Transportation chief says bikes, buses are way to go in D.C.

D.C. transportation chief Gabe Klein in his department's offices on New York Avenue. He's promoting car and bike sharing.
D.C. transportation chief Gabe Klein in his department's offices on New York Avenue. He's promoting car and bike sharing. (Mark Gail/the Washington Post)
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By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 25, 2010

It was, according to AAA, the worst commute since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Traffic in and out of Washington backed up for hours Feb. 12 on snow-blocked roads that had lost a lane or more. The frustration continued well into last week.

It was a grueling test for the District's young new transportation chief. Furious drivers complained that the city wasn't doing its job. But it wasn't the first time that Gabe Klein had annoyed motorists who thought he should do his job differently.

Rather than promoting driving, as he did previously as an executive for Zipcar, the car-sharing pioneer, Klein has been working to get vehicles off the road.

"Transportation has always been a field held captive by experts and engineers," said Harriet Tregoning, the city's planning director. For 50 years, the goals have been to enhance the road network to allow the largest number of cars. "Now, people have choices, and Gabe is saying, 'How do I get them to buy the things I'm selling?' "

Klein is selling an urban lifestyle that depends less than ever on cars and more on trains, buses, bicycles and walking. He is following the credo of like-minded transportation planners in Portland, Seattle and New York that public transit can revive ailing cities.

Klein is expanding the city's red, dollar-a-ride Circulator bus system beyond tourist destinations and into more neighborhoods. He's promoting car sharing and, with Tregoning's office, said he hopes to build on a bike-sharing pilot program with 1,000 new bicycles and 100 stations.

The changes have rankled drivers.

"There's an overly antagonistic attitude toward motorists right now," said Lon Anderson, public relations director for AAA. Among his beefs with Klein are higher parking meter rates, extending meter enforcement to Saturdays and evenings and a new lane along a portion of 15th Street NW devoted to bicyclists.

Forbes Maner, a lawyer whose street in the Spring Valley neighborhood was not plowed for 10 days after the Feb. 5 blizzard, agrees. He and his neighbors plowed it themselves, leaving some to park where they could -- in the wrong direction on Quebec Street. Last Friday, they were ticketed by a parking enforcement officer.

"People were willing to give the city some slack," Maner said. "But to come out and see that? It was a middle finger in our faces."

A year ago, Klein, the risky choice of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) to lead the Department of Transportation, a high-profile city agency, had never held a government job, let alone managed a workforce of 1,000.

At 39, he is 15 years younger than some of his top deputies. But that might make the high-metabolism transportation czar a good fit in a city trying to attract people like him.

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