What Does Chicago Need From the Next Transportation Commissioner?

State Street, Chicago
Pedestrians and transit on State Street. Photo: Mike Steele

This morning the Chicago Sun-Times published a fairly solid editorial with some interesting thoughts on the task ahead for whomever takes the reigns of the Chicago Department of Transportation after Commissioner Gabe Klein steps down later this month. “Too often in the past the city’s transportation chief has focused more on potholes and snow removal than on a vision of a city in which the streets work for everyone,” the paper states. Actually, Streets and Sanitation handles almost all snowplowing, but the sentiment is spot-on. “Gabe Klein… broke that mold. His replacement should be someone who follows through on Klein’s foresighted initiatives while addressing long-neglected problems.”

The editorial praises the commissioner for implementing protected bicycle lanes and bike-share, and launching construction of the Bloomingdale, as well as securing funding for the riverwalk, speeding up the repaving cycle, and publishing complete streets guideline that prioritize pedestrians. The editorial goes on to list qualities needed from Klein’s successor, and the challenges that person will face: “The top priority will be to nurture the programs already underway, which means we need someone with high-level management experience and a strong transit background.”

Inspired by the Sun-Times piece, we decided to contact some central players in the local transportation scene to ask what qualities they’d like to see from the next commissioner. Here’s what they told us.

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Klein bikes to work on Michigan Avenue. Photo: Steven Vance

MarySue Barrett, president of the Metropolitan Planning Council: “Gabe exemplified, as part of a short list of transportation leaders around the country, qualities that are a decent sketch for what the job description for his successor should be. The new commissioner has to reflect Mayor Emanuel’s impatience with how long projects take, and embody all those entrepreneurial and innovative qualities that Gabe exemplified, which are well suited to the times we face.”

Ron Burke,  director of the Active Transportation Alliance: “Like Klein, the next Commissioner should have a deep belief in creating streets that are safe places for everyone, whether you are walking, biking, in a car or in a wheelchair, complete streets where everyone gets their fair share and cars don’t overwhelm the public rights of way. He or she also needs the experience and ability to achieve this vision, including implementation of the city’s Streets for Cycling Plan 2020, the pedestrian plan, and new BRT lines in the Loop and on Ashland.”

27th Ward Alderman Walter Burnett: “Gabe Klein is an innovator and a free-thinker. He brought a lot of good ideas to Chicago, and I think the city is a better place because of him. The next person needs to be someone with a short learning curve who can keep things flowing, because 2014 is the last year of our aldermanic term, so we really don’t want any projects being held up. Working at City Hall, you can’t get much done if people don’t like you, so the new commissioner needs to have a personality that will move people to partner with [him or her] to get things done.”

35th Ward Alderman Rey Colón: “The next CDOT Commissioner must have a history of success in continuing the initiatives Gabe Klein has started i.e., protected bike lanes, Divvy, putting pedestrians first, etc.  While these big picture items are important for the City, the new Commissioner must also work towards reforming the culture of the department. [Colón mentioned problems with work backups in the CDOT sign shop, and the difficulty of completing a full slate of aldermanic menu items within a year, as well as a lack of transparency in the menu program.] Klein repositioned our infrastructure priorities, but was not here long enough to make necessary systemic improvements.”

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A CLOCC walkability assessment in Pilsen. Photo courtesy of CLOCC.

Dr. Adam Becker, director of the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children: “The key thing is understanding how transportation is directly related to health. Pedestrian and bike access, which Gabe Klein has championed, is critical to obesity prevention, and the general health of Chicagoans. We need someone with a collaborative and innovative spirit, who’s interested in partnerships outside of the traditional transportation world. We also need someone who can keep our city on the national radar, because that allows them to bring in federal funding for infrastructure improvements.”

Scott Bernstein, president of the Center for Neighborhood Technology: “We would like to see someone who continues the passion that Gabe brought to the project like bike initiatives. What hasn’t happened yet is capital improvements that would expand transportation options for everyone in Chicago, like the Red Line extension, experimenting with BRT and streetcars, and increasing round-the-clock transit service. The Chicago Infrastructure Trust is a great tool, but we haven’t seen much progress here in using it for sustainable transportation because we haven’t tried hard enough. It would be great to see someone come in and lead the orchestra on this.”

Maria Barnes, owner of Uptown Bikes [a Streetsblog sponsor]: “I’d like to see a commissioner who brings more transparency to CDOT, as well as more coordination with the CTA. CDOT has been using active transportation advantageously, but there’s always room for improvement. In terms of plans and where new infrastructure’s going to be, they’ve been having town hall meetings, but a lot of these seem more like show-and-tell, and I’m not sure how much input they’re actually taking from community members.”

Randy Neufeld, director of the SRAM Cycling Fund: “Gabe was implementing Rahm Emanuel’s vision, so what we’re really looking for is the next commissioner to implement the mayor’s vision. I’m confident Emanuel will choose someone who can do that. The commissioner’s skill set was key for all the things he got done, but Gabe Klein couldn’t have been Gabe Klein without the mayor having his back.”

What qualities would you like to see in the next CDOT commissioner, and what’s your short list of candidates? Sorry, it looks like Janette Sadik-Khan isn’t available.

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