[This piece also runs in Checkerboard City, John’s transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]
Ex-Chicago Department of Transportation chief Gabe Klein says that when he returned to Chicago earlier this month for his first real visit since he resigned almost two years ago, it was a highly emotional experience. He was finally able to see the Bloomingdale Trail and the Chicago Riverwalk extension, projects that he spearheaded as commissioner, filled with people enjoying themselves. “It reinforced to me that there’s such a huge demand, particularly in urban spaces, just for great places to hang out.”
Klein was in town for a conference on “shared mobility” tools like bike-sharing and car-sharing. He was partly there to talk up his new book “Start-Up City: Inspiring Private & Public Entrepreneurship, Getting Projects Done, & Having Fun” (Island Press), a primer on how to quickly make improvements to cities in the face of grinding bureaucracy. Disclosure: I contributed a photo for the pint-sized paperback, of the commissioner striding diagonally across Jackson and State during the ribbon cutting for the city’s first “pedestrian scramble” intersection.
Klein came to CDOT in May of 2011 as part of the Rahm Emanuel administration, following a stint as director of the Washington, D.C. transportation department. During his two-and-a-half years in Chicago he also launched the (highly controversial) speed camera program, built dozens of miles of buffered and protected bike lanes, created the Divvy bike-share system, and planned the Loop Link bus rapid transit corridor. He says he quit the job to move back to D.C. for the birth of his daughter Simone, whose name was partly inspired by noted Chicagophile Simone de Beauvoir.
With all the accomplishments Klein tallied in his short tenure here, it’s fitting that he originally planned on calling the book “Getting S— Done,” his unofficial motto at CDOT. He even hung a sign in his LaSalle Street office with that profane slogan, plus the Emanuel-esque subheading “In Every Motherf—ing Ward.”
Klein said his new book, written with urban planner David Vega-Barachowitz, is for city staffers who want to apply start-up-style energy to the public sector, as well as entrepreneurs who want to serve the public good, not just line their pockets. Using anecdotes from his career, including stints in the bicycle retail, car-sharing and food-truck industries, he stresses the importance of goal-setting, creative financing, effective PR and risk taking.
One of the most entertaining aspects of “Start-Up City” is how Klein pulls the curtain back on some of the Machiavellian intrigue that went on behind the scenes at Chicago City Hall. A recurring theme is how the commissioner battled pushback from bureaucrats who were afraid of making waves, as well as short-sighted, car-focused aldermen.