Klein: Chicago’s Big Projects Show How Better Transit Access Boosts Livability

Gabe Klein at last week’s talk. Photo: Kathleen Virginia Photography

At the Chicago Loop Alliance’s annual meeting last week, former transportation commission Gabe Klein discussed how he was able to apply private sector strategies to city government in order to quickly launch several major sustainable transportation projects during his 2.5-year tenure. He also talked about the general trend towards more efficient urban living, including transit-oriented development and the shared economy, fueled by new technologies.

At the start of the event, CLA board president David Broz provided announce transportation, urban planning, and placemaking initiatives the Loop Alliance will be sponsoring this year. In 2015, CLA had nine Springboard pedestrian counters installed along State Street between Congress and Wacker, and they plan to use the data to help encourage commercial development along the corridor, as well as improve the pedestrian experience on the street. This year, they’ll be adding six more counters in other parts of the Loop.

CLA will also be presenting the Downtown Futures Series, featuring talks about urban planning, transportation, data science, and technology. The series kicks off on April 14 with “Big Data. Big City,” featuring keynote speaker Charlie Catlett of University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory; followed by “Our Cities’ Autonomous Futures” with Lauren Isaac, Manager of Sustainable Transportation at Parsons Brinckeroff, on June 15; and “Experiential City” with Carol Coletta from The Kresge Foundation on September 14.

The popular ACTIVATE placemaking series will return this year for its third summer, with six arts-oriented parties held in downtown alleys between May and October. The location of each event will be announced a week prior.

activate couch pl
A juggler entertains at ACTIVATE Couch Place. Photo: Lisa Phillips

Klein, who recently published the book Startup-City, based on his experiences as an entrepreneur and the transportation chief for Chicago and Washington, D.C., started his talk by discussing how dense housing, transit, bicycle use, and the shared economy can help make cities work better.

“Postwar, we were all really sold on this idea of buying as much as possible, consuming as much as possible, the white picket fence, two cars, and now the big-screen TV,” he said. “But we can’t continue to consume at the same rate, and young people just don’t care about stuff as much as many of us did. And we’re not just focused on consuming less when it comes to buying stuff, but we’ve got to share space.”

He used the reconfiguration of Chicago’s Dearborn Street as an example of how public space was redistributed to work more efficiently. “We went from a street with three car lanes and an unenforced bus lane to a two-way protected bike lane, using new technology, using new turn lanes with sensors for the cars and the bikes triggering the lights,” he said. “We learned that throughput could be kept at almost the same level, while allocating space for active transportation.”

The redesign of Dearborn, which led to a 171 percent increase in biking on the street, is a great example of the principal of the concept of induced demand, Klein said. “People are understanding that now,” he said. “If people have bike lanes, what are people going to do? They’re going to ride their bikes. If you build more car lanes, you will fill them with cars. If you build a train, they will get on the train.”

Biking in the Dearborn protected lanes. Photo: Steven Vance

Klein cited the Divvy bike-share system as an example of a technology-enabed urban convenience that people didn’t know they needed, but once Chicagoans tried it, many found it to be an essential way to get around. “I talk all over the world about Divvy and how it’s really a great example of how public-private partnership, of an implementation that works, of a system where people felt like it was theirs, but it’s also solar technology, modular tech,” he said. “And props for growing it dramatically since I left.”

The former commissioner praised the many downtown transportation initiatives that have come to fruition since he departed Chicago in late 2013, such as the Loop Link bus rapid transit system, the Chicago Riverwalk extension, and the CTA’s Washington-Wabash superstation. “This is all starting downtown, but I guarantee it will change the rest of the city,” he said.

Klein argued that the key for making cities livable in the future will be walkability and each access to car-free transportation. “There’s a formula to this and it’s called [transit-oriented development],” he said. “And it’s worked for thousands of years, even when our form of transit was our feet and the horse, organizing ourselves around everything that you need simply within five- or ten-minutes walk. And we’re getting back to that now instead of sprawl. We’re understanding that this is good for politics, it’s good for business, and so fundamentally it’s what’s good for people.”

