The bike czar's new clothes

CDOT Commissioner Gabe Klein talks transit innovation on Eight Forty-Eight

July 11, 2012

Caroline O'Donovan

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I was riding my bike east along 31st street the other day, regretting not wearing a helmet. True, I was just going to the beach, which is a max 12-minute jaunt from my apartment in Bridgeport. But 31st street is loaded with potholes, you have to cross over 90/94 and Lake Shore Drive and there is no marked bike lane, despite signs suggesting that it’s an eastbound bike route toward the lake.

As I swerved around manhole covers and eyed right-turning cars, I thought about how many friends I had who had been in bike accidents. When I first moved to Chicago, I met a woman who had been doored – collided with a driver-side door being opened into the road – and ended up in a neck brace. Another friend was biking home from Target one day and didn’t wake up until a stranger was getting her into an ambulance, no sign of the car that hit her. She ended up with chipped teeth and stitches on her face. WBEZ’s own Robin Amer was doored by a car in 2008. Less dramatic injuries happen all the time; sprained wrists and scraped knees are considered the expected badges of those who choose two wheels.

You can save a lot of money by biking to work everyday, but it’s not worth much if you end up spending the savings on hospital bills. Luckily, before he even wore the crown, Mayor Emanuel took on the job of protecting bikers as well as increasing their numbers. Just shy of two years after he began his gig as Department of Transportation in Washington, D.C., Emanuel convinced Gabe Klein, Bike Czar, to head west.

Chicago is flat, Klein noted in an early interview with The Atlantic, and that makes for easy biking. Since making that observation, his accomplishments have come to resemble a laundry list: Protected bike lanes; in-street bike corrals; pedestrian safety programs for crosswalks; a budding bus rapid transit program.

One initiative that hasn’t been moving along as quickly as Klein and CDOT might have hoped, however, is bike share. Slated to take off in June, the release has been delayed potentially until next year because of allegations that the proposal process was flawed. Josh Squire of Bike Chicago – the company contracted throughout the city for bike rentals but did not win the contract for the bike share – claims that Klein’s connections with the writers of the winning bid, Alta Bikes, influenced the final contract decision. A department spokesperson made clear in June that Alta presented the most viable proposal, but the controversy has certainly delayed the rapid progress in bikeability that Klein became known for in Washington, D.C.

As a result, other projects have been getting extra attention from the Commissioner’s office. Bus rapid transit lanes could soon break up rush hour traffic on major avenues and Klein is thinking about exceeding the Mayor’s goal for 100-miles of protected bike lanes through the Chicago Forward transit action agenda. His ongoing accomplishments are eagerly chronicled by Grid Chicago, a transit blog run by a former CDOT employee that has, among other things, called Klein a clotheshorse.

Commissioner Klein stops by Eight Forty-Eight Tuesday morning, and we find out how Chicago compares to Washington, D.C. from the streets to City Hall. We ask how long he plans to remain in the Midwest, what his greatest ambitions are for Chicago’s streetscape and – if he’s wearing a snappy suit.
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