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

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 25, 2010; B01

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.

He assembled a new team devoted to "policy, planning and sustainability," a nod to transit projects he hopes will reduce pollution and cars. The most ambitious is a throwback to the days when streetcars were the city's primary mode of transportation: a 37-mile light rail line powered by overhead wires that would connect H Street, Benning Road NE and Anacostia. Full service is years away, but Klein is trying to fast-track a project he said will act as a catalyst for economic growth.

"There's a lot of things that go into making a city an attractive place to live," Klein said. "You have schools, public safety and high-quality transportation. People are realizing that what we had in our old cities is actually more sustainable than what we have now."

Klein drives his own Smart Car two or three times a week, calling the silver two-seater a "lazy asset." He prefers to walk the eight blocks to the office from his condo in Columbia Heights or ride one of his five bikes, which include a Vespa scooter. He's geek and hippie rolled into one, bag over his shoulder, BlackBerry glued to his ear, wearing rumpled shirts and less-than-perfectly tailored corduroy suits.

The laid-back sartorial style and get-things-done metabolism come from a childhood on a yoga commune in Charlottesville and an entrepreneur father who owned a bike store and sold a form of electric tape he had found in Japan.

After receiving undergraduate and business degrees from Virginia Tech, Klein served as D.C. regional vice president for Zipcar from 2002 to 2006, then co-founded a boutique company that specializes in healthy on-the-go meals sold from green carts around Washington.

Under Klein, the Transportation Department's bureaucracy communicates through Facebook, e-mail and Twitter, updating constituents on snow-clearing operations and new projects.

A new, more transparent Web site was launched Wednesday, with budgets and schedules for every road, bridge and transit project, including those that veer off schedule, along with explanations why. There's a YouTube primer on how to pay the new, high-tech parking meters on U Street, featuring Klein himself.

There was Klein during the snowstorm that had begun the morning of Feb. 5, guarding a downed traffic light on Capitol Hill at 2 a.m. until police arrived. As snow pelted the city again five days later, he took a photo of a huge tree that had crushed a parked van in Columbia Heights after narrowly missing a man shoveling. The image went up on the Transportation Department's Facebook page to warn people of the dangerous conditions.

"Gabe's a consumerist," said D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), chairman of the Public Works and Transportation Committee. "In terms of responding to residents, he's remarkably talented."

Klein acknowledged that higher parking meter rates, now $2 an hour, are designed in part to send drivers a message to change their behavior. "If everybody drives a car all the time, it's not going to be very pleasant," he said.

But he noted that the department, with the help of federal stimulus money, has three-quarters of a billion dollars in road and bridge projects underway, including a rebuilt New York Avenue and a new bridge over 11th Street.

Klein defends his agency's snow-clearing effort, shared with the Department of Public Works. "I think we did a spectacular job, give the forecasts we had to deal with," he said. He acknowledged that the Feb. 12 commute "was bad everywhere. "

"But after three feet of snow, the commute is not going to be normal," he said.

There have been some missteps. The department announced last fall that a budget shortfall would force the closure of the H Street shuttle, a popular express bus downtown, only to restore the service days after a public outcry.

A Circulator route on Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown also met its demise and a quick resurrection with a mayoral news conference.

Klein said he's also learning to negotiate thorny neighborhood politics with a baptism by fire over speed bumps in Chevy Chase. He set a block-by-block standard for installing traffic-slowing devices.

The controversy had a silver lining. It led Klein to set aside up to $3 million for comprehensive studies of 24 neighborhoods to determine whether they need traffic calming, starting with Chevy Chase. He says it's part of the effort to encourage families to move back to the District. If they're worried that their children aren't safe from speeding cars, they will stay away, he said.

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