Excerpt from voices.washingtonpost.com/drgridlock

Transportation chief Gabe Klein helped D.C. catch up with urban needs

Gabe Klein's priority: increasing mobility in a crowded city.
Gabe Klein's priority: increasing mobility in a crowded city. (Mark Gail)

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Robert Thomson
Friday, December 10, 2010

Gabe Klein, who announced Wednesday morning that he will be leaving his post as the District's transportation director, had a habit of trying new plans, determining their effectiveness and then fixing the problems. That sometimes worked for the city and against him.

But I think he'll wind up being remembered as an administrator who pushed the District toward the mainstream of urban transportation policy. There's nothing radical in the bike lanes program, or the streetcar program, or the street-parking program or the pedestrian safety program.

What looked to us here like cutting-edge programs would seem like catch-up to people in other big cities.

Just within our multi-jurisdictional region, you can see a greater focus in each of those areas over the past decade. It simply makes sense: Urban transportation planners are focused on giving people more choices about how to get around this crowded area. At the same time, they increasingly recognize the tie-in between transportation systems and development opportunities.

Klein, who will have been on the job for two years when he leaves at the end of the month, was of a mind to do all those things. Because there was so much going on, it became fairly easy to find something not to like. And for those who found Klein's boss, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, to be arrogant, there were opportunities to see arrogance in some of the transportation programs.

If you thought the bike-riding mayor cared mostly about making the city safe for triathletes, a favorite target would be the expansion of the bike lanes and the Capital Bikeshare system. If you thought Fenty cared mostly about making the city pleasant for young urbanites, a favorite target might be the central-city focus of the Circulator bus system and the placement of streetcar tracks.

Everybody could find something not to like about the street-parking program: The need to haul around at least 16 quarters for a trip to a premium parking zone; the many, sometimes confusing, experiments with parking payment systems to relieve that need; and the inconvenience of the late-night and Saturday enforcement hours.

But much of what Klein carried out - the streetcar program, pedestrian safety experiments, the expansion of Circulator routes - didn't originate with him or Fenty. They stretch back though this decade and into the '90s.

Klein, however, was energetic about pursuing those policies and completely bought into the overall goals of increasing mobility and encouraging community development. I predict that people will look back and think that was great. In an era of government retrenchment, somebody was trying something to make life better in a sphere that touches everybody who walks outside the front door.

But when you try something in urban transportation and there's a problem, the problem is likely to be high-profile. One of the best examples was the placement of the bike lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue this year. You couldn't pick a more high-profile place to experiment with bike lanes. When drivers saw the lane striping go down, they howled that they were taking the hit to please a handful of bikers.

Klein told me that when he went down to the avenue and took a look, he saw a safety problem: The cars were straying into the bike lanes because the lanes were so wide the drivers didn't realize they were bike lanes. So Klein had the lanes narrowed. That was a good safety move, and I've heard few complaints since then, but some took it as showing the weakness of the overall program for bike lanes, while even some Klein supporters worried that the city was caving to the car drivers.

What's next?

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