Interview: Transportation Visionary Gabe Klein

A transportation visionary who puts ideas into action, Gabe Klein was an executive of Zipcar from 2002 to 2006, Director of the Washington, DC Department of Transportation from 2008 to 2010, and Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation from 2011 to 2013. In other words, he has worked on both the governmental and business sides of green transportation. Klein is responsible for implementing the ground-breaking bike share system in Washington, DC that became a model for the nation. In DC and Chicago he oversaw numerous other innovations, such as separate bike lanes, new bus and trolley systems, and complete streets that are walkable, bikable, and public-transit rich. Klein has also worked for Bikes USA and the mobile food truck business On the Fly. Currently, he is a Special Venture Partner at Fontinalis Partners and advises multiple technology and transportation start-ups. His book was recently published, providing advice to others who want to move toward an environmentally friendly city. EarthTalk’s Ethan Goffman talked with him at a favorite eatery in downtown DC.

EarthTalk: You’ve been partly responsible for such innovations as car and bike sharing to U.S. cities.  Why have you focused on these areas and what’s the environmental impact of such changes?

gabe 225x150 Interview: Transportation Visionary Gabe KleinGabe Klein: I focused on car sharing and bike sharing in particular because I feel like there’s a real need for consumer adoption of services that make it easy to reduce the friction, for instance, to get on a bike or a shared vehicle. And in many ways private companies are best poised to do that in partnership with government. They understand how to appeal to people by making things easy. And the government in many cases holds a lot of assets, if you will, in terms of the public right-of-way, sidewalks and streets. So whether I was with Zipcar, in the private side, or with the government, doing bike share with the private sector, a public-private partnership was reallyessential. And it resulted, I think, in many people getting rid of their cars. For instance in Washington, DC we saw a 6% decrease in car registrations over a ten year period, while we saw a 3% increase in population.

E: And that was due to bikeshare, carshare, what specific programs?

Klein: I think people shedding vehicles is due to having a plethora of options, different types of options that they can use. It’s not that there’s one silver bullet, it’s not just Metro or bikeshare or the circulator bus or any of these options on their own. I think when you give people enough options that they realize they don’t need to own a car, that’s when they’ll shed either their secondary vehicle or perhaps their primary vehicle. When they do so, we see their environmental footprint contracts dramatically. And the other thing that’s important about, for instance car sharing, is that people will start to pack their trips together. So if you own a car you might go out Monday and drive to the store and Tuesday go to the doctor and Wednesday go get your pet food. And when you use Zipcar for instance we found that people took all their trips and put them together into a Tuesday evening trip and they would do six different things.

E: When I had a car I would use it to go three blocks.

Klein: Exactly, exactly, so ownership creates this need for us to use the asset as much as possible. Whereas when the ownership gets assigned to a company or the government, then they want to use the asset as much as possible, but among a large group of people.

E: So obviously this is good for the environment, but can you say a little more about the environmental impact and why environmentalists should care?

Klein: Well, car sharing for instance, at Zipcar we round that a shared vehicle could take somewhere around ten and twenty vehicles off the road. It depended on what the city and the circumstances were. But . . . .

E: That’s quite a bit.

Klein: That has a big impact. We find when we put bike share in a city, a large-scale system not just a small-scale system, but enough nodes to really make it transportation, that we can get octane in terms of the of people actually riding. And so it reduces the barrier to people getting on a bike. The other nice thing about bike share is they start to see other people like them riding, whether it’s young people, old people, or large people or people of color. And so it’s been very important in terms of re-acclimating people to getting on a bike, which is a zero emission, zero cost basically, I mean bike share costs 28 cents a day here in Washington, DC, if you have a membership.

E: I do.

Klein: And so, it’s really a great low-emission high-equity form of transportation.

E: And of course it works best in conjunction with measures to make biking safer, especially separated bike lanes.

Klein: Absolutely. If you can introduce separate bike facilities and bike sharing in tandem, I think you can have the biggest impact. And the bike sharing system needs to be larger scale and needs to grow as it starts to reach saturation point per station you need to continue to add stations. Something that’s worked really well here in the district, also in Chicago.

