Transforming transit

Gabe Klein

With experience in both the public and private sector, transit expert Gabe Klein’s recent book Start-Up City considers how the two worlds can blend to make cities smarter and more livable. A former commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation and former director of The District Department of Transportation, Klein has helped transform world-renowned cities, directing land use away from car dependency and towards walkable and bike able urban centers. He recently spoke at The Idea Center at Miami-Dade College at an event put on by the Knight Foundation and the Miami Foundation. We spoke with him to learn how he thinks Miami can develop in a similar way and become a healthier, safer place to live and work.

Why did you decide to write Start-Up City?

I write about how to make big, directional change in cities, and how to make them better. How can we make the private and public sector work together with key services? Before writing the book, I’d spent 5 years or so in public service. I was really a fish out of water in terms of how I ended up there. I was coming from the world of startups and the private sector. My team was pretty successful in Washington, D.C., and in Chicago in terms of making big directional changes, not only from policy, but also on the street level. We started to prioritize people over vehicle types. We realized that if you don’t prioritize people, the default ends up being a dependency on cars. By prioritizing people — not just their mode of transportation, but also their well-being, their health, their equity — you have a different focus. It’s a people-focused city, encouraging active transport like walking and biking. All of these have incredible health impacts, and they’re low-cost. It’s about redesigning land use so that you can walk and bike easily. That also includes transit and a strong public transportation system. We’ve found throughout America that by default the car was the most important part of our urban transport system in a lot of people’s eyes, but particularly in the eyes of people who grew up with this system in 1950’s and 1960’s.

How can we make these big, directional sea changes?

People are subject to their options. We need have a cultural shift that’s a fact, but we also need to have a built environment that puts that in motion. If you look at cities designed in the 1700’s or 1800’s they’re grid-oriented, dense, and built around people’s two feet as a primary mode of transport. When you look at cities that grew in the 20th century, they’re designed around the automobile so you have different issues, depending on your context. In America, we have an issue of car dependency and a lot of this depends on land use. I tell people, “Your transportation plan is a definition or function of your land use plan.”

When you have people separated from where they work or from services like schools, doctors, and grocery stores, you end up in a situation where people need to move. In a perfect world, the majority of things you need would be in a 5- or 10-minute walk. We need to design cities this way. As cities plan this way and make better choices, the real estate becomes more valuable and as you build a place that’s more pleasant for people, more people want to move there. This allows more density, and the next question is keeping it affordable.

How can we make Miami more livable?

There are a number of things you can do. If you build it, people will come. For example, in D.C. or in Chicago, we put bike lanes and bike share systems everywhere. And guess what happened — people started biking. For Miami, a bike lane would give you 60 times the investment as an additional lane on the highway. The government can also start to embrace technology shifts. We’re seeing that there are companies that want to provide services in cities, like bike sharing, car sharing, and carpool. There are a lot of private sector options that the public sector can take advantage of. One thing I’d like to see is more of the public sector shaping the change in the city by embracing private partnerships. For example, the experience of Uber — when the government doesn’t engage, they miss an opportunity. With things like shared and open data and equity in terms of an entire city, by engaging with the private sector, large government can really shape the way these things play out. They can be like an air traffic controller or like a travel agent and coordinate the services that private companies can provide. We see this starting to happen over in Europe. For example, in Helsinki, government put together an app that all providers plug into. It’s a shared payment system and it’s a much easier world to navigate. Government needs to be more engaged with the private sector and providing as many layers as possible. Whatever it is in Miami, whether you need a safe sidewalk, bike share, a high-speed rail or local bus service, there is other new tech that is being built much faster than people think. How can we leverage those things to make the city better?

It feels like Miamians have been asking for bike lanes and Baylink forever. What’s the problem? Why isn’t it happening yet?

If that’s true, then it’s incredibly irresponsible of the government. The government should be providing a high quality of life and safety to ensure that people have safe options to move around. Walking is a basic right and you should have safe sidewalks. Biking should be secondary to walking. Biking and walking should be basic rights and it’s not hard to put bike lanes in a street. The impact you can have on the health and safety of the community is very high.

What are things individual residents can do?

I hope that there’s more local advocacy. There are organizations that are springing up that are involved in this issue, and I would say look for more of that to come. I would also go to public meetings and speak up about projects in your community. Don’t be afraid to ask what you might fear is a dumb question, because it’s probably not. It’s important to express your point of view. There are also a number of great venues to learn more about this subject. Streetsblog is a wonderful national blog that I think should really be expanded to Miami so people who want to learn more about it can gain a lot of knowledge — not just about what’s happening in other cities, but also what advocates should be fighting for.