Gabe Klein talks about building better cities and his new book during an appearance on Jan. 13, 2016 at The Idea Center at Miami Dade College. Photo by George Abbott.
Nothing like a tortuous, stop-and-go, 50-minute drive to travel just 9.9 miles from Miami Beach to downtown Miami to be reminded of the importance, and impact, of streets and modes of transportation in our daily lives.
Managing the often competing needs of city transportation while bringing private entrepreneurship to the public realm was, for years, the work of former Washington, D.C., and Chicago transportation commissioner Gabe Klein. Now a special venture partner at Fontinalis Partners, an investment firm focused on next-generation mobility, Klein appeared at The Idea Center at Miami Dade College last Wednesday to present his book, “Start-Up City: Inspiring Private and Public Entrepreneurship, Getting Projects Done, and Having Fun” (Island Press), a short and practical playbook of how to bridge public and private approaches, published with the support of Knight Foundation.
The event, presented by Knight and The Miami Foundation, had a full house that included County Commissioner Dennis Moss, Miami Commissioner Frank Carollo, and former six-term Miami Mayor Maurice A. Ferré. Klein is currently on tour for his book.
“This is going to be PowerPoint roller coaster ride,” said Klein as he opened his presentation. “It’s about what got us to this point … what’s happening now out there, what technology and change is coming and how fast it’s coming and how it is going to change the way we live and why we — you, me, government officials — need to shape that change versus just let it happen to us.”
In setting up his argument, which was both philosophical and eminently practical, Klein noted that the changes affecting our fragile ecosystem and “the damage we have done to it in the past 100 years,” has “ a real impact” on people, business and finance.
“People don’t seem to be able to comprehend this happening to them because it is happening so slow and it is so big, so massive, they can’t quite imagine what is going to be like,” he said. “The good news is that they can understand the economics of it. Here [in South Florida] we have an inch a year increase in the water level. That is not sustainable. And the estimates I’ve seen range from 2 feet of sea level rise in the next hundred years to 30 feet. Neither of those are sustainable for the life we have today.
“The other thing that motivates me is the unacceptable level of carnage on the streets,” he continued. “We are not supposed to be fighting a war if we want to ride a bike to work or our kids wants to walk to school but we are.”
To underscore his point, he noted that 1.25 million people die annually in the world due to car accidents. Car crashes are also the leading cause of death for teenagers in the United States.
Numbers also served to make his case for the need to find ways to ensure sustainability. We are urbanizing at a rapid pace worldwide, he said, adding that there are now more people living in cities than in the suburbs or rural areas. There are 7 billion in the world today. There will be an estimated 9 billion-plus in 2050. “You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to understand [that] you can only fit so many people and consume so much and have the planet survive. The hyper consumption from the 1940s to today is not sustainable on a lot of fronts: It’s not healthy, it’s not good for the planet and we can’t afford it anymore.”
“We have to be honest with people about their choices,” said Klein at one point, discussing how to manage the politics of change. “We have a climate change problem, but do we associate the climate change problem with the choices that people make?”
A champion of bike-share programs, Klein spoke of his experiences in D.C. and Chicago (both cities launched bike sharing during his tenure), including the Make Way for People initiative to create public spaces; and the “crucial” Complete Streets concept, which looks for ways to improve the health, safety and economy of city inhabitants while addressing the needs of pedestrians, transit users, bicyclists and car users. “If you build bike lanes, people will bike; if you build bus lines, people will take the bus and if you build car lanes, people take the car,” said Klein. “It’s that simple. Every street should be built as a complete street.”
He also discussed at some length the opportunities offered by autonomous cars (“A component of the solution but not the whole thing.”) and also the potential impact that these related behavioral and technological changes might have.
The lesser use of cars, especially single-use, offers “this incredible possibility of getting rid of 80 percent of all our parking spaces,” he said. “The new Whole Foods with a giant garage on top could be a Whole Foods store with 10 levels of housing and offices instead. Developers in cities that have high-value real estate are already realizing this.”
Throughout, Klein returned to the theme of partnership between government and entrepreneurs, calling it “a key” of ZipCar’s success when he was the company’s regional vice president in D.C. from 2002-2006. He also noted that a phenomenon such as bike share “wouldn’t have happened in the United States without the private sector leading.” Now, he says, it’s imperative that government takes a more active role.