March 7, 2014 - From the March, 2014 issue

Out-of-the-Box City Transportation Manager Gabe Klein Shares DC and Chicago Successes / Failures

The Office of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti partnered with the Urban Land Institute—LA to present “Progressive Cycles, a Meeting with Gabe Klein” on January 17. The conversation, which took place at City Hall, centered on Klein’s achievements in Chicago and Washington DC, where he rolled out exceptionally successful bikeshare programs in his roles as Chicago Transportation Commissioner and DC’s Department of Transportation Director. Here, TPR shares with our readers his LA remarks.


Gabe Klein

“[Our] first Action Agenda in DC...was pretty basic—it set very specific goals and metrics to achieve over 24 months. We accomplished 90 percent of them. Some of the things we didn’t accomplish. We would tell the public, in our update, ‘We failed. We didn’t get this done.’ There was so much transparency, and people knew we were on the same team.” -Gabe Klein

Gabe Klein: The mayor wanted “out of the box.” I came in, and D.C. City Administrator Dan Tangherlini said, “We have this streetcar that we’re trying to get off the ground. We’ve got this little bike-share pilot we don’t know what to do with. We know we need more bike facilities. We have this $500 million set of bridges we need to build. You need to figure out how to do it and how to fund it.”

I spent six months internally selling a vision to the staff. That might sound crazy, if you’re only going to be there for two or four years, but it’s really worthwhile. I knew if these 1,200 people I was working with hadn’t bought into the vision, it would be fighting tooth and nail to get anything done. The first couple of months were about putting the vision together based on what the mayor wanted, what Dan wanted, and what I thought—listening to people outside of the agency and talking to people inside of the agency. Next came a number of months socializing the ideas and changing them. Then, we put it down on paper and put it out to the public. It was our first Action Agenda in DC. It was pretty basic—it set very specific goals and metrics to achieve over 24 months. We accomplished 90 percent of them.

Some of the things we didn’t accomplish. We would tell the public, in our update, “We failed. We didn’t get this done.” There was so much transparency, and people knew we were on the same team. There wasn’t a lot of time wasted—in politics, in trying to figure out how we were going to tell the story. We spent 16 months just executing and were able to knock out about 90 different things that we set to do, including a design-build on 11th Street Bridges, where we saved about $85 million. It was the first design-build in history in DC, where we used GARVEE Bonds. I was very pleased.

The thing I was most happy about—and I know LA’s done some great stuff on this—is our parking system, which was a disaster. That and the taxicabs were the last vestige of Mayor Marion Barry’s administration. You could go up to any meter, put a paper clip in it, and walk away. Revenues were fair, they were always broken, and people were always getting tickets. Again, I took more of a private sector approach. The people before me had said, “Let’s just go buy these multi-space meters. We know they work and they’re in some other cities.” But, the technology was changing so fast, just like bike-share. We said, “Let’s do pilots with eight different companies.”

We did a pilot program. Some people in the agency said, “It’s going to take a lot of time. It’s a lot of work.” It actually didn’t take much time because we pushed everything to the private sector. We said, “You bring in your meters, you bring in your sensors, you bring in your pay-by-phone system.” We put a different configuration in each neighborhood, and we let the public tell us what worked and what didn’t work. Here’s what’s fascinating: I remember one day, I walked out in the rain. It was near our offices. With the meter that we thought was the coolest and the most interesting—I’m not going to say what manufacturer—there was a line of eight people deep trying to use it. It was designed by a bunch of brilliant engineers, but nobody had designed it for the public. It was not designed like an iPhone. While it looked really cool, nobody could use it. If we had bought that meter, imagine what that would have been like citywide.

We ended up with a really cheap retrofit IPS meter, which I think you have in LA. You take the old meter head, you pop it off, and put the new one on. Brilliant. Because of the pilot, we ended up going with Park Mobile, which was not who we were going to go with. We were going to go with a company called Verrus. Park Mobile integrates with the Verrus meter. We did pick a multi-space meter for certain blocks with new streetscapes where it made more sense to have a multi-space meter, because you wanted to widen the sidewalks and let people have that space for outdoor cafes, along with other things.

