A new year means many things: resolutions, a month of scratching out that inadvertent 2018 on forms and, of course, a new season of the Downtown Partnership’s City Center Series.
“For three evenings in January and February 2019, the City Center Series will focus on how Colorado Springs has risen to the national stage,” the Downtown Partnership’s website states.
The first presenter will be Gabe Klein, former commissioner of the Chicago and Washington, D.C., departments of transportation. Klein, the author of “Start-up City,” has worked in the public sphere for years, and will talk about how approaching public-private partnerships and city development like an entrepreneur can lead to big accomplishments in a short amount of time.
Can’t box this
Klein was born in Connecticut and, at the age of 10 in the early ’80s, moved with his parents to a Virginia commune. He attended college in Charlottesville, Va., and studied business. Following graduation, he moved to Washington, D.C., and worked at Bikes USA, which was, Klein said, the largest bike retailer in the world at the time. He would eventually work his way up to director of stores.
Klein also served as vice president of the ridesharing company ZipCar and was instrumental in the launch of On the Fly, an electric-powered organic food truck business.
In 2008, then-D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty chose Klein to run the district’s department of transportation. Fenty left office in 2010 and Klein was recruited by Rahm Emanuel upon Emanuel’s election as mayor of Chicago to become commissioner of the Windy City’s department of transportation.
In Chicago, Klein worked to create a new riverwalk and hundreds of miles of bike lanes.
“We got a tremendous amount done quickly,” Klein said.
But Klein had never worked in government, urban planning or engineering before taking the D.C. position.
“That’s usually a prerequisite for these agencies,” he said. “But they wanted someone with no experience.”
Klein said that lack of experience used to draw mixed responses from colleagues.
“I’m not just a big city urbanist and not somebody you could easily put in a box,” he said. “Some don’t know what to make of me in the urban planning world because I’m very pro-business and pro-people, but I’m also pro-environment and believe you can accomplish all these things while generating more revenue. … I think you can move the economy forward and still save the planet.”
A ‘ripe’ Colorado Springs
Klein attributes his unique public-private partnership approach to his upbringing.
“I grew up in the ’70s and my father was an entrepreneur and a civil rights activist who got into the bicycle business,” Klein said. “We owned a school bus, some rare Mexican Jeeps, some [Volkswagens] and a slew of bicycles during the energy crisis. My dad figured there were big opportunities to get people around on two wheels. That wasn’t an American concept at the time.”
Klein said his father “wasn’t opposed to taking a completely different approach if it was practical and pragmatic. That’s at the foundation to who I am and a reason I’ve always worked in alternative transportation.”
Klein said he was fixated on “running startups and moving fast. I tried that approach in government and was shocked, but we were very successful.”
Some of that success came from implementing basic techniques to manage people and processes, but Klein said public perception and participation were also vital.
“Lots of what we did in government at that time was antithetical to how government would operate and was more like a startup,” he said.
Since writing “Start-up City,” Klein has been speaking around and outside the country about how cities can make big directional changes quickly.
“All of this culminates in a better understanding of why taking a triple-bottom-line approach to government and business can be very effective, particularly as the private-public part becomes key to saving ourselves.”
Klein, who has not visited Colorado Springs before, provided a newcomer’s perspective.
“It seems to me, looking from the outside in, that Colorado Springs is very ripe for a lot of positive shifts in mobility and land use,” he said.
Klein added that he has noticed similar challenges facing like-sized cities during his travels. His impression of Colorado Springs’ challenges was no different.
“You can’t look at transportation or health care or economics in silos,” he said. “More and more mayors and business leaders are realizing that. More are talking not just about transportation but the overall quality of life in urban areas and the roles of transportation and innovation. They’re saying, ‘Let’s not let it happen to us but rather shape and change and make what is within our control for our city ideal.’”