Gabe Klein spent Thursday in Tulsa before catching a plane to Singapore on Friday.
He’s a popular guy these days. His book, “Start-Up City,” with David Vega-Barachowitz, is even more popular.
It reimagines how cities can get things done in a fast, efficient and effective way. Check that — there is no imagining things in “Start-Up City.” Klein has lived the lessons he offers.
His business roots go back to his earliest childhood, when he watched as his father ran a successful bicycle shop in Connecticut. Klein studied business in college, then went on to work in tech companies before joining the car-sharing company Zipcar. From there he founded On The Fly, an electric-powered food truck company in Washington, D.C., and several other businesses.
Klein began to make his mark in government in 2009, when he was hired to run the Washington, D.C. Department of Transportation. He gets the credit for D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare, the country’s first large-scale bike-share system. He also takes the blame for screwing up — initially, at least — the implementation of his plan to put bike lanes along Pennsylvania Avenue.
And that’s fine with him. The first lesson of his book is, “Don’t Be Afraid to Screw Up and Learn.”
Klein must have gotten more right than wrong in D.C. because a man by the name of Rahm Emanuel took note of him and asked him to follow him to Chicago, where Emanuel would serve as mayor and Klein would become Chicago’s director of transportation.
Klein put a sign in his office that read: “Chicago, Getting Shit Done.” The slogan reflects his somewhat irreverent, out-of-the-box thinking about how cities can create sustainable transportation systems and encourage development at the same time.
Take Potholepalooza, a program to engage citizens in identifying problem roads and fixing them. The city filled 6,000 potholes in three months. Or his overhaul of the Chicago Riverwalk, a $100 million public-private venture that was paid for with increased fees on tour boat operators. Tour boat operators benefited from the deal by getting a new facility and receiving long-term leases.
These days Klein, 45, is an entrepreneur and speaker. He was in Tulsa as a part of the Accessible Transportation Coalition’s celebration of Tulsa Transportation Day.
He joined Jennifer Haddaway and other members of the coalition for a bus ride along Peoria Avenue, had lunch with city councilors, meet with engineers and planners from around the area and was the main speaker at the Connected Tulsa 2016 panel discussion.
Klein said the relationship between transportation and economic development comes down to the old question, What came first, the chicken or the egg?
“You can build the light rail, the bus system and the bike lanes and then the people will come — or you can try to lure the people here with other things and they will demand that you build this stuff. Why don’t you just build it? I mean, what are we waiting for?
“Tulsa is competing with Austin and Nashville and Seattle, all these other places, for workers, new companies … but you need to take the next step.”
Between stops, Klein took a few minutes to answer questions from The Frontier. His answers have been edited.
1. What is the message of the book?
“The message of the book is that you can focus on doing good, creating sustainable, walkable, livable, wonderful places that people want to be and make a log of money.
“The public and the private sectors often misunderstand each other. If were able to align attitudes, incentives, risks and rewards, it’s amazing how much you can get done fast.”
2. Why should cities be moving in that direction?
“Cities are at the forefront. You used to see a lot of things happen at the federal level. … We are rapidly becoming a city-state, if you will, in that the cities and the mayors are most directly accountable to their stockholders…
“Cities are at the point where they realize that these investments they’re making, the return is so high that they can’t afford to wait for the federal government or the state to make these investments because they’re competing against every other city in the United States.”
3. Does the message of your book apply to Tulsa, which is a relatively small, spread-out city?
“It applies to every city, regardless of size. Now the context is different, the experience is slightly different, the history is different. But you’re all struggling with the same problem, you’re just at a different points on the timeline. … The beauty of that is there are lessons from all over the country.”
4. The city of Tulsa is facing an $8 million to $9 million deficit this fiscal year. How does a city like Tulsa that is struggling financially pay for the kind of programs and projects you write about in your book?
