An Exit Interview With Chicago Transportation Chief Gabe Klein

Klein tests out the Loop’s first ped scramble. Photo by John Greenfield.

[A shorter version of this article ran in Checkerboard City, John’s column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]

Maybe I jinxed things by naming transportation czar Gabe Klein as the city’s best department head in Newcity’s October 31 Best of Chicago issue, because the very next day he announced he was stepping down. Can’t really blame the guy since, two-and-a-half years after he took the job, his wife is still living in his previous hometown of Washington, D.C., where he’ll be returning to launch new transportation technology enterprises in the private sector. Still, it’s a shame that the poster boy for reconfiguring urban streets to serve all road users, not just drivers, is leaving the Windy City in his bicycle taillights. I caught up with Klein at his downtown office for a final chat.

John Greenfield: To ask the classic annoying job interview question, what was your biggest weakness as commissioner?

Gabe Klein: Coming to town and not necessarily understanding all the history of how the city works meant there was a bigger learning curve. I came in with Mayor Emanuel and had this idea that we were going to set the world on fire and change transportation in Chicago. That’s a double-edged sword. If I didn’t think that way, we wouldn’t have been able to get as much done, but you also rub some people the wrong way. So maybe I could have been a little less boisterous? I don’t know.

Rendering of Central Loop BRT on Washington Street.

JG: Were there any projects that you were disappointed you weren’t able to accomplish or finish?

GK: As a human you’re always going to wish you could have done more, and tied up that one loose end. Like I wish bus rapid transit was already launched instead of kicking off in January [with a route between Union Station to Navy Pier.] When I sat down with the mayor after he hired me, I laid out about a hundred things I wanted to do. He said, “This is great, but shouldn’t we focus on two or three things?” I said, “If we focus on two or three things, in couple of years we’ll have accomplished one or two of those things. But if we shoot for a hundred things and knock out 70, 75 of those things, you’re going to be really happy with how much we accomplished.”

The thing you see in [transportation departments] sometimes is this very slow, incremental approach, where you don’t upset too many people, you don’t push your staff too hard, and you don’t upset the public through too much change at once. The problem is, not much happens. This mayor, my previous boss [former D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty], and me, we embody the urgency of making change: the economic urgency, the safety urgency. I was looking at Chicago’s pedestrian fatality numbers this year and they’re down over 45 percent this year over last year. [2012 was an unusually deadly year for peds with 48 fatalities.] We didn’t have any last month. People ask why we’re doing so many things so fast. It’s because people’s lives depend on it.

And it’s not always about the mega projects. We found funding to do the riverwalk extension. We put together federal money for the Bloomingdale Trail that was completely unfunded when the mayor came in. But it’s the little things that have had the biggest impact. The Divvy program has cost the city about $5.5 million in matching funds [federal funding covered the remaining $22 million]. That’s the cost of maybe one-and-a-half CTA rail cars, and look at the impact it’s had on people’s lives. The bike lanes are really inexpensive, but look at the return. In terms of what we haven’t accomplished, probably nobody’s harder on that than me, but I can’t really complain too much.

Workers prepare speed camera signs near Gompers Park. Photo: Phil Velsquez, Chicago Tribune

JG: What do you feel have been your top accomplishments in Chicago?

I’m very proud of the speed-camera program. I think it will have the widest-ranging impact on Chicagoans, and it was probably the hardest thing politically to do. I’m proud that we took a stand and said we’re going to take safety seriously. The numbers are showing that it’s already working. People are paranoid that they’re going to get a ticket. That’s a wonderful thing.

Divvy is also having a huge impact. I knew that guys like you and I were going to ride it. It’s the people that get on it who haven’t been on a bike forever that are like, “Wow, I can use this as transportation,” that inspire me. I’m proud of how we launched it. We really were focused on every customer interaction: the placement of the stations, the color of the bikes, every Facebook post and tweet. And if you look at how it has played out, we have 11,000 members, so we’re not the biggest system in the world, but it’s a very stable, healthy system that’s going to be here for a long time. We just got federal funding for another seventy-five stations, which would put us at 475, the most stations in North America, and we’ve applied for state money for another seventy-five.

