Mission Accomplished

Before stepping down from his position as Transportation Commissioner, Gabe Klein (pictured) transformed the City of Chicago into a “customer-focused agency that is a national leader in technology, multi-modal innovation and sustainable design that consistently makes a positive impact on the quality of life” of its 2.6m residents. He tells Kevin Borras how he did it.

So, what do we know? An entrepreneurial businessman, well-known for his involvement in some truly innovative transportation-related start-ups, is helicoptered in from his position as director of Washington, DC’s department of transportation with the simple remit of transforming CDOT (Chicago Department of Transportation) and then two-and-a-half years and a whole raft of inspirational projects later he’s gone, off to start his own technology company. If life really is all about what you leave behind, then 42-year old Gabe Klein has building up a hugely impressive legacy. Before leaving office, then-Commissioner Klein spoke to Thinking Cities about just what makes a city smart, the innovative schemes he has overseen and how some of the city’s roads are able to digest pollution.

What is your definition of “smart” when it’s applied to a city? Is it the infrastructure? The intrinsic culture? Its citizens? Does it come down to budget? According to Klein it is, to a certain extent, based on perception.

“Do young entrepreneurs consider Chicago to be smart? Do businesses looking at relocating to Chicago consider it to be a smart city? What about the people that live here? Do they think they are living in a smart city?” he asks, partially rhetorically. ”In some ways the sign of a smart city is one that flows well and works properly based on technology that’s running in the background. Is your traffic signal system optimised? Is your digital signage reliable and clearly understood? Are their easy applications to use to figure out which mode of transportation you need to take into the office today? Does the freight flow smoothly through the city?”

From Chicago’s standpoint it’s always a work in progress. “We are always trying to progress and we are always trying to learn from other cities and even catch other cities. And we are also trying to lead which is a great place to be. In some areas we are a very smart city but in others we have a lot of growing to do.”

It wasn’t as if Klein started with a blank sheet of paper in early 2011 when Chicago Mayor Rahim Emmanuel drafted him in from the capital city.

“We are lucky that we have a really robust transit system in place,” he said before rattling off an impressive list. “We have the CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) rail system, the L which is the elevated system, the subway, the CTA bus system, the Metra Commuter Rail system which is the second or third busiest in the country, we have a regional commuter bus system called PACE and we also have Union Station that has an Amtrak service plus we have a quarter of the country’s freight running through Chicago so as you can imagine there’s a lot of technology that makes all those systems work. There’s consumer-facing technology, such as digital displays in the bus shelters and rail stations and we also have very complicated systems operated by the six class 1 railroads and their trucking partners to make sure we are cutting down on congestion and excess traffic.”

In these tough economic times people don’t want to see what they perceive as “their” hard-earned money spent on projects that aren’t deemed to be entirely necessary. When it comes to transportation, people want to get to where they are going quickly, safely and as cheaply as possible, so how did Klein, with all his business acumen, go about convincing the Chicagoans that the money he was spending on smart transportation was a good investment and was ultimately for their benefit? There are always people who will want portions of that budget spent on something “more worthy” than mere transportation but still complain when their bus is regularly cancelled.

“There’s a number of things that we do. One is we try to take a balanced approach. When we advanced the infrastructure for cyclists and we put sensors in the streets, we also put sensors in the streets for cars at the same time. This way we are improving the traffic flow for everyone at once as we are giving cyclists their own protected bike lanes.”

If Chicago is anything like London, Thinking Cities’ home town, then that balance Klein talks about, is a remarkably delicate one.

“Absolutely. I often talk about how our authority is the department of transportation and public space – it feels like what we are trying to do is balance the needs of all the different users of the public space. The technology is so important because you only have so much space but when you layer on the technology it’s almost like a fibre optic network – when you layer on the technology you can multiplex that fibre and add a lot more bandwidth,” he enthuses, clearly relishing his subject.

“It’s the same sort of thing with our streets and sidewalks – when we use technology for our signals and pedestrian crossings and so on it makes the right of way much more efficient. If it means moving people out of single-occupant vehicles and onto buses or bikes or getting them to walk or synchronising the signals so the single occupancy vehicles that do need to be on the road flow better, that’s really where the high return on investment is. When we talk to the public we have to talk about it in simple terms. We have to explain how we are helping everybody, how we are doing it at a low cost-high return ratio.”

Informing the flamboyant Klein’s unstintingly assured rhetoric is the mind of a businessman with a management operations and marketing background, he is not an engineer or an economist, something rather unique in a Transportation Commissioner. His private sector upbringing has meant that he has been able to bring something of value to the government and in turn has learned a lot about how governments work. In his 20s he ran several Bikes USA stores before moving into consulting and latterly onto ZipCar where he helped to grow that business over a four-year period. He then co-founded his own electric food vending delivery and service company, On The Fly, before being drafted by the Mayor of Washington to run their transportation department. Chicago’s Mayor Emmanuel hired him in 2011 to execute his far-reaching and markedly ambitious transportation transition plan. Klein believes his business experience has helped him transfer his success to the governmental side of the table.

It hasn’t all been roses though as the implementation of a city-wide network of traffic cameras was just one of a number of innovations that angered the National Motorists Association.  But as Chicago blogger John Greenfield put it in his chi.streetsblog.org post on 5 November, “I’d like to think he’d view getting panned by the motorists association as the highest praise for his years of work promoting Chicago streets that serve all road users, not just drivers.”

