Designing the User-Friendly City | MIT Center for Civic Media

Designing the User-Friendly City

What happens when a tech-minded entrepreneur is unexpectedly chosen to lead a big city government bureaucracy? Gabe Klein was an unconventional pick to head the District of Columbia's Department of Transportation when he was hired back in 2008, by then-mayor Adrian Fenty. He'd been a Zipcar executive. He helped found a local boutique food-truck company. He grew up in a Virginia ashram called Yogaville. But he had never worked in government. Over the next 23 months Klein implemented a program of transformative innovation, rapidly rolling out bike-sharing, new bike lanes, streetcar plans and next-generation parking infrastructure. Now Klein is a year-and-a-half into his second unexpected job in government, as the head of Chicago's Department of Transportation under Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Aaron Naparstek rolls the pre-talk film on urban cycling.

Cities are redesigning infrastructure to allow citizens to cycle safely and conveniently. The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) has put out an Urban Bikeway Design Guide to help urban planners and communities adjust to these infrastructure changes, such as contraflow bike lanes.

Those of us who know and love municipal governments understand that it’s always easiest to change nothing at all. Aaron used to run the famous StreetsBlog, which covers transportation policy around North America. They noticed a handful of transportation officials around the continent working hard to change things, and Aaron sees Gabe Klein as one of these figures.

Klein was Transportation Commissioner in Washington, DC, prior to Chicago, and has also been an executive at gamechanging startup ZipCar. Robin Chase, ZipCar’s co-founder, is here in the audience. The group spent the day checking out the Media Lab’s Changing Places group’s bold transportation inventions.

Drawn notes by Willow Brugh

Chicago hasn’t grown in a decade. The city’s known for pizza, hot sausages, and transportation. At the turn of the 20th century, the city had an entire industry of bicycle producers. The wealthy rode bikes. Street cars were popular, as they were in other American cities, until the 1950’s. General Motors conspired to purchase and eliminate this public transportation to help sell bus engines. This left an entire group of urban dwellers with no way to get around. Buses were introduced, but still have all kinds of downsides. Klein shows us some trolleyporn.

Chicago today is the freight rail hub of North America, the only dual-hub airport in the nation, 24-hour transit services (the El), and a strong bike network.

But the city also competes for worst regional auto congestion. A freight train can get from Long Beach, CA to Chicago in two days, and then take another two days to get through Chicago. Like other American cities, Chicago faces obesity challenges and a drop in pedestrians. CDOT has a budget of $800 million, which is used not just on fun new bike lanes, but also paving and tree planting and viaducts. The department also owns the subway, although it’s operated by CTA.

With Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, Klein set some ambitious goals to expand transportation options in the major categories. Klein started in the bike industry, and then fell in love with ZipCar as he saw people using and loving the service. Mayor Fenty invited him to run DDOT, where his business experience and ignorance of government bureaucracy proved valuable in their own ways.

In DC, Klein created not just a government plan, which tend to gather dust on shelves, but also an agenda for enacting the changes. The plan took 8 months, and the execution 16 months. In two years, they rolled out Capital Bikeshare, still the largest bikeshare system in the US. Klein’s proud of the fact that the system is profitable. It made $300,000 in its first year and is on-track to pay back the initial investment made by federal and city transportation innovation funds. He considers this a transit system like any other -- a modal system that moves people, without the hurdles of unions or fuel costs. And it inspires - people around the country still write him about the system.

Capital Bikeshare is an example of thinking creatively to get around the status quo. Rather than add yet more buses, the city tried new solutions within the existing parameters. Installing bike lanes on Pennsylvania Ave was a particularly rewarding coup. Our streets are still wide enough to accommodate the streetcars that once

DC used realistic parking pricing as a congestion strategy. The traditional quarter-fueled parking meters were replaced with smart -- and pricier -- meters that allowed people to pay with phones and credit cards. Parking revenues went up 400%.

Smartphones provide us better data and communication, resulting in better decisions. The world’s changing, and we need to be smarter to populate the Earth at the same rates. Car ownership and use is down among the young. Generation Y and retiring Baby Boomers alike are returning to cities, where ownership is less desirable than access. Fewer young people are getting cars or even licenses.

Klein sees a lot of potential for cities in the next ten years. Digital Public Way links real-time mobile information with public way assets. People with high-quality information on their phones can make smart decisions about how to get places.

Robust multimodal hubs allow bike, car, bus, and rail options. In DC, Klein sees increases in population of 10% and reduction in car registrations by 5% as realistic. New options like Carshare, P2P, Rideshare, and jitney (shared taxis) expand our thinking. Neighborhood tree adoption frees the city from sending people around to water plants.

Klein estimates that restoring streetcars in DC would have cost 11.6 billion in 2010. He sees this as unrealistic, but hopes for a combination of a streetcar system with rapid bus transit.

Modular vehicles like the CityCar let people who want to stay in the city use a vehicle appropriate for that lifestyle.

In Chicago
Safety’s an important issue for inclusion and a robust environment for people to live, work, and play. Put simply, a dangerous city will not attract people. There were 32,000 road fatalities in Chicago last year. Klein sees a combination of analysis, engineering, and education as a solution.

Regional traffic fatalities are down, which Klein attributes to trends like automated enforcement and ever-increasing numbers of pedestrians and cyclists, forcing motorists to change their behavior.

Over 130,000 car crashes per year in Chicago create a ripple effect of costs in terms of human life, police time, insurance rates, and so on. Enacting automated speed enforcement was politically volatile, but is proven to work.

