlueFairlane

    Since you’ve left the public sector, you’re not nearly as ELFless as you used to be.

    (I could go on all day with these.)

  • Although I can’t fault anyone for being cynical about Illinois politics, the connections you note don’t bother me. What exactly is the issue you see and what harm did the connection cause?

  • Fred

    I don’t even know where to begin on why that thing will never be more than a novelty… at least in Chicago.

  • Klein is not currently advising Alta, and Kubly did not work for them before joining CDOT.

  • Worrywart

    I love that you are replying in this thread and schooling all the trolls.

    Gabe Klein is my hero, thanks for your stint in Chicago! We are finally more towards the front of the pack again when it comes to adopting progressive urban planning! I just hope his departure doesn’t leave the door open for NIMBY’s to kill true BRT in Chicago. Our city is literally built for BRT, it’s basically a streetcar line with no cables and we all know Chicago was a streetcar city more than it even is an Elevated Line City. Put the streetcars back in via BRT!

  • Gabe Klein

    Thanks for your kind words. I loved working on behalf of Chicagoans.

  • Anne A

    And we still miss having you here.

  • tooter turtle

    It appears to combine the disadvantages of both the bicycle and the car in one package. But I don’t doubt that there is a niche market for it.

  • I didn’t get to test ride the thing, but it seems like an interesting option. It’s sort of an e-bike for people who don’t can’t see themselves biking in the city. Since it moves 20+ mph, fast enough to safely take the lane on low-speed streets, and offers weather protection and cargo capacity, it provides a car-like experience with a much lower environmental and land-use footprint. Klein said it goes 90+ miles on a single charge, and in sunny weather you don’t have to plug in the battery at all. Seems to merit further investigation.

  • Fred

    How do you store one of these, either at home or at your destination? I assume you can’t lock it up to a bike rack, which means street parking. Is it heavy enough that two people can’t just pick it up and walk away with it? It pretty much requires a garage at home too. The city just banned pedicabs in the Loop/Mag mile because they clog traffic. I can’t even imagine the backlash against these. And I can’t imagine it is usable in snow.

    Sure it looks neato-keen, but the logistics make it a novelty toy.

  • Good question about parking. Since it doesn’t have a gasoline motor, perhaps cities will allow sidewalk parking, as long as the right-of-way is not blocked. The ELF weighs about 150 pounds, so theft is a concern. The footprint is about the same as a wide motorcycle.

    Obviously, pedicabs don’t clog traffic, motor vehicles do. Pedicabs, and possibly the ELF, can maneuver around lines of stopped cars. There would be no reason for a backlash, since this thing can keep up with other motor vehicles on low-speed streets. I don’t see why this would be any less usable in snow than a bike, which is to say very usable.

    I don’t mean to shill for the ELF, but it does appear this thing could be useful for some people.

  • BlueFairlane

    … but it does appear this thing could be useful for some people.

    Otherwise defined as a “niche.”

  • Fred

    A wide motorcycle takes up significantly more space than a normal bicycle.

    There are no low-speed streets in the Loop, so this is not usable for daily commuting for a very large number of people. With the exception of speed (and some moron complained about them speeding), all the same arguments against pedicabs will be used against these.

    Snow: This thing weighs 5x as much as a bicycle and has double the wheels to push through the snow. I’d have to see that single, narrow back wheel pushing 300lbs through ice and snow with my own eyes to believe it.

    I agree that it COULD be useful for SOME people. I just believe that number of people to be exceptionally small.

  • Marcus

    Style and substance. We miss you Gabe!

  • It was great to read all about your latest accomplishments, especially the new little one, and I’m not talking about the Elf. Congrats!

  • actualisticm

    FYI: The Organic website says that the electric charge range is 17 miles. They say “with pedaling some ELF riders have gone 30 miles.” Not sure where Gabe is getting 90 miles.

  • From the ELF people: “The larger German battery (15 AH pack) can go about 23 miles without pedaling. Two of those will go about 45 miles. Pedaling doubles the range, hence 90 miles. If you carry extra batteries, you could go further.”

  • T.C. O’Rourke

    Sure, our infinitely wise City Council voted to ban pedicabs, but they provided no evidence of safety or traffic issues, while CDOT recommended reducing the geographic and time restrictions. In the Loop, on my pedicab, during rush hour, I pass cars like they are standing still… because they are.

  • Fred

    I personally have no problem with pedicabs. I’m just saying if these become popular and you don’t believe our “infinitely wise City Council” will react, you are delusional.

  • jstack6

    the ELF is so much fun !

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