“We made a permanent directional change in Chicago in terms of how people view transportation and what’s important,” Klein explained in a recent interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “With Mayor Emmanuel’s vision and my ability to get things done, we’ve accomplished an amazing amount – six-to-eight years worth of work in just over two.” Klein is returning to Washington DC to launch a business that promotes “transportation technology.”

Ron Burke, executive director of the Active Transportation Alliance, said that Chicago was “stuck in a 1990s mentality and had not caught up with where transportation innovation had gone” before Klein took over the leadership of CDOT, a move which had seen the city “catapulted to the front” of the nation as a leader in promoting biking, walking and public transit.”

It’s inarguable that cities need to become smarter, more efficient, sustainable and liveable. How is Chicago addressing these needs? Rather typically, Klein met this challenge head on with the help of one of the world’s most innovative pollution-busting products.

“There are a number of things we can do. We have to pilot new activities. When we set off on a big program there’s a whole sales proposition that goes on with the public and you have to make sure your data is on-point so you know it is going to be successful. We pilot things on a very small scale, we collect data about what’s working and what’s not working, tweak it then put together our plan to launch it on a larger scale and then sell it to the public.”

Quite often I have regretted asking an interviewee to give me an example of what they are talking about but on this occasion, it proved to be a rather significant question.

“Well, we have a street that we have named the Most Sustainable Street in America and it’s in the mainly industrial neighbourhood of Pilsen. It’s a neighbourhood that’s going through a real shift. On one side it’s industrial but on the other side it’s becoming more mixed use. One side you have railroad tracks adjacent the streets, the other side it’s already changed and there’s shopping. We took the opportunity here to use every single type of sustainable technology that we could find, ranging from photocatalytic cement which eats smog to dual solar-wind powered sidewalk lights. We tested about 20 different technologies and for two years before and two years afterwards we are monitoring the changes.”

Yes, Klein really did say that the streets of Pilsen, Illinois are paved with cement that has a digestive system.

“This is one of those pilots that takes a lot of effort but we are already seeing such a great payoff. This project, part of our overall Streetscape scheme, cost 21 per cent less to implement than the others because of the sustainable technologies we used. We are documenting whether the cement is eating the smog as it is supposed to, that the  water features are working, the bioswills are performing. We are only a year or so into it but we are already seeing what’s working and we are baking all those aspects into our other projects. It’s an important strategy for us. Small scale, learn, large scale, but do it quickly. We have a motto here: “Make as many mistakes as you can in as little time as possible and try not to repeat them.” People are terrified of getting things wrong. In relationships, in business, and especially in government. People are generally risk-averse and this creates an environment where if you can’t make a mistake, you also can’t excel.”

Two and a half years is a long time in politics, especially for a CDOT commissioner, and one of the most notable changes implemented under Klein’s stewardship has been in how the city connects with and to its citizens. Connectivity with the citizens, connectivity for the citizens. Power, quite literally, to the people.

“We now have NextBus and NextRail smartphone apps which you can get from the Apple Store and from the CTA website and we also have something called Chicago Traffic Tracker. This not only tracks arterial speeds and congestion in real time using the buses’ GPS, it can now also predict what the traffic is going to look like three or four hours ahead based on historical data. We built that ourselves here at CDOT and we have a direct fiber link to the CTA so we get the bus data in real time.”

So the people of Chicago get what they want, when they want and on what they want. A city asking its inhabitants to comment on its transportation plans isn’t anything new but it looks like Chicago is going out of its way to give the people that call it home the transportation network, and crucially the modal options, they deserve. I mention something about my home town installing a tram system in 2000 after a long consultation period which included local residents.

“Well, trams are pretty expensive! But we are building the first of two bus rapid transit lines and are currently in the study phase for a second one and we are designing a BRT network. Clearly a system like this is heavily reliant on technology to make them work. It’s new infrastructure so it looks and feels like rail but has the benefit of traffic signal prioritisation. We are using off-bus fare collection, making use of the apps, to make the bus as fast as possible. Also we are just launching a new smartcard system, similar to London’s Oystercard, with Cubic. It’s called Ventra and it’s actually the first of its kind in the country in that it will have two purses so you will be able to use it as a Visa card anywhere and also pay your fares.

None of these projects are cheap and no city has a bottomless pit of money to dip into when they want to build a shiny new transportation system. One only has to look at Detroit as an example. The pit has a bottom alright, and there’s barely any loose change left, let along hundreds of millions of dollars.

Says Klein: “We spent a fair amount of money this year as we are also building a new virtual traffic management center, designed by Delcan, for the city. We also have a lot of signal interconnect projects going on and we are launching one of the biggest bikeshare systems in the US with over 300 stations. I like to think of that as a scheme where old technology, the bicycle, is merging with new technology such as solar power, GIS, GPS, and advanced payment systems. We have to think sustainably – not just in terms of emissions but financially. We have a sustainability plan for the city and we also have one within our agency and it calls for a very specific greenhouse gas emissions reduction as well as energy reductions for vehicles, buildings, internal goals for agencies and larger macro goals as well. There’s a lot going on,” he concludes in his sole nod towards understatement.

“And I didn’t mention smart agriculture. That’s the jurisdiction of another part of the city but we have aquaponic farms springing up that have a symbiosis between fish farming and vegetable farming. Fish waste is used to fertilise the vegetables and vice versa which is really interesting.”

Really interesting. If there’s a more appropriate, though underplayed, phrase to sum up Gabe Klein’s tenure as the City of Chicago’s Transportation Commissioner, I would like to hear it. Whoever steps in to Klein’s shoes is going to have a whole lot of thinking to do…