New head of Chicago transportation wants more biking

Commish rides in

07/06/2011 10:00 PM


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Gabe Klein
J. GEIL/Photo Editor

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.”

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By Marissa from Logan Square
Posted: 08/02/2011 10:04 AM

As a bike commuter and driver, I applaud you Gabe for trying to make the streets safer for all to share! It's a shame that there are so many selfish drivers and cyclists out there that make the streets unsafe for all of us by fighting for the roads. I think with an increase in bike lanes/travel and awareness, the city will be a safer place for all of us, pedestrians, bikers and drivers.

By Brian Morrissey from Andersonville
Posted: 07/19/2011 3:31 PM

And you, OX (University Village) - good lord, dude. An average speed of 15-20 mph and 250 including most riders, and THEY'RE the menace on the roads? Did you ever stop to think that many cyclists ride they way they do because the roads simply aren't designed for them? But where are the other options? "Just grow up a drive?" So much for democracy with you, eh? The car is a dinosaur, OX, and so are you if you keep on with those beliefs.

By Brian Morrissey from Andersonville
Posted: 07/19/2011 3:29 PM

@ Jim (Lakeview) It's a proven fact that adding capacity just adds more cars. People speed when the road structure allows, it - period. AKA "dangerous by design." That they're just frustrated is laughable. You missed the point completely - it's not about improving traffic flow just for cars. It's for everyone, and making it safer. Cities are for PEOPLE.

By Omri from Wicka Pahk
Posted: 07/11/2011 5:15 PM

I left Chicago for the east coast many years ago, and I'm glad to see the kinds of changes in Chicago that might get me coming back.

By Mark from South Loop
Posted: 07/10/2011 11:45 AM

As a cyclist and South Loop resident, I applaud the efforts of Gabe Klein to make city neighborhoods safer by decreasing automobile speed, and offering a mixed-use transportation plan. I too have grown weary of the daily parade of lawlessness that motorists seem to take for granted along South Michigan Avenue, and the dominance of car-culture throughout the city that enables it. Welcome to Chicago Gabe!

By Jim from Lakeview
Posted: 07/09/2011 2:45 AM

Gabe- let's hope you are plucked away from Chicago quickly. The reason why cars speed down Michigan Ave is because this is the city that can't move. Our streets are constant gridlock, and once they get a stretch of street where they can actually move, they do it. Taking away capacity from cars will do nothing to improve traffic flow. You obviously haven't spent much time here, but you need to learn the "Chicago Way". Go back East. We don't want you!

By chitowner from oldtown
Posted: 07/08/2011 10:17 AM

Gabe Klein is the man. Love what he is trying to do in our city, now his city! Go Klein!

By R.D. Riet from Dupont Circle, WDC
Posted: 07/07/2011 10:25 PM

Great to see you hitting the ground running in Chi-town, Gabe! We miss you here in DC (a lot)! I look forward to seeing all of the changes in Chicago the next time I'm in town. It's a great time to be a Chicagoan, it seems!

By JEJ from U Village
Posted: 07/07/2011 9:55 PM

What an exciting time for CHicago. As a cyclist who uses my bike to commute with my kids I hope the next phase of the Mayor and Mr. Klein's work in the Loop will include infrastructure that allows younger riders and families to get to the Loop and home from the museums, Harold Washington Library, Lakefront and Parks. As for comments about cyclists paying for lanes: I pay plenty of federal and city taxes and deserve a growth in bike infrastructure in Chicago after subsidizing cars for decades.

By Michael Reynolds from Lakeshore East
Posted: 07/07/2011 6:02 PM

A big hearty pat on the back for Gabe! It's this kind of common sense approach to transportation that will make an impact. I couldn't be more supportive of his efforts to grow a bike sharing program as well as creating a network of protected bike lanes. The benefits far outweigh the drawbacks by any standard. Encouraging and enabling non-motorized transportation for short radius trips will have an impact on everything from traffic congestion to overall city health. Keep it up Gabe!

By southloopvoice from South Loop
Posted: 07/07/2011 4:34 PM

I encourage more bikes...cyclists need to respect traffic signals, stop signs and pedestrians in the crossing zones. There appears to be a lack of respect on some cyclists part. So yes to bikes and ticket them if they don't adhere to the rules of the road!

By Scott-Forth Group from South Loop
Posted: 07/07/2011 2:48 PM

This makes a lot of sense and if it is safe for people they will use bikes more. Bikers need to help themselves too by following some basic rules of the road. I am in Wicker Park often and Milwaukee Ave. is sort of a super highway for bikes going into the City. It seems like their could be corridors that are more bike friendly, without having to modify all the streets in the City.

By Max from South Loop
Posted: 07/07/2011 11:42 AM

No reason to license bikers any more than there is to license pedestrians. Bikes do virtually no damage to the roadbed. Bikes reduce traffic significantly. Bike accidents virtually never injure anyone in a car, and injure pedestrians at a far lower rate than vehicles (which kill dozens of peds/year in Chicago). Chicago's roads were originally designed for streetcars, bicycles, and horses, not cars—we're just returning some balance to the equation. There is no shortage of selfish drivers, either.

By Island Dave from Martha's Vineyard
Posted: 07/07/2011 11:36 AM

This is great news for Chicago. The United States is far behind the rest of the world in accepting bicycling. We have subsidized the personal automobile for far to long at a great expense to us all. I look foreward to hearing the good news out of Chicago in the years to come.

By Alex from Uptown
Posted: 07/07/2011 10:20 AM

DC has an incredible bike share program that makes it a pleasure to ride there! I would want nothing more than to see this emulated in Chicago, a city perfect for cycling considering the flat terrain and spacious streets.

By Ox from University Village
Posted: 07/07/2011 10:08 AM

I am sick of all the bikes. They are a menace on the road and act as though they are the only ones who exist. At the very least, they should be required to pay fees to help subsidize their silly bike lanes... also, car lanes shouldn't be removed for bikes. They already ruined Kinzie, taking away an entire lane and further increasing traffic congestion just for one bike lane.

By Michelle from Lincoln Park
Posted: 07/07/2011 8:02 AM

I’m so happy to see that Gabe Klein will make Chicago safer for pedestrians and bicyclists! I’m also glad to see the first focus will be the Loop, where there’s currently not a single bike lane. We need at least one safe north/south route, and one safe east/west route in the Loop. Also, there needs to be a safe way to get from the Loop to the Lakefront Trail. I like the idea of a big bike-share program, but I don’t think there will be a huge response until the city addresses these issues first.

By PMD from University Village
Posted: 07/06/2011 11:33 PM

Mr. Klein. Congrats on your new role in Chicago. I fully support your goal to make bike transportation a regular mode of transport for short-distance travel. I work from home & my family shares one car. We live in a home in University Village & I make my best effort to bike to do daily errands but am sometimes hesistant due to safety concerns. My wife & 2 young daughters pray each time I ride my bike on Roosevelt Avenue. Your efforts to make biking in the city safer is much appreciated.