When there’s too much space for cars in a city, cars speed. Klein sees a link between auto crashes and bicycle crashes. From 2005-2010, there’s been a 45% increase in cycle commuters with a simultaneous

Klein sees the daily accident reports, and is astounded that killing someone in a crosswalk with your car isn’t punished unless you happen to be drunk. If you want to murder someone, this is a pretty clear loophole. We lose more people on the road than any of the wars we’re fighting, or most other causes.

Sweden (and now Chicago) are working to change people’s acceptance of dangerous behavior. Citizen opinion has already changed in Chicago around regulating taxi drivers’ aggressive habits. The DOT has tested running over pedestrian crash dummies, and found a pretty big difference between getting hit at 20 MPH and 40 MPH.

The department is also testing 20 or so speeding treatments around schools. Safety zone stencils, speed feedback signs, speed cameras, countdown timers, and high visibility crosswalks are physical changes that may change driver behavior.

Education happens with thousands of safety ambassadors, including school volunteers and Schwinn-sponsored bike camps for kids.

Pedestrians are an important part of the equation. The department measures numerous metrics and have adopted Sweden’s Vision Zero Initiative to aim for a goal of zero pedestrian deaths by 2020. Klein doesn’t see the point in aiming for anything less.

Transportation includes renewal. Many cities are letting maintenance go to skimp on tight budgets, but this ends up costing more in the long-term. Road cracks are sealed in cold cities like Boston and Chicago, adding 3-5 years to the life of the road. Chicago has rebuilt Wacker Drive, a two-level street, to be far more pedestrian-friendly. Some of the city’s subway stations are over a century old. They’re making the stations beautiful, functional, and interesting.

The ultimate goal is to provide citizens with layers of options, depending on the distance of their trip. Walking, biking, and transit can all work, at varying distances. The city’s designing a Complete Streets policy, designing for everyone from 8-80. Klein sees the lack of public feedback loop as one reason that initial public excitement around multiple-use roads sputters out by the time the government delivers something that looks like a highway.

There’s not much space in cities, so all of the modes of transport need to be able to coexist. The key to doing this is slowing down the speed of car traffic. The ideal is downtown Amsterdam, where there might be 8 lanes of transportation, only one of which is automobiles.

Protected bike lanes help cyclists avoid getting doored, but also give pedestrians a shorter distance to cross before the light changes on them. Staggered traffic lights give pedestrians and cyclists a few second head start on automobiles, increasing cyclist compliance with lights. Spoke lines are major cycling routes into the downtown core.

Sandra Richter asks about whether the department has considered adaptive streets, where space is dynamically repurposed based on time of day and other needs. The Fulton Market area is a prime area for this, where delivery trucks need to come in from 5am-2pm, but pedestrians could take over to dine in the late afternoons and early evenings.

New types of vehicles are further stretching use cases. Italian scooters have become more popular. Bike lanes get re-used by rollerbladers and joggers.

The department investigated the neighborhood-friendly Play Streets, started in New York, and found that there’s already an ordinance on the books from 1923.

Bike sharing launches in Chicago in Spring 2012. It’s not the Holy Grail, Klein says, but it’s pretty darn close. Klein has little patience for sitting on hands. If we know younger populations are using more flexible, healthier transportation options, the government should be out ahead facilitating this trend.

Klein considers Jeffery Jump the first step towards enacting Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). A central bus lane loop hopes to improve bus speed from 3-5 MPH to about 12 MPH. The vast majority of downtown road space goes to a very small minority of citizens in private cars, while the many people taking the bus receive very little of this space.

Connecting transportation corridors is another priority. The Western / Ashland BRT would connect two corridors representing 25% of Chicagoans, and likely lead to economic development. This return on investment helps drive support for transportation improvements higher up in the city government.

The city’s new Morgan Street CTA station is a gem. The Chicago Riverwalk is another beautiful public space, a promenade for education and retail. A public theater and other people spaces are popular.

Chicago’s rendition of the High Line is the Bloomingdale Trail, which is out in the neighborhoods between Humboldt Park and Bucktown. Many of these projects have been on the drawing board for 12 years and benefit from Klein and Emanuel’s impatience with shelved ideas. They were able to identify over $30 million in federal funding to subsidize the project.

Klein credits the Sharing Economy as a cultural driver of many flexible transportation trends. Gen Xers, in particular, have adopted these trends, from AirBnb to ZipCar.

CDOT is being proactive about providing information and making datasets available to civic hackers.

The department is also building the densest network of quick charging electric vehicle stations in the world. They also lead the country in permeable asphalt, which allows runoff water to reach water tables below. The Cermak Blue Island sustainable streetscape is a pilot example.

Lastly, the department ensures that all public way infrastructure, from trash collection to bikeshare, is digitally open for hacking and interoperability.

How do you phase and integrate projects, when there are so many of them?
Lining up funding and approvals is essential, so that plans don’t sit on the shelf.

What’s your relationship with other city departments? Does the Fire Department push back against narrower streets and raised crosswalks?
First responders can definitely put a kink in your plans, particularly if they have influence with the Mayor. You need to be really collaborative, and do a lot of outreach. The NACTO summit included first responders and state officials. Comparing your city to New York is also an effective way to trigger hometown pride.

Everyone thinks their transportation solution is the Holy Grail. What’s your department’s view?
Until you integrate all of these solutions, you need to support all of them as much as possible. We support Peer to Peer companies, multiple car-sharing companies, and other private sector options. Over time, you see merging. By 2018, you’ll see some major changes out there.