BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,
BTRIPP
btripp

Evolving the city ...

Back in September I was invited to cover the “Move Together” 2015 National Shared Mobility Summit for my blog over on the Tribune's “Chicago Now” platform - Green Tech Chicago. I wasn't able to attend the full conference, but was able to hit a couple of sessions on two days, and shoot an interview with the sponsoring organization's (the Shared-Use Mobility Center) Executive Director, and sit through a discussion featuring the authors of a couple of new books. I was interested enough in these that I looked up their publishers, and sent out requests for review copies. This is how Gabe Klein's Start-Up City: Inspiring Private and Public Entrepreneurship, Getting Projects Done, and Having Fun ended up in my reading pile.

Klein has a Chicago connection, having been Mayor Emanuel's head of the city's Department of Transportation from 2011 to 2013 … although his C.V. is head-spinning for the number of things that are on there for somebody who hasn't quite hit 45 yet … he was in a similar position in Washington, D.C., did a stint with ZipCar, and a car-sharing venture that Virgin was contemplating launching, ran a food truck company in D.C., and started his career in bicycle retailing following a hippie childhood (at age 10 he was in a rural Virginia yoga school/ashram).

When in the Emanuel administration, he was instrumental in the development of the Riverwalk, the BRT Chicago initiative (whose dedicated bus lanes are still being created in the Loop), the DIVVY bike-share program, and the recently-opened Bloomingdale Trail, among numerous other projects variously familiar to my fellow Chicagoans. The book presents itself as “a helpful guide steeped in pragmatic realism”, with chapter sub-titles such as “On managing others, empowering your team, and shamelessly promoting their accomplishments”, and “Oh how to find funding where none seemingly exists, make the most of a slim budget, and get creative with the basics”, etc. However, this is primarily a memoir of Klein's career (thus far), with occasional inserts of entrepreneurial “theory” spun off of his experiences in these assorted positions.

One thing that certainly flags Klein as “not your typical bureaucrat” is the sign he'd (I'm guessing tongue-in-cheek) suggested in place of the locally-well-known “Building A New Chicago” work signs that appear all over the city … his version (which he had at least one done up, which hung in his office) read “Getting Sh*t Done – In Every M*th*r F*ck*ing Ward”. If there is an over-arching theme here, it's that of using mind-sets and tool kits from entrepreneurial start-ups to help revitalize and spur development in cities:
You need to push boundaries and undermine the status quo, or your work reverts to the codes, regulations, and standards that have become the caricature of bureaucracies. What's worse is that these standards often fail us, as they did in this instance {his first attempt to install bike lanes in D.C.'s Pennsylvania Avenue}, because they fail to encapsulate the dynamism of the city, the potential for engineers to creatively solve new problems, and the capacity of our citizens to see and embrace change.
Another odd thing about Start-up City is its format … it looks more like a travel book than a business book – in a 6x6” square lay-out, with lots of pictures, and strange illustrations that look like screen shots from some cartoon Lego world, and infographic-style graphics detailing assorted points. So, it's somewhat unsettling to flip through this and run into business-school insistences such as “Embrace S.M.A.R.T. management and Six Sigma principles.” (the acronym standing for “Specific, Measurable, Agreed-upon, Realistic, and Time-based”, and Six Sigma being an approach that “says that anything less than 99.9999998 percent error rate, or 3.4 errors per million, is unacceptable”). Needless to say, this isn't all about the “having fun” of the book's subtitle!

As you might have surmised by this point, a lot of this book is about “getting shit done” in the cities in which Klein has worked, but it also has “visionary” aspects, where he looks at concepts of how things will be evolving over time. One section that was particularly in line with the conference where I heard him speak looks at the his view on the future of cars:
Vehicles today are only in use approximately 5 percent of the time. The rest of the day, they take up valuable space that could be put toward other public uses. That's a big sacrifice we've made, and I think that the self-driving cars are part of our opportunity to fix it. As mobility evolves from a private luxury into a subscription service in the “internet of everything” world, vehicles (in urban areas, at least) can be active 95 percent of the time while serving multiple customers rather than sitting around unused 95 percent of the time. As a result, societies will not need anywhere near as many vehicles as we have today.
As a life-long “city boy”, I, naturally enough, found the stories of “fighting city hall” popcorn-worthy, whether it was Klein as an outsider fighting the unfair regulations against food trucks in D.C., or trying to correct programs in Chicago that were “wracked by paranoia, which caused a series of gross inefficiencies” (which, for example, led to using winter-formulated asphalt pot-hole patching material year-round, which would last about 2 days when the temperatures were above freezing!). And, there's a lot of that sort of conflict narrated across the stories here.

While Start-up City is an engaging and informative read, it's ultimately a bit of a blur … succeeding as a memoir, but not so much in its attempts to be a “guide”. There is plenty of room here for the author to have bolstered the “business book” and “urban visionary” elements to be equal partners with the personal history narrative that's at the core of this … it's not that those aren't in it, but they feel like they're less integrated into a three-way whole that they might have been. Klein closes out the book in the “visionary” mode, and here's a bit from the Conclusion:
The future challenges and opportunities we face in cities are not just about the obvious – the advent of high-tech vehicles, apps, or even traditional transportation. How we configure our future neighborhoods and transportation systems will have profound impacts on climate change, on socioeconomic mobility, an on public health. The ground is shifting beneath us, and whether you're talking about energy or healthcare or climate, the landscape is evolving more quickly than we can even begin to anticipate. This is why our North Star cannot be about technology for the sake of technology alone. Instead, we must use the momentum of technological change as as force to help us create places that celebrate public life.
This has only been out a few weeks at this point, so it should certainly be available via the bigger brick-and-mortar book vendors, and the on-line big boys have it at nearly a third off of cover (and a very reasonable price for the e-book – although I wonder how much of the graphic presentation of this survives into the that format). I liked it – and certainly folks from Chicago and D.C. will be amused to see familiar places and get behind-the-scenes looks at local projects – but I think it falls a bit short from being all it could have been (or, perhaps, was envisioned to be).


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Tags: book review
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