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Posted at 1:25 PM ET, 12/ 8/2010

D.C. transportation after Gabe Klein

By Robert Thomson

Gabe Klein, who announced this morning that he will be leaving his post as the District's transportation director, had a habit of trying new plans, gauging their effectiveness then fixing the problems. That sometimes worked for the city and against him.

Gabe Klein-Mark Gail-TWP2.jpg Klein at department's offices on New York Avenue. (Mark Gail/The Washington Post)

But I think he'll wind up being remembered as a administrator who pushed the District toward the mainstream of urban transportation policy. There's nothing radical in the bike lanes program, or the streetcar program or the street-parking program, or the pedestrian safety program.

What looked to us here like cutting-edge programs would seem like catch-up to people in other big cities.

Just within our multi-jurisdictional region, you can see a greater focus over the past decade in each of those areas. It simply makes sense: Urban transportation planners are focused on giving people more choices about how to get around this crowded area. At the same time, they increasingly recognize the tie-in between transportation systems and development opportunities.

Klein, who will have been on the job for two years when he leaves at the end of the month, was of a mind to do all those things. Because there was so much going on, it became fairly easy to find something not to like. And for those who found Klein's boss, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, to be arrogant, there were opportunities to see arrogance in some of the transportation programs.

If you thought the bike-riding mayor cared mostly about making the city safe for triathletes, a favorite target would be the expansion of the bike lanes and the Capital Bikeshare system. If you thought Fenty cared mostly about making the city pleasant for young urbanites, a favorite target might be the central-city focus of the Circulator bus system and the placement of streetcar tracks.

Everybody could find something not to like about the street-parking program: The need to haul around at least 16 quarters for a trip to a premium parking zone, the many, sometimes confusing experiments with parking payment systems to relieve that need, and the inconvenience of the late-night and Saturday enforcement hours.

But much of what Klein carried out -- the streetcar program, pedestrian safety experiments, the expansion of Circulator routes -- didn't originate with him or Fenty. They stretch back though this decade and into the '90s.

But Klein was energetic about pursuing those policies and completely bought into the overall goals of increasing mobility and encouraging community development. I predict that people will look back and think that was great. In an era of government retrenchment, somebody was trying something to make life better in a sphere that touches everybody who walks outside the front door.

But when you try something in urban transportation and there's a problem, the problem is likely to be high-profile. One of the best examples was the placement of the bike lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue this year. You couldn't pick a more high-profile place to experiment with bike lanes. When drivers saw the lane striping go down, they howled that they were taking the hit to please a handful of bikers.

Klein told me that when he went down to the avenue and took a look, he saw a safety problem: The cars were straying into the bike lanes because the lanes were so wide the drivers didn't realize they were bike lanes. So Klein had the lanes narrowed. That was a good safety move, and I've heard few complaints since then, but some took it as showing the weakness of the overall program for bike lanes, while even some Klein supporters worried that the city was caving to the car drivers.

What's next
When mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray names a new director, will transportation policies change radically? I don't believe so. Planning may become more conservative, and there may be many more meetings to discuss ideas. But I think the programs will pretty much stay in place. They make sense in an urban environment, and Gray has joined other council members in supporting many of the basic concepts.

Transportation policy was not a big issue in the mayoral campaign. After a short-lived dust-up over streetcar funding, Gray went out of his way to express support for the concept of bringing streetcars back.

And there's nothing unusual about a new mayor wanting to assemble his own leadership team.

Prediction: The D.C. government will continue to advance its main transportation programs. Gray will support Metro transit and resist any effort to scale back bus service or raise bus fares. He won't stop building the new 11th Street Bridge, which is the biggest project under DDOT management. He won't tear up the streetcar tracks.

Gray will expand the Circulator bus system east of the Anacostia, something that was in the works under Fenty and Klein. He won't lower the price of street parking and he will support bike and pedestrian safety programs.

And here's one more no-brainer: The next time we have a big winter storm, people will complain that it's taking too long to clear the commuter routes and the neighborhood streets.

All of this -- for better and worse -- is just part of the environment in a 21st century U.S. city.

By Robert Thomson  | December 8, 2010; 1:25 PM ET
Categories:  District, Transportation Politics  | Tags:  DDOT, Dr. Gridlock  
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Where did Fenty find Gabe Klein? This guy didn't have any transportation experience. Fenty hired him because of the color of his skin and his race being Caucasian to please whites living and moving into DC. I hope Fenty disappear of the planet earth and take Gabe Klein with him. These two were both arrogant jerks in my book.