The reason I’m telling you this is because Chicago sold their parking meters for $1.2 billion to fix a short-term funding gap. They lost the meters for 75 years. Our meter revenue in DC since 2008 is up 400 percent. The prices in Chicago went from something like 50 cents to $6. I don’t know how much the revenue’s up, because we don’t get any of it, but it’s not tremendous. In DC, the rates went up by a quarter here and there. A lot of times government does not think about the value-add they can give people. They just think, “We either cut costs or we raise prices.” Everything is in really simple terms. When you put somebody in a position who is used to trying to figure out what the value-add to provide people is, to make their business work, I think you end up with a different agency.

The same thing applies to the bike-share program, where we had this rinky-dink pilot, which Dan got criticized for, but was brilliant, actually. You had to put it out there and socialize it on a small scale—again, a pilot—let people see what it is, how it works. It turned out that Clear Channel didn’t want to do it. Bain Capital had bought it. They didn’t want to expand it—the contract was written poorly. We went back and said, “What do the customers want? What are the best systems around the world?” We went and looked, and we ended up with the BIXI system out of Canada. We did a regional partnership. We paid such attention to detail—honestly, my staff by the end either really admired me or hated me based on my attention to detail on the website for the bikeshare system, on the paint color, on the branding, on how we rolled it out. I was infatuated with it because my goal was for people to feel like it wasn’t even a government project. I was really proud that when we had the public meetings for the bike share program, people came and asked, “What is DOT doing here?” That was great. We also were very transparent with that. We let the public, to some extent, pick where the stations went.

It was tempting to do a straight private play, where we said, “Let the private sector fund it,” but it was too new. We looked at our most flexible stream of cash, and that was CMAQ money. Any region that has poor air quality, like DC or LA, at least some of the time, has CMAQ money. A great, great pot of money, as you know—very flexible money that comes through the MPO. Capital Bike Share was probably the biggest innovation in transportation in DC in the last 20 years, and it cost the city $1.2 million. That’s the type of investment I want to make.

You could say, “It’s bike share. Only young hipsters use it.” That’s really not true. Everyone’s using it. People say, “Are people of color using it? Is it just white people?” Nope—it’s everybody. It’s gone from 100 stations when we launched regionally—17 in Arlington, 83 in DC—to, just three years later, 305 stations. The entire state of Maryland is adopting the program. Ideally, you’d have a public-private partnership where, possibly, you use the federal money for capital and then you say, “Let’s make sure that it covers its own costs. Let’s have user fees, advertising, and sponsorship to cover all the additional costs.” I think the marketing is so good, the launch was so successful, and the reaction was so positive that it’s cash flow-positive with none of those things. Just from member fees and daily user fees—that’s it.

I think there are a couple lessons there because there are bike-share systems that are losing a lot of money, like London’s. They chose to hardwire their system, which cost $100 million or something. They did it the expensive way. Now, they can’t move the system—it’s not mobile, it’s not modular. For those of you who don’t know bike share too well, the latest generation of bike share systems are mobile. You drop them with a crane. They’re modular, so you can expand them. You can start with six bikes, go to eight, go to 15, go to 150 on one station. They’re solar-powered, so there’s no need for construction and running power to it. It’s a really inexpensive way to connect neighborhoods. That’s why I’m so passionate about it.

We know we need to invest in transit. The stuff that LA’s doing around transit is just awesome. People nationally look at it. But, you want to be able to extend the metro system with those short, one to three to four mile trips. In a place as huge as LA, it would be great if, when people get off, they can jump on a bike-share bike and go an additional two to three miles. It really extends transit. You can do it at the cost of a couple of rail cars. One rail car is $3.5 million, and we launched bike share for $1.2, plus $5.4 from the feds.

