Gabe Klein on Government Experimentation, Uber and Self-Driving Cars

A leader in urban innovation in both the public and private sectors, Gabe Klein offers lessons for local leaders around the country.

Gabe Klein
Gabe Klein is the former director of transportation for Chicago and Washington, D.C.
In his new book Start-Up City, Gabe Klein distills the lessons he’s learned about urban innovation in the public and private sectors. He draws on his experience leading the city transportation departments of Washington, D.C., and Chicago, and as an executive at the private rideshare company Zipcar and at a food truck venture. Klein spoke with Governing about his book, and the lessons for local leaders around the country. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

In the book, you talk a lot about not just getting projects done, but getting them done in a hurry. Why is that so important?

There are so many plans that get shelved because of political issues, because of lack of funding, because of a poor roll-out to the community. One of the things that was surprising to me, coming out of the private sector, was the amount of back and forth. Often, you have a shrill minority that would fight a project, and the politicians would capitulate. I think the more time you let something sit, the more opposition gathers.

I try to really inspire people and say, “Look, it can be done.” Government can be more efficient. Government can say yes instead of no. It can empower people within the government and outside of government to make positive change on our streets.

You worked for two dynamic mayors. What can other political leaders learn from Mayor Adrian Fenty of Washington, D.C., and Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago?

These two mayors, like me, were a bit entrepreneurial and they didn’t instantly say no to new ideas. They would listen. They didn’t have a lot preconceived notions of what was good and bad. Some of that was that they were more open to collaboration with lots of stakeholders, including the private sector.

They also both delegated. They did not micromanage. That’s important if you want good people to work for you.

Both of these guys were very open to experimentation. They were OK if you fell down. I was able to help to prove that the public is open to piloting and to experimentation, too.

How do you instill that approach within agencies if you’re a day-to-day manager and not the mayor or the director of transportation?

Success breeds success. It doesn’t matter how big the issue is or how big your department is if you’re able to experiment and try new things, and then show success.

I tried to break some of the management theory stuff into easy, doable stuff. It’s really about repetition and embedding some of these management basics in your day to day.

If you do that, you basically collaborate with your staff. You’re open to their ideas. You try their ideas. You work together as a team to improve upon the ideas that don’t work until you get to a process or program or service that really works. You remove ego from the situation by saying we’re all going to make sure this gets better. It’s not disparaging anybody to say we always have to be improving this service.

You mention Uber quite a bit in the book. You also praise “social entrepreneurs” that promote social good along with their own profits. Do you think Uber is a good model of a “social entrepreneur”?

No. I respect Uber from the standpoint of the ability to make change and their “won’t take no” attitude. The innovation is impressive. Where I dock them a lot of points is their ability to work for the greater good, and their ability to partner with government.

Where I think Uber is really important, though, is in sending a message to government that you can’t work at this glacial pace. You have to be more open to change.

You’ve predicted that autonomous vehicles will be the biggest change to cities in the next 50 years. How should cities prepare?

The first thing is to educate themselves as to what’s coming, how soon and the potential effect on cities. This is going to happen. This is going to displace the need for car ownership, which is positive. It’s going to negate the need for a lot of parking in cities. There’s opportunities to forge different priorities. We remade our cities around the automobile. [Now] we’re talking about reallocating space back to people and away from cars. We’re also talking about the opportunity to make our streets safer. 

Read an excerpt of Gabe Klein’s new book at

Dan is Governing’s transportation and infrastructure reporter.
Special Projects
Sponsored Stories
Creating meaningful citizen experiences in a post-COVID world requires embracing digital initiatives like secure and ethical data sharing, artificial intelligence and more.
GHD identified four themes critical for municipalities to address to reach net-zero by 2050. Will you be ready?
As more state and local jurisdictions have placed a priority on creating sustainable and resilient communities, many have set strong targets to reduce the energy use and greenhouse gases (GHGs) associated with commercial and residential buildings.
As more people get vaccinated and states begin to roll back some of the restrictions put in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic — schools, agencies and workplaces are working on a plan on how to safely return to normal.
The solutions will be a permanent part of government even after the pandemic is over.
See simple ways agencies can improve the citizen engagement experience and make online work environments safer without busting the budget.
Whether your agency is already a well-oiled DevOps machine, or whether you’re just in the beginning stages of adopting a new software development methodology, one thing is certain: The security of your product is a top-of-mind concern.
The World Economic Forum predicts that by 2022, over half of the workforce will require significant reskilling or upskilling to do their jobs—and this data was published prior to the pandemic.
Part math problem and part unrealized social impact, recycling is at a tipping point. While there are critical system improvements to be made, in the end, success depends on millions of small decisions and actions by people.