Ex-Chicago Bike Czar Ben Gomberg Is Taking Off to the Great White North

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Gomberg on a Bikes Belong-sponsored research trip in Denmark. 3rd Ward Alderman Pat Dowell and Scott Kubly are directly behind him. Photo: Bikes Belong

Tomorrow, former Chicago bicycle program coordinator Ben Gomberg will cross the border and return to his homeland of Canada for good. On Monday, he starts a new job as active transportation manager for the Toronto suburb of Mississauga. Perhaps you’ve never heard of the town, but with 713,443 residents, it’s Canada’s sixth-largest municipality by population, bigger than the city of Vancouver.

Gomberg came to Chicago in 1996 to serve as our city’s first and only bike coordinator, back when there was little infrastructure for cyclists here. Laboring under a multitude of different bosses during his 17 years at the Chicago Department of Transportation, some of whom seemed fairly indifferent to cycling, he was able to build up an impressive tally of bike lanes and racks.

Gomberg’s accomplishments also included launching the city’s Bicycling Ambassador program and drafting the city’s Bike 2015 Plan. He was known as a skilled project manager, adept at navigating the often-maddening bureaucracies at the city, state, and federal levels. Steven Vance and I both worked on CDOT bike parking projects under Gomberg at different times during the 2000s.

After Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office in 2011, he appointed transportation commissioner Gabe Klein to implement three major cycling initiatives within four years: installing 100 miles of protected bike lanes, establishing the Divvy bike-share system, and building the Bloomingdale Trail. Instead of having to persuade his superiors to let him to make modest bike improvements, Gomberg found himself with a mandate from above to complete the first two projects, plus other cycling initiatives, within a relatively short period of time.

By March of 2013, Gomberg was no longer managing the day-to-day operations of the bike program, which are now largely supervised by CDOT Project Director Janet Attarian. Instead he was focusing his efforts on the Divvy launch, including siting stations and setting up distribution and maintenance procedures. At the time, Deputy Commissioner Scott Kubly told me he appreciated Gomberg’s role in making the Emanuel-era cycling gains possible. “Ben’s 16-plus years of work on bicycle projects has laid the foundation that got us to this point.” By that September, after the first 300 Divvy stations were installed, Gomberg had left the department.

Soon after leaving CDOT, Gomberg taught a grad school class on implementing complete streets at the University of Illinois’ Urban Planning and Policy program. In the last year or so he has done consulting work for other cities to help them implement their bike plans, including Atlanta, Miami, St. Paul, and London, Ontario, where he had worked as an urban planner before coming to Chicago.

“I haven’t been doing design or engineering,” he told me. “The focus has been on sharing my knowledge of how to find funding, build partnerships, and make the strategies in a bike plan happen, based on my experiences in Chicago.” Next month he’ll travel to Buffalo to lead a roundtable with the mayor, city engineers, advocates, and the private sector on building a $500-750K protected bike lane on that city’s Main Street.

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Mississauga is located just west of Toronto and has almost a third the population. Image: Google Maps

Gomberg is originally from Montreal, and he said part of the appeal of working in Mississauga is that he’ll be closer to family. “And what really excites me about the new job is that I won’t just be working on biking, but also walking and a transportation demand management program,” he said.

Located just west of the city of Toronto, Mississagua wasn’t incorporated until 1964. As a result, it has a suburban-style street layout that is more car-oriented than Chicago. “It’s a different kind of challenge to encourage more walking and biking there,” Gomberg said. “But there’s political will to make that happen. People understand the value of lifestyles where active transportation is a regular component of the day. I’m really looking forward to getting involved in this movement, drawing on my experiences in Chicago.”

Gomberg said he’s grateful to have had the opportunity to help make Chicago more bike-friendly. “It was never just a job for me,” he said. “It was a chance to work on something that was very meaningful.” He singled out CDOT Deputy Commissioner Luann Hamilton and former Active Transportation Alliance director Randy Neufeld, now with the SRAM Cycling Fund, as people that he especially enjoyed working with. “I want to wish all my former colleagues well, and wish them continued success in getting more people to bike in Chicago,” Gomberg said.

