Gabe Klein on How New Car Tech Can Make City Streets Work for People

Streetsblog Denver interviewed Gabe Klein, author of Startup City and former DOT chief of Chicago and Washington, D.C., as part of a series leading up to Tuesday’s Live.Ride.Share Denver conference on shared mobility.

Today, it’s not always easy to get around Denver without a car, but Gabe Klein believes it doesn’t have to be that way tomorrow. Denver can be a much less car-dependent place, he says, if policy makers take advantage of the current moment — where rapid urban growth, fledgling transportation technologies, and increasing demand for walkable, bikeable streets are converging.

Gabe Klein

Klein made a name for himself in the city transportation world as a big thinker and doer in both the public and private sectors. After his time as vice president of Zipcar, he led the transportation departments in D.C. and then Chicago, which gave him the perspective and experience that he shares in his book, Startup City. He is now a consultant living in D.C. with his family.

Klein spoke with Streetsblog in the days before his keynote address at Live.Ride.Share. Here’s part one of our interview. Stay tuned for part two tomorrow.

Part of the Live.Ride.Share Denver conference will be about “shared mobility,” which includes ride-hailing and car-share companies like Uber, Lyft, and Car2Go. How can Denver ensure private companies do what’s best for the cities they operate in, and not just do what’s best for their bottom line? 

The original shared use mobility is transit. If we arrange ourselves properly from a land use perspective, transportation becomes less of an issue and we focus more on walking and biking, because more places are more reachable in those ways. And then we focus on taking the bus and the rail for longer hauls. And from point to point, we take shared-use mobility when we need it. I’m very hopeful that we keep investing in high quality transit — bus rapid transit, light rail, streetcars, circulator bus systems. Then we supplement them with new shared-use mobility models.

A lot of transportation planning in Denver reflects an assumption that everyone is coming with cars. So shared-use mobility should be about helping people live without cars? 

About 88 percent of new Washingtonians do not bring a car. And that’s because of all the options that we have, public and private, whether it’s Split or Lyft or Car2go or Zipcar or Capital Bikeshare or Metrorail or Metrobus. We give people so many options, they feel stupid buying a car. So it’s not about creating winners or losers — it’s about creating a mesh of options so that people can make their own decisions.

A lot of people think autonomous vehicles are the answer to both congestion and traffic deaths. But sometimes all Denver needs is a curb extension or a bike lane to make the street safer. Do you think the excitement around autonomous vehicles is overblown?

Our streets are incredibly inefficient. People say to me, “Gabe, why are you excited about self-driving technology?” Because people are the problem. Because people plus automobiles equals inefficient use of space. This is where I try to play a role in a balanced approach.

The system we have is broken. It’s a disaster. Let’s accept that. We had 35,000 deaths on the road last year, 1.24 million worldwide, the majority due to automobiles. We know what the problem is. And so it would be irresponsible to say, “Let’s not consider this technology.” But I’m a proponent of technology that’s utilized to affect the quality of life that we want.

What’s an example of how autonomous vehicles and new shared-use companies can make cities better?

Take DC: Like 25 percent of the urban area is devoted to parking, on-street and off-street. Consider if we mandated that you can only have a vehicle in a city in autonomous mode. And if you want to buy a car to have in the city for your own personal use, there would be a 100 percent tax on that. But: If you’re a business and you have a shared fleet of autonomous vehicles, there’s no tax. So we basically have a series of policies and regulations that put carrots and sticks in front of people that make it really advantageous to use shared mobility.

On top of that, we take the excess parking space and we — in a very thoughtful way — work with the private sector to figure out how to redevelop this private property to create more profit for the developer and create affordable and workforce housing. And we take the space that we’ve been using for the storage of cars that has almost no return on investment, and reallocate that to active transportation — walking, biking, transit lanes. Suddenly, the city looks different and it’s much more focused on active transportation. But if we just ignore the technology, we could end up in a sprawling world.