Riding Divvy bikes on the lakefront. Photo: John Greenfield

We’ve also gotten better at the basics. When I got here, the potholes were atrocious, and there were too many streetlights out. I’m a big believer that you can’t run until you can walk, and nobody should give you the keys to the Mercedes if you don’t know how to drive the Chevette. We showed very quickly that we could get it under control. We’ve quadrupled the number of street repaving miles we’re doing on arterials and we’ve only got 0.3 percent of the lights out.

I’m also proud of our focus on the pedestrian as the indicator species of a healthy city, and when we rolled out our Complete Streets Guidelines, just being bold and having the mayor get on board with it and say we’re putting pedestrians first. Because if you don’t, your city’s not going to be successful. The real estate value’s going to go down, and families won’t stay in your city because it’s not safe. I think people had forgotten that walking is the most basic and most important part of a transportation system.

JG: [47th Ward] Alderman Ameya Pawar mentioned that [Chicago Department of Transportation Deputy Commissioner] Scott Kubly would be a good candidate for the next commissioner. It always seemed like Scott was almost a second Gabe Klein – he was always just as useful to interview about these issues as you, so it seems like that would be a really seamless transition. What do you think about the idea of Scott replacing you?

Mike Amsden and Scott Kubly
Scott Kubly (right) with CDOT Project Manager Mike Amsden. Photo: Steven Vance

GK: I’ve worked with Scott for about four years in Chicago and D.C. Every successful commissioner or CEO has someone like Scott who is doing a tremendous amount of work behind the scenes to make projects happen. Without Scott, there’s no way that automated enforcement would have happened, no way that the riverwalk would have been funded, and Divvy would not have been as smooth a rollout. He is top-flight. But as much as I like Scott, I don’t want to speak for him, because he’s a multitalented guy and I don’t know what he wants to do next, and I don’t want to presume for the administration what they want.

JG: What are you going to miss most about Chicago?

GK: It’s not the pizza. [Like Jon Stewart, Klein prefers New York-style.] But Chicago just grows on you. When I first got here, Chicago seemed so big compared to D.C. But you travel around and you realize that the magic of Chicago is its neighborhoods and its people and its history. I remember when [bike advocate] Kathy Schubert emailed me that there was a streetcar track protruding on Wells Street and I went outside and checked it out. Chicago’s got layers and layers of infrastructure, and it’s the center of the transportation universe in the United States.

I’m also going to miss the tremendous team at CDOT, and a lot of the activists in the city, and the public in general. You can tell they were so ready for change in terms of urban planning and transportation. Look at the Divvy system. You put it out there and it’s like, blam! And we haven’t had a huge pushback to Divvy or the protected bike lanes. We have the occasional column by John Kass [the Tribune’s notorious bike-baiter], and it’s fun. But we haven’t had a major backlash, because I think it’s because Chicagoans are very sensible and smart people who are passionate about their city, and they want their city to be world-class.

The Elston protected bike lane. Photo: Dave Schlabowske

JG: A spokesman for the National Motorists Association recently called you a “two-wheeled zealot” and complained that speed cameras, protected bike lanes and the bus rapid transit plan are infringing on drivers’ rights. He said, “Klein doesn’t like cars, so I don’t like him.” Any response to that?

GK: As far as speed cameras, I’m sorry dude, but I don’t care as much about your opinion as the lives that we’re saving. I don’t think it’s a God-given right to be able to break the law every single day. I think you are given the right by the government to drive a car. That’s why you’re licensed, and if you want to break the law, if you want to speed all the time, you probably shouldn’t drive.