He noted that trends and technologies like ride-sharing, driverless cars, and 3D printing will greatly transform the way people get around and how goods reach consumers, perhaps eliminating as much as 90 percent of private vehicles in cities. “What could State Street look like with 90 percent fewer cars and no parking?” he wondered.

Klein argued that the sustainable city of the future won’t just be more efficient and healthier, but it will also be more fun. “There’s no reason you can’t do hard work and raise your kids and have a good time and live in a beautiful place all at the same time,” he said.

But to get there, public sector leaders will have to take a private-sector-style approach to efficient investment of resources, Klein said. “We’ve got to start focusing on ROI, and driving’s not free,” he said. “The road builders will tell you that, but it’s not true.”

  • I’m sorry but for all the good ideas that Klein champions, he is a bit myopic about the glories of the private sector. Competition without effective regulation, and maybe I mis-read him here, and maybe he means for the public part of the partnership to be really strong public regulation of the private sector, but to continue, competition, especially amongst a few over-sized concentrations of wealth and power, can be a huge duplication and waste of resources with little to no to even a net loss of entrepreneurship.

    My guess is that Klein is a drinker of the corporatist-approach-to-economics Kool-Aide favored by Rahm Emanuel. What he calls bringing business models to civic governance is in reality simply effective management that can exist or be absent within any very large organization, public or private.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad Emanuel brought him here and I’m glad he was able to be effective. Likewise Claypool. But Claypool is a career public servant. He illustrates that effective management supported by higher-ups can make things happen even when one lacks the so-called skills only learn-able by working in the private sector.

    What counts as strongly as the management skills are the support from higher-up. While entrepreneurship may foster new ideas and inventiveness, public service can foster dedication and going the extra mile. You see the loss of dedication in situations like the National Park system where people would work for less because of their love for a job that had meaning for them. When privatized such dedication can get squandered by the notions that now I am working for someone else’s profit rather than the public or planetary good.

    And we see that reality being played out at Claypool’s current assignment, the Chicago Public Schools. When teaching is treated like a profession that hires professionals then teachers feel good about going the extra mile. But when the goal from above is to shift the schools from a public good to a private profit center, then that loss of support from above seeps into the entire institutional culture. Getting results is such a situation will likely tax and potentially tarnish Claypool’s management reputation.

  • BlueFairlane

    I expected Rahm would follow his usual pattern and have Claypool replace Gary McCarthy as police superintendent. When that didn’t happen, I figured Claypool had finally settled into his fated role as sacrificial lamb.

  • Jeff Gio

    That would’ve been hilarious. If a state of emergency is declared, maybe the state will appoint Claypool as mayor.

  • Jeff Gio

    I’m anti-state, anti-capitalist, so I had the same reaction as you. Even Klein’s rhetoric reeks of Silicon Valley platitudes. However, I plan on reading Klein’s book so I am not going to criticize him until then.

    As far as private vs public goes, I remind myself “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice.”

  • I’m not anti-state. Capitalism in some situations might pass my muster. When Schumacher brought out “Small is Beautiful” I was prepared to pan it. But surprise, surprise his theories included a place for big as well. I don’t see big institutions or organizations going away and for now the ones that build clean energy systems will remain important. For me the problems are governance and control of the big concentrations of power. The more widely spread the control the better in my book.

    Klein has good ideas. I would place him in the same category as Elon Musk. Just a much smaller fish. I assume that he is the sort of person who could go back and forth between the private and public sectors. A cross-pollinator as it were. The danger is inter-breeding and the capture of regulation by the regulated.

    In the meantime a lot of healthy babies are being thrown out with the bathwaters in the pursuit of ideologies designed to benefit few at the expense of many.

  • Jeff Gio

    I fully agree, and my “anti” leanings are mostly reactionary and not always steadfast. I’ll have to check out Small is Beautiful, thanks


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