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Gabe Klein, U.S. energy and transportation director, has 3 electric bikes

Klein’s job is to help break down barriers to electrifying transportation, the nation’s top source of greenhouse gas emissions

Gabe Klein, executive director of the new federal Joint Office of Energy and Transportation, was director of the District Department of Transportation from 2009 through early 2011. (District Department of Transportation)

Gabe Klein grew up in rural Connecticut and Yogaville, Va., before heading up transportation departments in D.C. and Chicago.

The mayors in those cities at the time, Adrian Fenty and Rahm Emanuel, “wanted innovation, but not innovation for the sake of innovation,” Klein said. “They wanted innovation for outcomes.”

After co-writing the book “Start-Up City” and helping to found an urban transportation consulting group, Klein said he’s taking that approach to his first federal role, as executive director of the Joint Office of Energy and Transportation, which was created under last year’s infrastructure bill.

With two new bosses, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Klein’s job is to help break down barriers to electrifying transportation, the nation’s top source of greenhouse gas emissions. Klein comes with entrepreneurship and a dozen bikes — among them, vintage Raleighs, folding bikes (one manual, one electric), and two from Dutch e-bike maker VanMoof.

Klein spoke to The Washington Post about the work facing the new office. The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Q: You’ve spoken about riding an electric bike in D.C., but also the importance of electric pickup trucks. How have you used electric transportation in your own life?

A: From an electrification standpoint, what people are going to realize over time is the quality of the transportation system is going to be significantly higher. The quality of their personal experience will be higher. I’m somebody who owns three electric bikes — one of them is a cargo bike — an electric car, with solar panels on both my homes. So I’ve seen firsthand that the quality is significantly better, including the vehicles themselves, which have fewer moving parts, much less maintenance and lower costs to maintain. I think sometimes change is just hard. And when we’ve built our entire economy on the back of fossil fuels over the previous century, it takes a herculean effort not just to build the infrastructure, which is what this administration is doing, but also to change hearts and minds by showing people, not just explaining, but actually showing people how it works.

This is why public-private partnerships are so important. The Ford F-150 Lightning is going to be used by folks on farms. It’ll be used by construction workers and companies. My electric bike replaces a car and therefore takes pressure off the system, so that the people that need to either own a car or share a car have access to it. Americans love choices. When you make it frictionless and easy and low-cost to use, Americans are smart and they’re going to use that option.

Q: The Joint Office has started off with a focus on the billions of dollars going toward a nationwide electric vehicle-charging network. That’s a huge project. But what are some of the other things you’re going to be tackling?

A: We’re supporting the Federal Transit Administration and its $5.5 billion program around transit electrification. We will be supporting the EPA Clean School Bus program, which is another $5 billion program in support of electric school bus deployments.

But the sky’s the limit. Congress established nine major areas of emphasis. It includes the technical assistance for vehicle charging that we’re doing, data sharing, performance of a national and regionalized study for vehicle charging, training and certification programs, performing transmission pilots in the public right of way, which we’re going to work on and that’s very exciting. A program to promote renewable energy generation, storage and grid integration. And, by the way, it says any other issues that the secretary of transportation and the secretary of energy identify as issues of joint interest.

I’m the son of a civil rights activist. I grew up caring about these issues. And so the idea that I could help to create a more balanced system from an environmental standpoint, but also from an equity standpoint, is a big motivator.

Q: Where did you grow up in Virginia?

A: When I was a young kid, I lived in a place called Yogaville. I did a lot of yoga and I learned a lot about different parts of the world, different religions. And I sort of developed a philosophy that was very ecumenical and very equity-focused. I’ve carried aspects of that with me for my entire life, and I plan on continuing. If you ever watched “Woodstock,” the movie, or I’m sure some of our parents were at Woodstock, there’s a swami from India who flies in on a helicopter and lands next to the stage and opens up Woodstock. That was Swami Satchidananda. That was my sort of guru as I was a kid.

She rode 3 buses to school in the Bronx. Now she’s a top U.S. transit official.

Q: One nitty-gritty charging question. Most people charge at home, but charging on a trip can be a pain, since many things can go wrong. In New York, curbside chargers might be blocked by a random nonelectric sedan. How do you make sure the promise of this big network of chargers doesn’t get dashed because of quality problems?

A: The majority of my career has been in the private sector. I was at Zipcar and it was the same issue with car-sharing. If somebody takes the space, it renders the service unreliable. Or when we were launching bike-share programs in D.C. and Chicago, if the data is not accurate, and you get there and half the bikes are not working, it doesn’t help you. From a private-sector viewpoint, if somebody uses your service three times and it doesn’t work, they’re never going to use it again. So at the Joint Office, our job is to not only work between the multiple agencies, but also to work closely with the private sector and work on setting minimum standards, service-level agreements, interoperability standards, standards for payment, so that it’s easy to pay, including if you’re low-income. The most significant aspect of that is uptime.

Keep in mind, the states and cities are going to deploy this funding. Our job is to help them as much as possible to make it frictionless and efficient and reliable for the public. And so that’s exactly what we’re going to do. But there is a significant element of local control.

As U.S. pushes a shift toward electric cars, where should the chargers go?

Q: Will you and the Joint Office oversee that to make sure that the uptime is high?

A: Well, certainly. I mean, we won’t be managing those contracts. That’ll be up to the states and the local jurisdictions. But we absolutely will have minimum standards.

Q: There’s a glass-half-empty vs. half-full way of looking at EVs in the United States. Sales are growing fast here, but the U.S. is also far behind China and some places in Europe. Where do you see the U.S. in comparison to other countries?

A: I would equate the EV surge that we’re seeing to smartphones. Back in 2005, we had a 2 percent penetration for smartphones. It was only 3 percent in ’06, then 6 percent in ’07. And then the iPhone came out and by 2010, it was 27 percent. Right now, it’s something like 97 percent.

We’re on the edge of a tipping point here, where the fossil-fuel-powered combustion engine is going to be viewed as like the Betamax, right? And I don’t think anybody’s going to want to buy that, because the depreciation is going to be massive. Electric vehicles, and other alt-fuel vehicles — there will be some hydrogen and fuel cells and so on — that’s the future. Not the combustion engine.

The sales of new light-duty, plug-in electric vehicles, including all-electric EVs, doubled from 2020 to 2021, from 308,000 to 608,000. The private sector is now ready to go. It’s about creating great societal outcomes on a number of levels. It’s not just about the climate. It’s not just about transportation options. It’s about providing upward mobility for people of all ages, geographies, races. It’s about creating jobs for those same people. And we can save the environment. Oh, and by the way, private companies can also make money. So I’m super excited to be here.

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