To Gabe Klein, inventing the wheel is an ongoing revolution. From the time he began working in his activist dad’s Charlottesville bike shop to his role in introducing Zipcar to Washington to his tenures as transportation director for DC mayor Adrian Fenty and, later, Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel, the creator of Capital Bikeshare has seen putting people in motion as a powerful expression of our politics and culture.
Klein—now an entrepreneur working for fledgling transit ventures who lives in Columbia Heights with his wife and 18-month-old daughter—recently published Start-Up City, a book that explains the changes in city government needed to get things done. Over breakfast at the Coupe in his neighborhood, he discussed how his experiences in Washington and Chicago shaped his approach.
You have no urban-planning degree, no MBA. What made you think you could run transportation for a major city?
When I was ten, we moved to northeast Connecticut from Hartford, where my parents and grandparents are from. I really didn’t like my school. I got teased—I was always a runt, I ate weird food. My mom made bread that she sliced really thick and put homemade Muenster cheese on, with mustard she’d made.
Were your parents hippies?
They were more beatniks. My dad had hung out with Allen Ginsberg and lived with Neal Cassady in San Francisco, where he had a coffeehouse in Haight-Ashbury. He was a civil-rights activist in Mississippi and Alabama who’d been arrested multiple times. So I grew up thinking about life a little differently, growing up in Yogaville.
[Yoga guru] Swami Satchidananda had opened an ashram near us in Pomfret, Connecticut. They were very accepting, as opposed to public school, where just my Muenster-cheese sandwiches made kids want to punch me. When the ashram bought a swath of land on the James River, I asked my dad if we could move. He said, “If you really want to do it, I would consider selling my bike shop.”
So I guess the reason all that is meaningful is that I was never taught that anything’s really impossible. And because my dad was very entrepreneurial and an activist, I sort of conflated activism and change-making and business.
Your book emphasizes the entrepreneurial. Is profit essential to changing cities?
Yes. Profit brings generally better-quality service. Take Capital Bikeshare [run by the private firm Motivate along with the District and Arlington and Montgomery counties]. It runs so efficiently, people were surprised DC was a part of it. When we showed up at meetings, they were like, “This is run by the government?”
Yet public/private partnerships have been controversial, especially on the left. How do you defend giving corporations income from a public service?
When I was with Zipcar, we partnered with the DC Department of Transportation to give our cars [dedicated] parking spaces on the street. People said, “How could you give private companies public space?” Dan Tangherlini, who was transportation director then, would say, “We’re not giving it to them. They are doing something for the greater good.” It also happens to make money. The city could make operating a car-sharing service one of the thousand things they do, or let the private company, which has this singular focus, do it.
So what does the government side bring?
Well, you can’t always trust the private sector to work for the public good.
Some people say you can’t trust the government to do so, either.
I say in my book that government agencies need a start-up mentality. That could mean having a skunk-works team that is set loose to think of the most creative stuff. Or reorganizing into smaller, more flexible units. It could be a leader saying, “I want you to break this thing. Try to screw it up. Try four or five different things—see what the public likes.” That’s how we made DC less risk-averse, and our leadership has made us a hub for transportation start-ups. It’s no mistake that Car2Go came here or that Split is based here.
People in DC complain that Congress ultimately controls what the city can do. Were things easier in Chicago?
The feds are on our back to an extent, but I’d argue that DC’s cabinet positions are the best government jobs in the country. We have a very vertically integrated government—the mayor is effectively the county supervisor and the governor. If you can convince the mayor and eight council members, you can get a lot done.
The mayors you worked for—Adrian Fenty and, in Chicago, Rahm Emanuel—possibly tried to get too much done and alienated some voters. How do you balance entrepreneurial spirit with politics?
Both would say they were up against the clock. Adrian had grown up here, and he’d been ashamed of DC at times. He wanted to make it a world-class city. Rahm was fending off Chicago’s pension crisis. You’re never going to get everyone onboard, but you can’t shrink from change because a shrill minority doesn’t get it.
When you do find resistance to transportation changes, how do you deal with it?
Look, you spend about $900 a month to keep a car in a city, according to AAA. For a young person living in Southeast with insurance, the costs can be even higher—a car can take up to 53 percent of your income. Now, instead, for around $150 a month I could have unlimited Bikeshare, access to car share, and access to transit. If I put away the other $750 a month, I could actually buy a house.
But these are people who are now taking public transit. Don’t we want to get the suburbanites out of their cars?
Yes, but Bikeshare takes people off the lines where you can’t add any more trips. And it adds trips in less dense areas, where people are now taking Bikeshare to the train. You’re talking about billions in savings, because you’re not building that additional rail line, not adding more rail cars at around $1.2 million apiece.
But it doesn’t fix Metro, which you still have to pay for.
I interviewed for general manager of Metro in 2010. They asked me, “What’s the first thing you would do?” I said [Metro operations] need to be outsourced. Look at the Circulator bus—it’s got, like, a 90-percent approval rating. Why? The quality of service. Circulator comes every ten minutes, it says where it goes on the side of the bus, and the private sector runs it. You look at London, France, Hong Kong—they all have public/private partnerships. Europe is more left-leaning than we are, but in lefty Europe the private sector operates the transit. We say Metro’s different, we can’t fix Metro. No—we don’t want to fix Metro. We don’t want to deal with the political sacred cows.
There’s the politicians again. How do you get them out of the way?
You’ve got to put people on the Metro board who are looking out for the region, not just their ward. You need businesspeople. You need activists. I look at the board and ask: Which of these people actually rides the system?
What do you do with private-sector firms like Uber that aren’t interested in partnering?
Government did miss the boat there by not engaging. Not that [Uber cofounder and CEO] Travis Kalanick made it easy. But if in the early days the government had said, “We’re okay with you coming in, but we want you to provide citywide service, not just downtown; we want to create a job program with you, we want to make sure you don’t surge by more than two times [normal fares]. If you do that, we’ll tax you at this rate”—they didn’t do that, and now they have no leverage. Now Uber can say, “If you don’t play our game, we’ll pull out and you’ll look stupid.”
What would you fix if you could fix anything?
Density. A city should be a place where people can walk to everything in five minutes—rich people, poor people. The only way to do it is mixed use. Ideally, we would raise the building height limit—not in the old city, but especially around Metro. And I’d get rid of [development] parking altogether. Parking is one of the most subsidized things we do in cities.
What do you have against parking?
When we rebuilt Columbia Heights as an urban village, we stuck in 2,000 parking spaces that cost $30 million. What if we used our money to build more affordable housing?
So parking is the key to affordable housing?
Take a low-income housing complex like Garfield Terrace, down by me [near Howard University], where there have been all kinds of problems over the years. Let’s say you want to turn that big plot of land into a condo development. We can take those renters and allow them to become homeowners, at the same monthly payment they have now. The way to do it is to get rid of parking.
Parking spaces, particularly if you need to go underground, can cost up to $65,000. And they build the parking with a one-to-one ratio with bedrooms. You can see that if you get rid of the parking, the price of a $400,000 condo quickly becomes a $300,000 condo. So if we make people who can afford it pay $350,000, we can use the extra $50,000 to subsidize everyone who lived in that building and give them a home.
Everyone talks about equity. Let’s stop talking about it and actually do something.
Senior editor Paul O’Donnell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appears in our December 2015 issue of Washingtonian.