Another thing is, I actually do like cars. I just don’t like them being used for everything all the time. An imbalanced transportation system where the car is king is an inefficient, unsustainable and unhealthy system, and it’s going to kill our economy as well as the environment. What we’ve shown is that a balanced transportation system is safer, more economically sustainable, and more fun. I think that this idea that you have to be for one mode, that you have to be a car person, or a bike person, or transit person, is just a red herring.

  • Chicagio

    I love this quote, “People are paranoid that they’re going to get a ticket. That’s a wonderful thing.”

    That my friends, is guts.

    Excellent job, John. Great interview.

  • Thanks!

  • CL

    That’s what stood out to me too, except that I was annoyed… my anxiety over red light cameras is bad enough. (However, my speed camera paranoia won’t set in until they lower the threshold for tickets. I feel confident that I won’t go 10+ over by accident, whatever the limit may be.)

  • JacobEPeters

    I agree with Gabe, it’s great when people are paranoid that they will get caught for breaking the law, because then they’re less likely to break the law. I think some of the signage placement could be better, since obscured signs may lead to motorists slamming on the brakes when the signage seems to come out of nowhere. But generally, if you get in an accident because you or the person in front of you were slamming on the brakes, it might be due to the speeding of the vehicles involved in the fender bender.

  • Jack Cebe

    Great interview John!

  • Anne A

    The need for change *is* urgent, and I appreciate how much you’ve pushed to make those positive changes happen. Thank you, Gabe!

    And thank you, John, for this excellent piece.

  • Adam Herstein

    As far as speed cameras, I’m sorry dude, but I don’t care as much about your opinion as the lives that we’re saving. I don’t think it’s a God-given right to be able to break the law every single day. I think you are given the right by the government to drive a car. That’s why you’re licensed, and if you want to break the law, if you want to speed all the time, you probably shouldn’t drive.

    Well said. If your only argument is that you want to continue breaking the law and get away with it, then you have no argument.

  • Thanks Jack.

  • Thanks Anne.

  • whetstone

    I’ve been much more conscious of my speed since the speed cameras rolled out (in part from doing research on fatality rates at speeds). I’ve found I can easily break 35 if I’m not paying attention, but at 40 I’m instinctually aware that I’m going too fast.

  • pattyw

    Great interview, John. Klein will be missed — fingers crossed for a like-minded successor.

  • Thanks Patti.

  • what_eva

    The concern I have is when the paranoia goes overboard. A few weeks ago, I was driving on Ashland coming to Lawrence, which has an RLC. It also has a pedestrian countdown. Driver in front of me slowed and stopped as the countdown hit 1. The light was still *green* at that point. It goes 1, 0, then pauses another second (or two), then yellow for 3 seconds (as noted previously by many, that’s too short), then red.

    Now, I freely admit this was an isolated case, but if that level of paranoia becomes common, then things have gone too far.

  • CL

    I think that on some roads, you really need to slow down before the yellow light to be 100% sure you won’t get caught by the camera — or simply to avoid a sudden stop and possible collision. Sometimes the pedestrian clock seems to run out as the light turns yellow, so I understand his thinking. The bigger problem is people slamming their breaks because otherwise they won’t have time to stop, which causes accidents.

  • Alex_H

    Why isn’t what you describe an example of appropriately restrained, cautious driving?

  • BlueFairlane

    I’ve never bought this point at all. If you leave a proper amount of space between you and the car in front of you, you’ll have time to react if that car slams on its brakes. Chicago drivers have a tendency to drive in the trunk of the car in front of them, though, which is why they think the act of stopping is dangerous.

  • what_eva

    Coming to a complete stop on *green* is cautious driving? I’m not saying he stopped on a yellow he could have made. He stopped more than a second before the light even turned yellow. That’s not cautious, it’s dangerous.

  • Chicagio

    If the alternative is running through red lights, then i’m fine with it. I really am amazed that more pedestrians aren’t hit in the loop on an average work day; we’re so ingrained to expect unlawful behavior from motorists.