He added that a recent pedal down Milwaukee Avenue on the Near Northwest Side underscored how far cycling has come in this city during the last two decades. “When I first moved here, riding on Milwaukee was kind of lonely – you only saw a few other people on bikes. Now, when you ride, there’s a bike traffic jam. It’s almost like a parade.”

  • kastigar

    Ben made a lot of contributions to the city bicycle support. Small, seemingly quiet but starting a foundation for project to come.

    He even was seen several times in Delay Plaza on the last Friday of the month.

  • Randy Neufeld

    Ben Gomberg laid the groundwork for all of the current bike success in Chicago. It’s hard and mostly thankless work, trying to steer bureaucracy in a new direction. He was a mastermind at finding funding and resources in very competitive times. He also had a strong vision for a city bike program that served all sectors of the city and was a balance of infrastructure, marketing and education. He worked tirelessly for 17 years to make that vision real. I’m glad to see he will continue to be a player in the active transportation movement. Places like Mississauga are what most of North America is like. Hopefully Ben can help us figure out how to nudge them multi-modal. On behalf of people who bike in Chicago; Thank you Ben.

  • Logan Square Dad

    This is a great summary of the challenging, mostly forgotten work that Ben has done to make Chicago a cycling city. It may be hard for present day cyclists to remember, but 15 years ago, getting a strategically placed bike rack felt like a huge victory, a bike lane was the equivalent of winning the lottery and the thought of a shared bike program was like believing in unicorns. While other folks have come, taken a ton of credit and left town, Ben and numerous other individuals did the actual work that transformed Chicago into a much better city for cyclists. Thank You Ben.

  • Kevin M

    I am happy for Ben and wish him the best.

    The last paragraph in this article struck me sort of sour. I found it tragically ironic that Ben cites the Wicker Park stretch of Milwaukee Ave. as evidence of “how far cycling has come in this city during the last two decades.” The evidence of increased cycling popularity is there, certainly, but the truth behind this evidence is that this heavily-used bicycling corridor has also seen zero safety improvements in the last two decades. It remains today a highly-dangerous corridor to ride a bicycle through. So given its heavy usage, I find this to be a black eye on the all of the city’s transportation leaders over the last couple of decades–in spite of the good work they may have achieved elsewhere in the city.

  • I’d have to disagree with you on the last point. Not necessarily Gomberg’s fault, but at the end of the Richard M. Daley administration, things were pretty stagnant here in terms of improvements being made for cycling, as I stated in this June 2010 article in Newcity: http://newcity.com/2010/06/23/shifting-into-high-gear-when-it-comes-to-big-plans-for-bicycling-city-hall-is-coasting/

    In that piece, I detailed my wish list for bike infrastructure I wanted to see in Chicago, including protected bike lanes, a large-scale bike-share system, the Bloomingdale Trail, bike boulevards and on-street bike parking. Under the current administration, all of that has more-or-less become a reality within a very short time.

    It’s more fair to say that Gabe Klein and Scott Kubly came to Chicago, got a hell of a lot of stuff done in 2.5 years, and then left town.

  • Logan Square Dad

    Perhaps some credit is owed to Klein and Kubly. But in my opinion, it’s mainly for not messing up. They didn’t come in with these ideas nor did they spend years developing these ideas. They benefited from Rahm’s Mayoral Mandate to build more and better bike lanes, launch a bike share and implement on street parking. They were given the resources and marching orders and they implemented these fairly well. But, I think nearly anyone could have succeeded under these circumstances. More power to them for being in the right place at the right time, but Ben, Randy, You or I could have accomplished the same given the circumstances.

  • John O’Neal

    Thank you, Ben, and best of luck to you in this new chapter of your life back in your homeland! As Randy so eloquently and forcefully puts it, you accomplished amazing things for Chicago and for cyclists here (and unbeknownst to them, non-cyclists!) – and always with skill and grace and kindness. More than anything, I’ll remember your ability to listen carefully and respectfully to all. You, your knowledge, and your committed spirit will be very much missed.

  • Info

    Your org chart is outdated. Janet is not in charge of the bike program anymore.

  • Interesting… I’ll look into this.

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