At the same time, we also put in a lot of bike facilities. There are different schools of thought on this. Should you build out an entire network of bike lanes and then put in bike share? Should you put in bike share, and then force the issue on the bike lanes? Most people don’t think that. My feeling was—based on the timeline that we had and based on the backlash that I saw Janette getting in New York after just putting in bike lanes, with people saying, “There’s nobody in them”—let’s put in bike lanes and let’s fill them with people. Coming from Zipcar, I knew that people were moving back into cities saying, “I just can’t afford to buy that $350,000 condo—have a $2,000 payment on my condo, a $400 HOA fee, and then have $900 for a car.” Basically, it’s the same thing with the bike. You’re just extending the sharing economy to the bike, and now with Airbnb, to people’s houses. Any sort of asset that’s not used all the time—and the car is the worst—is a candidate for sharing.

Those investments in bike lanes and bike share buy you time, allowing you the eight years you need to build the streetcar system. People see progress. Also, those projects are so capital intensive that you need the soft projects that cost a lot less. You need the partnerships with ride-sharing companies, and all of that. I think the best programs like this are the public-private partnerships—the one where everyone’s got some skin in the game. Both the private operator and the public operator have upside and downside. In New York, it’s great that it was privately funded, but I think there’s a little too much onus on the private operator to do everything. I think the Chicago model for bike share is great, because we made the capital investment but the private operator is completely at risk for any profit, and the city shares 50 percent of the profits.

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Now, the streetcar system was a really interesting one. Dan Tangherlini, my predecessor, believed in pilots also, but the streetcar project was a pilot. That’s a big pilot—high visibility, easy to have it go sideways and screw up the possibility of having a system. That’s where it was going. The mayor ultimately made the call to focus on H Street instead of Southeast DC, which was a low density, poorer neighborhood at the time. We also built a vision for the streetcar. We had only laid down a mile of track, but we put together a vision plan with the public, and then we did a separate land use plan for a 37-mile system so that we could do a design-build-operate-maintain contract. Yes, we would like to build a 37-mile system, but we knew we’d never even build H and then K Street if people didn’t see the big vision, the big picture.

With bike share, it’s easy—before they know it, it’s there. With Divvy, we launched 300 stations in 90 days, and it had taken over the city. The front page of the paper was, “Chicago loves Divvy.” Streetcar, light rail, and metro stations take years. One of the things I was able to do with DDOT was open up the black box that the agency was, show people what was going on inside, and start to proactively market what we were trying to do. That scared the shit out of people in the agency, but it was the right thing to do.

Now, the streetcar is being built. They are going to put it down K Street. It was going to go either way. If we put it on K Street, it will extend to the rest of the city, because it’s like the project that Melanie was showing me last night—My Figueroa. You do that one project and everybody’s going to see it. Everybody’s going to say, “I want that here, I want it there and there.” That’s why we did so many pilots.

But, ultimately, you’ve got to scale it a little bit. Like the bike lanes, you may do one with plastic bollards and green paint. That’s great because you’re taking back that real estate, you’re showing people that the street can be used in a different way. In DC now, they’re putting in one on M Street with granite. Not even concrete—it’s granite. It’s going to be beautiful. Once that’s there, granite epitomizes, “This is not going anywhere.” Once they put that in, it’s never coming out. That’s also a bit of my theory about these jobs. You go in, you make as much impact and as directional a change as possible. You put things in that can’t be pulled out. Then, they can put somebody in who’s more of an administrator to cut future ribbons and carry out the vision, but it’s about making that high-impact change.

When I went to Chicago, it was a very different environment. DC is a state, a county, and a city, which is a wonderful thing. You have this span of control that very few people do. San Francisco’s got great span of control in their DOT, but it’s different—it’s not vertical. But, then you have the feds on the streetcar.