Posted by: CaptainKangaroo | December 8, 2010 4:54 PM | Report abuse

I am glad to see Klein go!!!

Posted by: CaptainKangaroo | December 8, 2010 4:58 PM | Report abuse

Klein was an entrepreneur in DC before coming on at DDOT. He was involved with Zipcar (hey! transportation!) and On the Fly, a street food vendor to compete with Dirty Water Dogs. He ran DDOT like a business, implementing plans that had sat in drawers for years for lack of will to follow through. He did a great job and is well-loved by transportation policy junkies in DC.

Posted by: TheAMT | December 8, 2010 6:33 PM | Report abuse


So to conclude, Gabe worked for what was then and is now a failing car rental company. His next job was that of caterer and street vendor, his biggest claim to fame was catering then mayor fenty's birthday party.

I am sorry, I am sure Gabe was a nice guy but he was no more qualified to run a major metropolitan department of transportation than I am to fly to the moon. His numerous failures and faux pas in his only 2 years in office reflect that.

I hope the next transportation has some, I dunno...transportation experience. You know, mass transit, engineering, construction, infrastructure experience perhaps.

An ex-caterer wasn't a good fit.

Posted by: Nosh1 | December 8, 2010 8:37 PM | Report abuse

This is a sad, sad day for DC. I don't think people realize that it was these type of innovative programs initiated by Klein that were making a real and sustainable change for the better for DC. I hope those folks that want to go back to the good old barry days realize what they have done.

Posted by: Brooklander | December 8, 2010 8:40 PM | Report abuse

Maybe you are right. One thing that Gray seems to have done correctly so far related to your prediction is investing in new snow plows. We got hammered in part because of the snow. What seemed to escape every reporter was that most of the city's heavy plows were out of commission and a decision was made during the fenty administration NOT to replace them. The result was pick up trucks with plows. That's inefficient.

Posted by: alwayswonderswhy | December 9, 2010 7:16 AM | Report abuse

To characterize Zipcar as failing strikes me as false and cynical. As are stating that there were "numerous failures and faux pas" but failing to list any. The head of DDOT is an administrative position - it's not engineering; it's not construction; it's administration. Just like flying fighter jets is not a prerequisite to be President or working homicide is not a prereq to be Mayor, road construction is not a required line on a resume for a DDOT head. Just like a good CEO, he listened to the engineers and experts around him - one such "faux pas" you probably think of is the Penn Ave bike lanes, on which Klein listened to the engineers until he was overruled by Fenty.

I'm guessing you were never going to like who Fenty put in place or any of the projects he'd pursue, just like Tea Partiers hate deficit reduction when it comes from Democrats. Inexperience - even after two years on the job and navigating the Council to fund streetcars, start CaBi, make the department more open and tech savvy, and stripe more bike lanes than this city had seen - was always a canard, and it remains a canard. Now that you've "won," at least be honest and admit that much.

I just hope Dr. Gridlock is correct that this won't reverse the progress we've made in the last 2 years. The removal of the unified fund and the loss of Klein almost certainly means momentum will be slowed, but I hope it will at least keep moving in the right direction.

Posted by: TheAMT | December 9, 2010 8:06 AM | Report abuse




Zipcar: See linked article below from Business week last June, and I quote "Zipcar has never posted a profit".

I dunno, maybe I live in bizzaro world but I would call a for-profit company that hasn't posted a profit in the 10 years its been in business, a failure.

Gabes speed-hump for everyone in NW who wanted one wthout thought or study, that ended up taking center stage in two complete Council meetings as 3 Council members had to spend all their time getting yelled at by their voters. Gabe sheepishly retracted the failed policy.

The PA avenue bike lanes, which I know you prefer the consipracy solution, but Gabe admitted himself on TV that the design was unsafe and required redesign. All this after the City spent 1.2 million building them.

The badly needed and supposedly "guaranteed" federal TIGER grant money required to continue deployment of DC's streetcar system. DDOT assumed that money was theirs as they reflected it in their budget a year before and yet even with the most transit friendly administration in 40 years, lost out because of a last minute and shoddy grant application.

This is of course seperate from the fact that in only two years in office, the H Street and Anacostia Streetcar lines have fallen an additional year behind schedule.