E: And then it just becomes your normal, everyday way of getting around.

Klein: Right, I mean biking has been this recreational activity, it’s the number two recreational activity here in the United States. It’s an $82 billion business. To give you a sense of just how big that is, airlines are a $52 billion business. But culturally we view cycling in the United States as a recreational activity. And so, if we can just make it part of the transportation landscape, particularly when it comes to neighborhood-to-neighborhood type transportation, then the new people coming up, like just hired an assistant who’s 21 and for him bikesharing is just a normal part of the transportation landscape.

E: It’s not exotic. It’s still exotic for me.

Klein: Right. But for him I think when we introduced that he was only 15. So from his frame-of-reference it’s a normal, everyday part of the transportation landscape.

E: Okay, so we’re having a profound shift in ride sharing, bike sharing, better transit, in how Americans move around.  We also have companies such as Uber and Lyft, private companies, car sharing, and they’re affecting transportation. So, where do you see them going? Do you think they’re going to take over other systems, and what’s their likely environmental impact?

Klein: So there’s a number of interesting things that are happening. If you look at the streetcars, for instance, the streetcar system in the United States. As cities became more populous, streetcars were started by private entities, often electric companies combined with developers, and so on. Then, when people fled the cities, we had to take over the systems and it became public transportation. Now that cities are becoming more populous again, we have the private sector once again becoming interested again in providing solutions in these dense areas. And so there’s been this realization with this traditional technology that this can be quite profitable. And so the Internet of things, if you will, the Internet and new business models touching physical objects has created an entirely new way of getting around, like Uber and Lyft. I mean, it’s new and it’s old, right?

E: Exactly.

Klein: It’s like the Jitney bus, or ride share. It’s like, you know, people were sharing bikes in the ‘60s, but now it’s technology enabled.

E: Stuff we used to do out of need and now we can do out of amazing technological efficiency.

Klein: Exactly. And so it’s going to profoundly change the way that we get around. And I think that, when you look at services like Lyft, for instance, it’s one side of the coin. The other side of the coin is the autonomous vehicle. When you put both of these together, you start to see how point-to-point transportation is going to morph dramatically into an extremely low-emission, connected-vehicle type robotaxi. And so the question really is, how does public transportation, what we think of as public transportation but was once private, the bus, the tram, the subway service, how does it interact with the new technology. And I am very hopeful that services like Metro can be the backbone of our system and that services like Lyfit or bike share become the connective tissue in our neighborhoods.

E: So you can think of it as like the heart and major arteries and then smaller veins and capillaries.

Klein: The city is like the human body and the built environment is like the bones and the blood is like our transportation system. And you do need that connective tissue, Metro isn’t going to go everywhere. You also need to get people out of cars. So as long as the services that we develop our around shared mobility I’m very hopeful. If we continue to try to sell people customized individual vehicles, then I think we’re going to be in a world of trouble.

E: So it’s technology, but it’s also how people decide to use the technology.

Klein: Right. It’s technology, it’s the business models, and it’s policy. And the intersection of these three things will decide if these are good for us or not. I’m very hopeful because technology inherently wants to make things more efficient. And cars, single occupancy vehicles, are the most inefficient thing in our landscape. When we look at the capital investment made in cars, it sits 95% of the time in our garage, the number two investment of most families. It’s so ludicrous.

E: And you need a whole road network and you get sprawl. Whereas, transit with these other options is going to actually pull growth inward and help the environment.

Klein: And that’s if, if government steps up to the plate and guides the implementation of these technologies. And that’s one of the reasons I wrote my book, Start-Up City, because I really wanted to dispel some of the myths about both sides. And also recognize that sometimes companies really are selfish and just interested in profit. And sometimes government really does have its head up its collective ass. And so if we can get these two sides working together for the greater good I really think that, in this key moment in time, we can create pretty amazing cities.

E: Okay, I would have put it differently, that government can be sluggish and bureaucratic, but you certainly convey what you mean. Thank you very much.

Klein: Absolutely, thanks for having me.