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The Chicago Department of Transportation has traditionally focused on driving. New commissioner Gabe Klein has a different philosophy. Tapped by Mayor Rahm Emanuel for the job in April, the 40-year-old came to town off a two-year stint as transportation director for Washington, D.C., where he launched a streetcar system, developed a master plan to reduce the number of walkers killed by vehicles and built the nation’s largest bike-sharing system. He and Emanuel are promising big improvements to walking, biking and transit. We met Klein in his CDOT office at LaSalle and Washington, where he had parked his bike: a single-speed Masi cruiser outfitted with a beer-carrying crate.
You’ve discussed creating diagonal crossings, which you pilot tested in D.C., here in Chicago. Which intersections?
One of the five- or six-way intersections, like Milwaukee, North and Damen. I’ve been yelled at by taxi drivers while I’m crossing in the crosswalk with the walk signal and told to get out of the intersection. The thing that surprised me the most about Chicago is how friendly people are and how mean they get behind the wheel. [Laughs] People think their speed dictates how fast they get somewhere, and that’s something we’re going to have to change through education, enforcement and redesigning our streets so that they’re inherently safer and more efficient.
The mayor committed during the election to creating 100 miles of car-protected bike lanes within his first term. The first half-mile on Kinzie cost over $140,000, not including labor. That works out to $28 million total. How will the city pay for that?
We immediately started looking at where we had overlap between where we wanted to place these in the next four years and where we had resurfacing and reconstruction projects where there’s already money budgeted. The return on investment is very high for projects like this. When you look at what it costs to build a mile of urban highway, $40 to $60 million, versus putting in a mile of protected bike lanes, there’s no comparison.
CDOT is trying to create bus rapid-transit routes. What’s the progress there?
We’ve got three corridors we’re working on: Jeffery Avenue, East-West [Union Station to Navy Pier] and Western Avenue. Jeffery is the furthest along, but East-West has a $25 million circulator grant [awarded by the Federal Transit Administration to bus, streetcar and trolley projects that help improve urban circulation], and I think we’ll be making some exciting announcements by the end of the summer.
You’ve said you’re interested in lowering the number of cars in Chicago. How would you do that?
The best thing we can do is give people other transportation options. Driving a car is not inherently bad. Driving a car by yourself, for everything you do, is.
Have you been enjoying biking to work in Chicago these last few months?
I never get tired—it’s so flat! In D.C., it’s all downhill to downtown and all uphill on the way home. Here, biking is really easy.