The 11th and 14th street bridge projects, the largest infrasture projects DDOT has ever undertaken are now 30% behind schedule...the original schedule from the day the first shovel hit the ground, not the revised one from last fall.

I could go on with examples all day, but you get my point.

And your example is laughable. No, I wouldn't expect a President to have that experience, then again Gabe isn't the President in this scenario, he is Airforce General controlling your "fictional" jets, and I highly doubt any of the highest ranking leadership in the "airforce" doesn't have "flying" experience.

Posted by: Nosh1 | December 9, 2010 9:00 AM | Report abuse

good riddance. Klein managed to alienate and drive away all the decent staff while taking credit for ideas hatched years before he arrived.

Posted by: chet99 | December 9, 2010 10:10 AM | Report abuse

The problem was that Fenty/Klien tried to run DDOT as a transactional business. And yes, there are some aspects of citizens requests of the departement that are purely transactional: repairing streetlight bulbs, potholes, signs,etc. However, DDOT runs a huge capital projects program and that is not transactional, it requires someone who can lead programs/projects that are highly complex and interrelated with multiple stakeholders. I think having Allen Lew as CA will help push to make that side of DDOT functional again. The key is finding a DDOT leader who understands and can run BOTH facets of the organization.

Posted by: shepDC | December 9, 2010 10:56 AM | Report abuse

I say "good riddance".

Klein did do some good:

1. (Some of) the bike lanes. Now, if the city would only pass a law prohibiting bike riding in the main lanes or on the sidewalk of any street with a bike lane.

2. The 11th Street Bridge. Which at long last, creates a through express route in the District. I'm still amazed that the oppoNUTS who stopped the Barney Circle project, which would have accomplished the same thing 15 years ago, weren't able to block this project, too.

Otherwise, I'm glad to see Gabe Klein and his openly car-hating and anti-suburbanite policies take a hike.

Posted by: ceefer66 | December 9, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse

Dr Gridlock: Thanks for the optimistic column. I was a big fan of Gabe Klein because he actually took action, instead of holding endless feel-good, pandering public meetings.

As for the Penn Ave bike lanes, the original design was never completed because the Nat'l Cap Planning Commission blocked the installation of bollards that would have separated the bike lanes from the main traffic lanes. They were innovative and safer in that they moved bicycles out of the "door zone" next to the parked cars. If built as planned they might have become a model for other cities to follow.

And to the motorheads on this thread: The fact is that the economy where you live depends on the movement of goods and people, not automobiles. Arlington has successfully kept automobile trips from increasing for the past 15 years while its population and economy have grown (DC and Alexandria seem to be catching on). Successful cities and counties of the future will be those that reduce per-capita automobile use while increasing the number of people-trips. Suburban areas that do not adapt to the new economy will slowly be filled with old cars and poor people. This is already happening in some cities here in the USA.

Posted by: JonathanKrall | December 9, 2010 5:11 PM | Report abuse

We don't need dedicated bike lanes. The bike lane for me is any lane I'm in. It's mine, and you can have it back when I'm gone.

Posted by: krickey7 | December 9, 2010 6:53 PM | Report abuse

@JonathanKrall: Exactly where are you getting your facts from when you state that "Suburban areas that do not adapt to the new economy will slowly be filled with old cars and poor people. This is already happening in some cities here in the USA"?

It is that kind of baseless, foolish, rhetoric that is destructive to the alternative transportation advocates and their programs. They don't yet understand that everyone doesn't want to, or some cannot, ride a bike and that the governments role is not to force them to move about their cities by one mode of public transportation over another.

If you didn't catch the news flash, the United States Government recently bailed out some of our major automotive manufacturers. I don't think this jives with your arguement that folks are moving away from this mode of transportation and flocking to bikes. In fact they are major employers in this nation and are the anker for many other businesses.

The snide anti-car progressives of the District posture their delusion as fact. Yet still, it is still delusion.

Klein overspent his budget during a recession. That was just plain irresponsible and bad management.

Posted by: concernedaboutdc | December 10, 2010 9:26 AM | Report abuse

@concernedaboutdc: My info comes from news articles, but the basis for those articles are a study by the Brookings Institution along with reporting from local non-profits that work with the poor. Here are links to two such articles:

I didn't say people would be flocking to bikes. However, as city populations keep increasing with no room for new roads, they may flock to transit, using their bikes to get quickly from home to the nearest transit station.

Posted by: JonathanKrall | December 10, 2010 4:54 PM | Report abuse

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