'Start-Up City' with a start-up guy: Gabe Klein on getting it done - Metropolitan Planning Council

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'Start-Up City' with a start-up guy: Gabe Klein on getting it done

Tricia Scully

Gabe Klein speaks at our Nov. 10 Urban Think & Drink on his new book, Start-Up City

“Start-up” is now a common phrase in America. Most people associate the term with fast-paced internet companies that go from garage to globe in a decade, making every twenty-something who was there on the ground floor a multi-millionaire by age 30. The ethos and culture of the start-up has also become well known: It’s unconventional, willing to make mistakes, and most of all hates the status quo. It wants to “disrupt” current systems and processes as much as possible.

Until now, the start-up mentality was best associated with Silicon Valley and locally with Chicago tech hot spots like 1871 and BuiltWorlds, but Gabe Klein brought the energy of a tech start-up to Chicago’s Department of Transportation when he served as commissioner during Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s first term.

Tricia Scully

The room was packed to hear former Chicago Dept. of Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein.

Klein took the opportunity offered by his new book (appropriately named Start-Up City) to share his business approach to a standing-room-only crowd at MPC’s Nov. 10 Urban Think and Drink. One of the things he said that stuck with me was that “congestion can be good.” What he meant is that before car-based congestion lent such a negative connotation to the word, congestion of people—shoppers, strollers, bikers, etc.—meant a place was vibrant and exciting. Places that people want to be are bustling.

From the moment I met Gabe during the transition process in a conference room at campaign headquarters, I knew he was different. His passion for bus rapid transit, his commitment to protected bike lanes, his curiosity for Placemaking and development of “People Spots” all set him apart from the standard and typical department of transportation commissioner.

Flickr user Steven Vance (CC)

Steven Vance of Streetsblog Chicago captures the inaugural ride of the Dearborn two-way bike lane.

It turns out my perception matched reality as Gabe hit the ground running and was able to launch many notable firsts in the Mayor’s first term. The first bi-directional protected bike lane in the loop runs right past the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) office. It’s become a tremendous success with cyclists of all stripes including those on Divvys, Chicago’s bikeshare system (also a Gabe Klein original).

Gabe also spear-headed the effort to expand Chicago’s downtown riverwalk, and this past June we witnessed the fruits of his (and many others’) labors with the first three sections, from State to LaSalle streets, opening to the public. They’ve been extremely popular and I can’t wait to see how the final two sections turn out.

His rapid pace of change has, on occasion, had to be corrected after projects were installed (he cites the Pennsylvania Avenue Bike lanes in D.C.). But he always bounces back with twice the enthusiasm, as evidenced—for example—when he proclaims, “The D.C. streetcar WILL run someday!”

But he isn’t just about the big, flashy projects. This past visit, Gabe was chatting with a friend and reminiscing about his many achievements in Chicago and said one of his proudest was that no one complained about potholes when he was commissioner. In fact, potholes were very rarely mentioned at all. It wasn’t that Gabe had the city distracted with new plans for bus rapid transit or the Riverwalk—though he definitely did that too—it was that he had developed a new way to fill potholes that was cheaper and faster and he was getting that job done. Taking care of the basics well leaves opportunity for experimentation and new initiatives.

Tricia Scully

Gabe and I during the question and answer session.

Start-Up City is a compilation of stories Gabe has accumulated throughout his career. He bounces between his time in private and public sectors seamlessly. In fact, that is the point of the narrative; he sees little difference to how one approaches success as an early participant in ZipCar or the Commissioner of Transportation for Chicago.

He shares life lessons as well as some textbook management techniques like the SMART approach (Specific, Measurable, Agreed Upon, Realistic and Time Based). Given that most in the planning profession do not subscribe to these business management mantras, I highly recommend all give Start-up City a read. We planners could use some shaking up and exposure to new approaches; Gabe provides that template.

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