The bike whisperer

Transportation guru Gabe Klein is anything but your typical city worker

November 28, 2011|By Tracy Swartz, RedEye

Move over, New York and Portland, Ore. Chicago wants to pass you by on bike.

The wheels of change are in motion for city cyclists thanks to new initiatives from Mayor Emanuel. In the works are 100 miles of protected bike lanes, increased bike parking and a widespread bike-share program that could put Chicago on the map as one of the nation's most bike-friendly cities.

Enter Gabe Klein, the city's Department of Transportation commissioner, who took office this year.

"The mayor is definitely trying to catch up to other cities with the goal of leapfrogging D.C., Portland and New York," Klein said. "You've got to fire on all cylinders."

In the past, city transportation commissioners haven't been as visible as other city officials. But you'd probably remember 40-year-old Klein if you met him—and not only because he has a penchant for sunglasses.

Among his many interests are shoes (one fave: brown leather Cole Haans with blue suede trim) and old-school hip-hop (DJ Scratch is his jam).

Before he landed at CDOT, he was co-founder of On the Fly, a Washington-based eco-lunch truck, and a regional vice president of car-sharing company Zipcar.

He has a Twitter account (@gabe_klein), where he tweets mostly about transit issues but rocks a fedora (and of course a bike) in his profile pic. His website,, is described as "Gabe Klein's TreE-House … working for the greater good (and having fun while doing it)."

His main priority in Chicago will be to get Emanuel's bike program rolling.

"Those who followed me during the campaign know I am a bike enthusiast, as somebody who likes biking myself," Emanuel said in June as he launched a protected bike lane pilot project. "I want Chicago to be the bike-friendliest city in the country."

But there are obstacles. Chicago didn't make September's list of the world's top 20 bike cities of 2011, compiled by the Copenhagen-based bike planning firm Copenhagenize Consulting. Portland, San Francisco and New York did.

And the city received only a "silver" designation—second banana to "gold" winners Madison, Wis., and Minneapolis—in September from the League of American Bicyclists, a Washington-based group that ranks cycle-friendly communities.

But Chicago has seen one of the highest jumps in bicycle commuting—159 percent—over the past decade, the league determined by crunching recent Census numbers.

RedEye asked Klein to evaluate where the city's bike program is and where it's going.

Growing lanes

When it comes to protected bike lanes, Chicago is definitely Second City to New York, which has been rolling them out for years.

The foundation of Mayor Emanuel's bike plan is the creation of 100 miles of protected bike lanes across the city—to the tune of $28 million. Twenty-five miles are set to be constructed each year until the end of Emanuel's first term.

The first of these lanes, in the Fulton River District on Kinzie Street between Milwaukee Avenue and Wells Street, officially opened in July.

The lane is tough to miss. It debuted with flexible marker posts to separate cyclists from cars, which still travel in both directions along the street. There also is a separate parking lane for cars.

Construction recently began on the second protected bike lane in the West Loop on Jackson Boulevard from Damen Avenue to Halsted Street.

Meanwhile, Ald. Danny Solis (25th) announced in September that 18th Street from Clinton to Clark streets in Pilsen will see a protected bike lane. A lane for Elston Avenue between North Avenue and Division Street in Goose Island also is planned.

Park and recreation

As Chicago debuted its first protected bike lane in July, it also premiered its first on-street bike parking corral on Milwaukee Avenue south of North Avenue in Wicker Park.

The corral, located on the street in what was previously a car parking space, is a seasonal perk that disappears in November because Milwaukee Avenue is a snow route.

Typically, bike racks are placed on sidewalks and have space for a few bikes. The corral has room for 12 bikes.

The city installed 150 of the standard bike racks in September. Six hundred more racks were scheduled to be installed in October, as part of a four-year program to implement 2,400 new racks across the city.

Currently, there are more than 5,200 racks citywide, according to data posted on the city's website. The 42nd Ward—which encompasses the Loop, North Michigan Avenue, River North, Streeterville and the Gold Coast—has more than 550 racks, by far the most of any ward.

The 17th Ward—which includes parts of Englewood, West Englewood, Chatham, West Chatham and Auburn Gresham—has about 60 racks, among the fewest of any ward.

Klein said he would like to work with the CTA to create more bike parking at transit stations.

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