New head of Chicago transportation wants more biking
Commish rides in
07/06/2011 10:00 PM
From his fourth-floor apartment at 14th Street and South Michigan Avenue, Gabe Klein has a pretty good vantage point of the South Loop.
Businesses, pedestrians — they’re right there outside his window. But one thing really bugs him: the traffic on Michigan Avenue.
“There’s a good line of sight south and north to see cars, and I regularly see people doing 55, 60 miles an hour,” Klein said. “We need to take a comprehensive approach to a street like South Michigan to make it safer.”
But there’s a difference between Gabe Klein and other safety-minded South Loop denizens. He can actually do something about it.
That’s because Klein is the new commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation, the agency that oversees just about every initiative involving things that move in the city of Chicago. And he’s planning to shake things up in the city, especially in his new home of the South Loop and other neighborhoods close to downtown.
Klein’s a Chicago transplant by way of Washington, D.C., where he was plucked from a job at the Zipcar car-sharing network to helm their department of transportation. He served there for a little less than two years, but made a big dent in the city’s transportation landscape in that time, giving people incentives to avoid using their cars to get around.
Among his biggest accomplishments was a massively successful citywide bike-sharing program — a system much like Zipcar, where participants can buy a cheap annual membership to use bikes all around the city, or just pay per trip at a kiosk next to the bike stations.
It’s a program he’s looking to implement in Chicago soon. The department is asking companies to submit bids this summer in what Klein hopes will be the nation’s biggest bike-sharing program when it launches — putting the city into competition with smaller vendors currently renting out bikes at kiosks at the Museum Campus and in Millennium Park.
While those bikes are aimed mostly at tourists, the main idea behind Klein’s program is to get locals to use the bikes. In Washington, about 60 percent of the people renting the bikes didn’t pay for them daily — meaning they were likely locals who were using the program for everyday tasks.
That goes to the heart of Klein’s goal — promoting non-driving ways of getting around, especially for short-distance travel.
“We want to make walking and biking the modes of choice for less than one and two miles of travel, and above that, transit,” Klein said. “If we just make it so that people can ride recreationally on Sundays on the lakeside trail, that’s important, but we want people to walk and take transit and bike to work. You’ve gotta make it as easy and safe and inexpensive as possible to drive that behavior.”
That’ll help particularly in the heavily congested downtown area, he said. That’s where he’s focusing his initial efforts with CDOT, Klein said — not because it’s the quickest and easiest thing to do, he said, but because it’s the hardest.
“It’s the most congested down here, and if you don’t fix the problems down here, people that are driving to work, coming to work — by whatever mode — they won’t necessarily make better choices and feel safer,” Klein said. “So over the next couple of years, we’re definitely going to focus on the central business district being as safe as possible.”
Klein seems excited to do things with an immediate impact, like the bicycle track he installed with Mayor Emanuel within weeks of being appointed to his seat. Already installed and in action on Kinzie Street, the mile of protected bike lanes between Milwaukee Avenue and Wells Street is the first of 100 miles the mayor has pledged to install.
It speaks, Klein said, to his boss’ willingness cut through bureaucracy and get things done.
“A lot of people who have lived here for all these years think you have to abide by the bureaucracy,” Klein said. “The change is going to happen — it’s a matter of how fast it happens, and if you control it or if it happens to you.”