    Just add, that when that paranoia becomes common, i don’t think it’s too far, i think that would be a sign that the thought process of drivers has finally changed to emphasize safety over saving a minute or two of time.

  • what_eva

    Holy false dichotomy batman!

    There’s a wide gulf between cautious driving and stopping at a green light.

  • CL

    My fear isn’t that I’m going to hit someone from behind, it’s that someone will hit ME if I slam on my breaks. Breaking suddenly shouldn’t cause accidents, but it does — that’s just how everyone else drives. I know that if I break suddenly, I’m increasing the chances of being hit, so I watch those counters to make sure that if I need to stop, I can do it slowly.

    I have been hit from behind. The guy said that he “didn’t have time to stop.” Obviously it was his fault that he hit me, but I’m still highly motivated to avoid getting into an accident of any kind — so I’m going to do my best to make sure people don’t hit me even when it would be 100% their fault.

  • Guest

    Also, I have been hit from behind. The guy said that he “didn’t have time to stop.” Obviously it was his fault that he hit me, but I’m still highly motivated to avoid getting into an accident of any kind — so I’m going to do my best to make sure people don’t hit me even when it would be 100% their fault.

  • dontcoast

    Thanks for the update. Great job Gabe and John. How times change! I’ll hardly recognize Chicago next time I come back, and I look forward to seeing the improvements. California’s falling behind!

  • BlueFairlane

    You’re not powerless in that situation, though. You’re correct that people follow too closely in this city. I have it happen to me all the time. The solution, then, when you’re approaching stoplights that might change is to slow down enough so that whatever distance they’re following becomes safe. If they’re on a street like Ashland, they’ll go around. If they can’t go around, they’ll either back off, or you’ll be going slow enough that it won’t matter.

    I’ve managed to drive for almost ten years in this city without being hit from behind. The only time I’ve ever been hit from behind anywhere, the driver was drunk, and running a yellow wouldn’t have changed the situation.

  • BlueFairlane

    And it likely has more to do with some problem other than camera paranoia. You have stupid drivers in this city that do dumb, unreasonable, unexpected things. That’s why you don’t follow too closely and drive at speed that allow you to stop.

  • Adam Herstein

    Do you think it is your God-given right to break the law and put innocent people at risk?

    Speed cameras hardly create a police state – rather they do the job that an understaffed and underfunded police department wishes they could do; and they do it far better, cheaper, and easier.

  • CL

    That’s the exact point I made in my original comment.

    When I was hit from behind, it was stop-and-go rush hour traffic, not an intersection. But I think the same thing applies — it’s better to avoid sudden stops, even at 2 mph, because people follow so closely. I think in that accident, the guy had accelerated too much and wasn’t prepared for traffic to stop again.

  • Brian

    Definition of a police state:
    A police state is a state in which the government exercises rigid and repressive controls over the social, economic, and political life of the population.

    Speed cameras are rigid and repressive.
    And they don’t do the job of a police department. The purpose of issuing speeding tickets is to penalize the DRIVER, not the CAR OWNER. There is no check for valid drivers license, insurance, sobriety, illegal weapons, etc. Police officers making traffic stops make the streets safer. They get bad drivers off the road. A police officer can observe many things that a camera can’t. So this argument that cameras “do the job” of the police doesn’t hold water, and, in fact, will likely make the streets even less safe. If the city truly cared about safety, they would equip POs with radar guns and ask them to catch speeders and make traffic stops.
    But the cameras are all about money, and that is FACT.

    So all you people who actually believe the BS coming out of city hall, go ahead and keep believing it. But you will NOT see safer streets.

  • Adam Herstein

    We’ve already seen a reduction is speeding incidents. Your argument is completely unfounded. Punishing people who break established laws using cameras is not repressive. It is simply enforcing the laws. The CPD does not have the resources to have an officer on every corner, catching speeders. These cameras give the police extra eyes to prevent dangerous driving.