You have the feds there, but in Chicago, you have the old guard. You have the Daley people. “Who does this guy think he is? The goal is to stay out of the paper. We don’t care what the mayor wants to do. We don’t want that.” It was a whole different set of issues, but at least I knew how the government worked. We followed the same roadmap in that we put together a two-year plan based on the mayor’s vision, my vision. We had to be extremely creative about funding, because the budget director was not excited about what we were doing. She had her own issues, huge budget shortfalls, and some of the stuff seemed sort of fluffy. For instance, on the bike lanes, we literally piggybacked on top of other projects, like arterial paving projects. We stole 100,000 here, 200,000 there. We did 50 miles of advanced bike lanes with no budget. Now there’s CMAQ money kicking in for the next couple years.

There will always be different issues when you take one of these jobs. I think the key is to work for somebody great, like Adrian Fenty, Rahm Emanuel, or Robin Chase—to know that they have the same vision you do, then to empower your staff, motivate them, and be willing to lose your job if you have to. You do this to do the work. I’ve been lucky. (Well, my boss lost his job in DC.) But the public loves the work and they love the change.

In Chicago, we figured out that there were $300 million in CMAQ funds that we could rejigger toward the mayor’s priorities in the six-year plan, because the people before me didn’t understand CMAQ too well. Each DOT has different responsibilities. We had responsibility for the CTA stations, because we owned the CTA stations. There are 56 stations, and we owned the Red Line, Orange Line, and Blue Line. They were on a long-term lease. I was also the Harbor Master, so I had responsibility for the water. (By code, I was supposed to carry a bugle with me all the time. They actually gave me one as a joke, and then it broke the second day, so I never had to use it.)

I was able to get about twice as much done in Chicago, with many more hurdles. But, I knew at a certain point that I was going to be there for two years, because it was so hard. It was like slogging, day in and day out. The public never saw that. My persona publicly was very positive. Behind the scenes, it was knives and daggers sometimes at the mayor’s office to get things done. The mayor knew that. He knew how tough it was. I stayed two and a half years—my wife got pregnant, which was a convenient exit—and now I’m heading back to the private sector. Overall, I’ve already stated most of the lessons I’ve learned, but I think there’s real benefit to finding people who have less fear of the bureaucracy, don't understand why we can’t get things done, don’t have the patience for it, and don’t want to make a career in that—don’t want to spend 20 years in government, or aren’t building their whole reputation on the back of that job.

David Abel: It sounds like you’re burned out and couldn’t take on LA if you were asked. That's the first comment. The question is, the silos of government—you’re coming on the transportation side. We have issues of interrelationship with Planning, Building and Safety, and all the other departments that make up the government of our cities. How did you do that? How did you interface, probably more out of Chicago than DC, with those other departments?

Some of you know Harriet Tregoning, the Planning Director, so I’ll start with DC. She was a big help to me because I was so ignorant about government. We were sort of married at the hip. I’m big on collaborating with my fellow folks. Yesterday, I was on a panel with the health commissioner and the cultural affairs commissioner. I did more with those two and the chief technology officer in Chicago than anybody else. I did meet with Andy Mooney a couple of times a week, who’s the head of Planning and Economic Development, but more Economic Development. We sort of lost our planning function in Chicago a bit. In many ways, we were leading the planning more than they were. When I went to Copenhagen recently, I brought their head of planning with me to get a sense of what we were trying to do. We bonded over that week. When we came back, we shared more of a vision for the same thing.

It’s not just me out there doing things. I’m willing to take the risk, I’m driving the change, I’m telling my staff, “If things go awry, it’s me on the line, not you,” but the reality is that there are so many other people making it happen. It’s the staff and the managing deputies. It’s the planning department.

The streetcar’s a great example. The streetcar was about bringing together the private sector developers, the downtown BID, and the planning department under Harriet, which did the whole land use study. She was right there with me. My job was to be the face of it and to figure out all the technical aspects and the funding, which is very complicated because the project had not been managed very well. Like I said earlier, it takes a village. I really do think that, on those big projects, getting the private sector—as I’m sure they are here—heavily involved in supporting these projects is crucial. 

© 2014 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.