“I have two responses: One is you will be suffering a lot more if you don’t do it. …If we dialogue more with the private sector, we will be amazed that they are willing to spend money if they are going to get the benefit. Again, it comes down to aligning incentives. So there are lots of creative ways to fund all of this stuff.”
5. What is the private sector’s role?
“The private sector first of all, I think, has a responsibility to have more of a triple bottom-line approach to business – to focus on people, planet and profit. If they do so, I think it’s much easier to work with government.
“Government needs to be more open minded, more focused on return on investment, more focused on managing the plethora of options versus running all of the options. Basically being the air traffic controller, if you will, for things like transportation versus operating all the services. If we can get that understanding between the two, we can get a lot done really fast.
“By taking the time to understand each other’s side – how much money does the private sector need to make and why; what is the government really trying to get out of this project? Then doing the RFP and then working together – versus against each other in a sort of contractual battle to get the worst contract for the other side – we can actually align our incentives, share profits, share losses, and then guess what? We end up working together.”
6. How do you cut through the bureaucracy of government and get things done more quickly?
“There are a lot of answers to that. When a mayor comes in, he is new. You have about a year to really try out a lot of stuff, typically.”
“We did a lot of pilots. … It’s amazing that they (the public) give you more leeway to try things. … There was a much more robust public interaction process because the problem is, you can talk and talk and talk about a plan, but until people see it, for a lot of people, it doesn’t mean anything. They need to see it on the ground….
“Now it’s much more iterative. It’s less about, let’s perfecta $100 million project and get it in. It’s more like, let’s do a $100,000 pilot, or let’s do a $1,000 pilot … and show people what it looks like. If they like it, we’ll do another iteration.”
7. Can the type of programs and approach you discuss in your book work without the full support of a city’s mayor or top elected official?
“I believe you have a strong-mayor form of government. It’s really important to have the mayor on board.”
8. How do you get business owners — many of whom rely on customers who arrive by car — to buy into your vision for what a city should be?
“The world changes. When the combustion engine came on the scene there were a lot of people in the horse business who were very scared of it. The world changed really fast. …You are either sort of embracing the future or you are living in the past. I worry that business people who embrace the past will be stuck in the past…
“The problem is for the last 75 years we’ve been in a car culture. … We don’t know anything different. … We have been on the earth 200,000 years. You have to have that perspective, because our frame of reference is so limited. This is all going to change again.
9. Tulsans often complain about their roads. What was Potholepalooza?
“The idea behind Potholepalooza was to show people the power of marketing and psychology, and coming from start-ups in the private sector, you know, perception is a reality.
“You can have a great product, but if you don’t get out there and convince people about the features, the advantages and the benefits, they aren’t going to buy it. If they don’t buy it, you don’t make any money.
“So with Potholepalooza … we thought, how can we make the worst thing, something that people hate, potholes, make it fun? So we came up with Potholepalooza and we did it in D.C. and then we actually took it to Chicago, where Lollapalooza is actually held, and the idea was – normally it takes us, let’s say, seven days to fix a pothole – if you report a pothole … we’ll get out there and fix it. It ranged from 24 to 72 hours depending on the city, and people loved it. They sent us a picture and then they saw our crews out there six hours later, fixing it. They got into and it became sort of fun. It was a bit of a whackamole…
“So basically what we showed – and what I was able to show the team internally – is even the worst thing that people hate can be made into something that they like.”
10. What do you think of Tulsa?
“My first feelings is that the people are really nice, really genuine, really sort of self starters. … I think the city needs to sell itself more. It needs to be prouder of its bones, and then what it’s got to do is make itself one of the most liveable cities in North America
“It’s got this great greenery, the rivers. You should not have all these surface parking lots and four- or five-lane one-way streets that make it a freeway where people would not want to raise a family. There is a reason people are not living downtown. You create two-way streets with cafe space, bike facilities, you can add wider sidewalks or just take parking spaces and make them into patios, you’ll have condo developments left and right.”