  • Brian

    My argument that POs stopping cars, checking license, registration, insurance, sobriety, etc. doesn’t get dangerous drives off the road?

    Watch out dude- don’t get hit by a speeding car, driven by a drunk, unlicensed, uninsured driver! I’m sure that driver is really going to change their behavior because of a camera.

  • Fred

    Are you willing to pay the property tax increase it would take to hire the police officers necessary to accomplish what you are proposing?

  • Adam Herstein

    People are changing their behaviors. From the article:

    The numbers are showing that it’s already working. People are paranoid that they’re going to get a ticket. That’s a wonderful thing.

    The point is that we only have a finite number of police officers (and desperately need more). They can only do so much. While the speed cameras can never replace a physical person, they are a great supplement to a cash-strapped police department, and they do work.

  • Thanks!

  • BlueFairlane

    An internet truism: 99% of comments that begin with a definition will go on to misapply this definition. The likelihood increases significantly if said definition originates from a concept in political science.

  • I don’t think this case is that isolated. Not all pedestrian countdown & walk signals are tied to the yellow light.

    For example, the pedestrian countdown signal on California Avenue at the westbound 90/94 on-ramp says “3” seconds left when the signal turns yellow, instead of the more usual “0” seconds left when the signal turns yellow.

    This isn’t the same as your example, but shows that drivers and bicyclists shouldn’t rely on the pedestrian countdown signal to know when they will get a red light. I bike south here frequently and am affected by this. I’ve learned to subtract 3 from whatever the pedestrian countdown signal says and that’s how much time I have left before the light turns yellow.

  • Stats, from 2010 to 2012…

    47,237 reported crashes were caused by “failing to reduce speed to avoid crash” or “following too closely”, killing 56 people (0.12% of crashes caused a death) and injuring 13,915.

    Incapacitating injuries: 1,183, 8.5%
    Non-Incapacitating: 6,619, 47.6%
    Possible injury: 6,113, 43.9%

    How does this compare to speeding?

    7,288 reported crashes were caused by “speed excessive for conditions” or “exceeding speed limit”, killing 87 people (1.19% of crashes caused a death) and injuring 3,049.

    Incapacitating injuries: 463, 15.2%
    Non-Incapacitating: 1,604, 52.6%
    Possible injury: 982, 32.2%

  • BlueFairlane

    I think I misread your intention … I thought you were complaining that people were stopping so fast because of camera fear that you felt in danger of hitting them, which is a dumb argument from people who like driving in the trunk of the car in front of them, but is one I’ve heard far too often nonetheless. Now I don’t think that’s what you were saying. So, my bad.

  • “instinctually” – this hints that your body reacts to the design of the road. However, there’s enough research out there that we know more than just “hints” and that there is a well-known link between design and practiced speeds.

  • what_eva

    Can cameras solve all the problems on the road? Of course not. Is speeding by drivers who are licensed, insured and not drunk still a problem? Yes. Can cameras make an impact on that? We’ll see, but other places that use them say yes.

  • what_eva

    It’s probably not practical, but I’d be happier if drivers couldn’t see the countdowns at all. What I frequently see is the opposite of my previous example. Drivers see the countdown and speed up to make the light because they know the yellow is close.

  • what_eva

    I miss having a manual transmission. An trick I used to use on tailgaters was to move the gear shift to reverse, just to the point the lights would come on, but not actually grinding the gears. It woke people up and got them to back off.

  • I see that, too.

    In bigger Dutch cities, countdown timers are ver small, measuring about 3 inches tall. They are placed lower to the ground (at standing height) and more frequently (because of the wide presence of pedestrian islands). The same goes for the bike signals.

    They can do this because they put the signals on the near side, not the far side. This has the benefit of ensuring that people don’t cross the stop bar – if you do, you can’t see the signal.



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