Bike Coordinator Ben Gomberg Leaves CDOT After 17 Years
It’s the end of an era. After serving as Chicago’s first and only bike program coordinator since 1996, Ben Gomberg says he has left the city’s transportation department for greener pastures. “After 17 years coordinating Chicago’s bike program I felt it was time to move on,” he told me. “I’m proud of establishing the largest and best bike program in the U.S., and helping launch the Divvy bike sharing program. But it was time for new challenges, new things to do, and more time with my kids.”
Chicago Department of Transportation Deputy Commissioner Scott Kubly declined to comment on Gomberg’s departure, citing CDOT policy against discussing personnel matters. However, the changing of the guard was foreshadowed back in March, when Kubly told me that, as part of a re-shuffling of job responsibilities at the department, 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.
By that time, Gomberg was focusing his efforts on establishing the Divvy bike-share system. He was responsible for overseeing the siting of the rental stations, as well as ensuring that the vehicles would be effectively distributed and maintained. At this point, 266 of the 400 planned stations have been installed. When I talked to Kubly in March about the CDOT restructuring, he acknowledged Gomberg’s key role in helping to change the culture of the city to one where biking is taken seriously as a transportation mode. “Ben’s 16-plus years of work on bicycle projects has laid the foundation that got us to this point,” Kubly said.
Bike infrastructure improvements have taken place much more rapidly since 2011, when Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced his bold plan to install 100 miles of protected lanes, establish a large-scale bike-share system and build the Bloomingdale Trail within his first term. When I worked at the city’s bike program on parking projects in the early 2000s, Ben told me his policy was to “under-promise and over-perform.”
This conservative philosophy contrasts with current CDOT Commissioner Gabe Klein’s habit of setting big goals, occasionally coming up short, but racking up numerous achievements in the process. Klein’s M.O. seems informed by something Michelangelo supposedly said, “The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.”
But all the bike infrastructure and safety education programs that Gomberg helped establish well before Emanuel and Klein took office shouldn’t be taken for granted. When Gomberg, a native of Montreal, started work as Chicago bike coordinator in February 1996, following a similar post in London, Ontario, our city had few bike lanes or parking racks.
He labored under a multitude of CDOT commissioners, several of whom seemed fairly indifferent to biking, steadily building up an impressive tally of lanes and racks. Working with him, I was most struck by his ability to navigate the oft-maddening city, state and federal bureaucracies like a blackbelt to secure funding and expedite projects.
Steven Vance, who worked as a bike parking intern at CDOT after I left in 2006, appreciated that Gomberg was receptive to many of his ideas that had nothing to do with parking. “He let me redesign the bike program website and start using social media,” Steven said. “I started the Facebook, Twitter and Flickr accounts. He also let me modify the website for the Bike 2015 Plan, uploading all the minutes and documents from Mayor’s Bike Advisory Council meetings. He recognized my talents and made sure they got used, so I wasn’t just another worker-bee intern.”
Alex Wilson, executive director of the bike education center West Town Bikes, also credits Gomberg with helping launch his career in bike advocacy. “Ben oversaw the bike program when I was running the student marketing program, promoting cycling to college students,” he said. “He was the one that made that possible by finding the funding. That was my first job in bike advocacy and project management, and it gave me experience that was very valuable when I went on to start West Town Bikes.”
Active Transportation Alliance Deputy Director Melody Geraci expressed gratitude to Gomberg for all his hard work over the years. “Active Trans salutes and thanks Ben for his 17 years of dedication, integrity and Chicago bike achievements,” she said in a statement. “Spanning two biking mayoral administrations, Ben worked on several bike plans including the comprehensive 2015 plan where he checked off objectives that made it better and safer to bike in Chicago, like installing 12,000 bike racks, educating thousands of people each year with the Bike Ambassador program and putting in hundreds of miles of new bike lanes, routes and trails. We wish Ben a smooth and wide bike lane moving forward on his next adventure.”