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Advocates laud Lightfoot’s pick of Studio Gang’s Gia Biagi as transportation chief

Gia Biagi, right, at Studio Gang’s West Town office. Photo: Studio Gang

From a transportation advocate's perspective, one of the biggest head-scratchers of the Lori Lightfoot administration had been why, almost seven months after the mayor was inaugurated, the Chicago Department of Transportation still didn't have a permanent commissioner. Previous CDOT chief Rebekah Scheinfeld said she chose to step down when Lightfoot took office. Since then, the department has been led by interim commissioner Tom Carney, formerly Scheinfeld's first deputy commissioner and perhaps best known for making pithy statements to the press about repairing potholes.

However, it now appears that the wait was worth it. Today Lightfoot announced that she's tapped Gia Biagi, who previously led the urbanism and civic impact practice for Chicago's renowned Studio Gang design firm, and transportation advocates are lauding the mayor's decision. Carney will resume his post as first deputy. Biagi's appointment must be approved by City Council next week in order to be finalized.

According to the mayor's office, Biagi brings more than 20 years of experience in urban design and planning, including over ten years at the Chicago Park District. "At CDOT, Biagi will leverage her deep understanding of city infrastructure and planning to lead the department’s efforts to bring sustainable, accessible transportation to every resident in Chicago," the mayor's office said in a press release.

“Gia’s expertise and years of on-the-ground experience make her the ideal choice to lead our ambitious agenda for CDOT through the coming decade,” said Lightfoot in a statement. “As we move ahead, I look forward to working side-by-side with Gia and the entire team at CDOT as we implement our vision for equitable, comprehensive urban planning and transportation that supports every one of our residents, neighborhoods, and businesses, and helps our entire city thrive.”

At Studio Gang, led by world-famous "starchitect" Jeanne Gang, Biagi specialized in urban design, planning and strategy on urban planning projects across several cities. She also worked at the Chicago Park District, holding jobs in planning and as chief of staff to the CEO, as well as with the Chicago Department of Planning and Development.

“The city of Chicago already has a strong reputation for having one of the world’s best transportation systems, and I am honored to work alongside Mayor Lightfoot to ensure we provide the same level of accessibility and reliability for every resident in every neighborhood,” Biagi said in a statement. “I look forward to drawing on my past experiences to lead CDOT in making continued investments that will enhance mobility for all of our communities, while increasing sustainability for the future.”

According to the mayor's office, Biagi's top priorities will include studying and recommending strategies to unclog congestion downtown and in the neighborhoods, potentially including congestion pricing; and working with the CTA to implement the Bus Priority Zone Program to speed up service on high-ridership routes.

“I am proud that Gia has answered the call to return to public service," said Jeanne Gang in a statement. "It is always rewarding to see the members of our team harness the skills they have cultivated in the studio to effect positive change in the world. Gia has been a critical partner in maturing the Studio’s unique approach to our urban scale work that emphasizes mutuality and equity. She remains part of the Studio Gang family, and I am confident that she will accomplish great things for our City.”

According to the mayor's office, Biagi will coordinate CDOT transportation projects with other infrastructure initiatives in the city, such as new affordable housing. She'll also use transportation planning to help enhance the commercial corridors that are the focus of the Lightfoot's INVEST South/West initiative.

Biagi attended the University of Michigan, earning a BA in English Literature and has a Master’s in Urban Planning and Policy from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Here's what local transportation advocates and experts had to say about Lightfoot's selection.

"We’re excited to work with Gia to make it easier and more affordable for all Chicagoans to get where they need to go," Active Transportation Alliance spokesman Kyle Whitehead told me. "That requires collaboration with other agencies like the CTA to address the bus ridership crisis with more dedicated lanes. It also requires working with state officials to pass reforms like enabling photo enforcement for bus lanes and blocking the box, lowering Chicago’s default speed limit, and stricter safety regulations for large trucks.

"Mayor Lightfoot has clearly expressed her commitment to equity, justice, and accountability," Oboi Reed, director of the mobility justice nonprofit Equiticity, told me. "As a result, Equiticity looks forward to Gia Biagi operationalizing racial equity and mobility justice at CDOT, in a way that is comprehensive, pervasive, and authentic. Under this new commitment at the city of Chicago, we expect CDOT to establish racial equity and mobility justice frameworks which ensures that the transportation sector in our city is actively contributing to Black and Brown people achieving improved life outcomes."

“We are confident Gia Biagi’s leadership at CDOT will assist the department in creating a comprehensive transportation network that is accessible and reliable for all residents,” said Mary Sue Barrett, president of the Metropolitan Planning Council in a statement. “Her extensive background in urban planning and development combined with her intimate understanding of Chicago’s transportation landscape will lead to increased mobility in close coordination with city infrastructure and planning.”

“Gia Biagi brings a deep understanding of transportation and urban planning that make her uniquely qualified to lead the City’s transportation network—the lifeblood of our city,” said Joe Schwieterman, director of the Chaddick Institute and professor at DePaul University, in a statement. “The Mayor’s choice to lead CDOT is an important one as she makes enhancing access and equity a top priority for her administration and the city.”

Here are a couple of other reactions to the news I've heard from transportation advocates who approve of Biaigi as the CDOT chief pick. "I don't know if she knows anything about transportation, but that's not always the point -- knowing about cities is also very important to the job," said one person who has interacted with her through urban planning circles.

"We need designers and planners running transportation, not engineers and random bureaucrats," said another advocate.

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