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.”

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