City transportation commissioner is resigning

BY FRAN SPIELMAN City Hall Reporter November 1, 2013 1:41PM
Updated: November 1, 2013 9:28PM

Source: Chicago Sun-Times

Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein with Mayor Rahm Emanuel in March 2013

Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein with Mayor Rahm Emanuel in March 2013

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s transportation commissioner resigned Friday, confident that the bike lanes, bike-sharing, bus rapid transit and speed cameras they both champion have made a “permanent directional change” in how Chicagoans view transportation.

“With his vision and my ability to get things done, we’ve accomplished an amazing amount- — six-to-eight years worth of work in 2 1/2 years,” said Gabe Klein, who will leave City Hall at the end of the month to start his own transportation and technology company.

“We were paving on a 64-year cycle for arterials. Now, we’re on a 15-year cycle. Potholes, lights, paving — all the basics are considerably better. That’s what’s allowed us to innovate. We made a permanent directional change in Chicago in terms of how people view transportation and what’s important.”

One of several department heads and agency chiefs to depart at mid-term, Klein flatly denied that he had been forced out.

“I’ve been talking to the mayor about this for a few months. I was nervous about it. But he was incredibly gracious. He said, `I really don’t want you to go, but I understand.’ He understood I needed to go,” said Klein, 42.

“This has been the hardest job I’ve ever done and the most rewarding. But I’m also excited to bring the skills I’ve learned here to the private sector. I’m interested in starting my own company. I have a couple of business plans I’m writing. But it’s hard to raise money until you leave government.”

Klein said he will leave City Hall, confident that he has leveled the playing field he once argued was heavily tilted in favor of motorists.

At Emanuel’s direction, he dramatically increased the number of bike lanes in Chicago and installed the city’s first protected bike lanes by shrinking the number of lanes available to motorists.

After a year-long delay, he launched a Divvy bike-sharing program that, the mayor hopes, will someday be the largest in the nation.

Klein has also been the point-man on Emanuel’s controversial plan to install speed cameras that churn out $35 and $100 tickets around schools and parks.

On Friday, Klein insisted once again that speed cameras are designed to keep children safe — not to raise sorely-needed revenue.

“You could give me a lie detector test. I brought the idea to the mayor. It’s worked in Washington,” said Klein, who met Emanuel while serving as transportation chief in the nation’s capital.

“We’re already seeing a 50 percent decline in speeding around the cameras. That’s a cultural shift. I understand that, politically, some people don’t like speed cameras. But you can’t deny that they work and the mayor has the fortitude to make the right decisions.”

The mayor is counting on $70 million in fines from speed cameras to balance his 2014 budget and bankroll an expansion of kids’ programs.

Aldermen believe that’s a low-ball figure. They point to the 204,743 warning notices churned out by speed cameras installed around four parks in just 40 days during a recent test run. That would have generated $12.2 million in fines if those cameras had been playing for keeps, which they are now.

A proponent of bus rapid transit lanes, Klein was known more for his innovative ideas on transportation issues than he was for his management skills.

One month after Emanuel took office, Klein talked to the Chicago Sun-Times about his broad-strokes plan to level a playing field that he believes, place pedestrians at a “distinct disadvantage.”

He talked about reducing the number of downtown corners where motorists can turn right on red and about giving pedestrians a three-to-five-second jump before the light for cars turn green at more than 100 dangerous intersections.

Klein suggested narrower streets, slower speed limits and creating intersections where vehicular traffic is stopped for 14 seconds every other light cycle to give pedestrians a chance to cross in every direction, including diagonally.

One of those so-called “pedestrian scramble” or “Barnes Dance” intersections has been installed in the Loop.

On Friday, Klein argued that his mission has been accomplished.

“If we continue to prioritize moving autos as quickly as possible through city streets, our real estate won’t be worth as much because streets won’t be as safe and we will not encourage economic growth,” he said.

“Automobiles took over our cities, and people fled between the 1950s and 1990s. We made huge urban planning mistakes. What people like Mayor Emanuel have realized is that, to have a healthy and economically viable city that people want to live in, you have to have a balanced transportation system.”

Ron Burke, executive director of the Active Transportation Alliance, said the city was “stuck in a 1990s mentality and had not caught up with where transportation innovation had gone’’ before Klein took over CDOT.

But Burke said under his leadership, Chicago has “catapulted to the front’’ of the nation as a leader in promoting biking, walking and public transit.

Contributing: Rosalind Rossi