The American Architectural Foundation sat down with author, entrepreneur, and transportation expert Gabe Klein  to discuss Start-Up City,  his recent book about new public-private partnership models, including for autonomous transportation, that can catalyze positive, lasting change for cities and the planet.
AAF: Who do you see as the primary or ideal audience for this book?
Gabe Klein: That’s interesting. When we were putting it together, I remember thinking, “You know, I don’t read as many books anymore.” I read excerpts from books, a chapter here and a chapter there, I read a lot of articles in real time, mostly from Twitter. When we put the book together, I was conscious of the fact that the next generation probably reads even less than my generation. I wanted to appeal to people of all ages who don’t have a lot of time, so it’s concise and to the point, in a small format you can put in your backpack and with 94 colorful images and infographics. In a sense it’s for everybody: for planning graduate students or business undergraduates or someone interested in joining government and leaving the private sector (or vice versa). There’s a lot of insecurity when you’re going from one sector to the other. I certainly was when I was going into government at the end of 2008: not knowing what to expect, thinking maybe you’re not good enough, maybe you don’t have what it takes to make it on the other side. What I try to tell people is that this cross-pollination – of ideas, of information and workflows – is so important. There are things that people in government have learned that people in the private sector haven’t, and vice versa. I wanted to appeal to younger people who have a lot of questions and are looking, once again, at government as something that could interest them. We went through a period where everyone wanted to work in a start-up, but now government is also innovating. You’ve got a lot of Gen-Xers who are mayors and many millennials want to have an impact. So, the book is for everybody, but especially for young people.
Do you see working in government or working in the private sector as the best way to have an impact in some of these areas?
I’ve received a lot of questions from younger people just getting out of undergraduate and graduate school. They ask where they should I start, but the answer is different for everyone – there’s no right or wrong way. I will say that when you work in a start-up, you learn how to do everything. There’s only so many people, so you’ve got to learn how to sell – which is crucial in government and also underrated – and you have to learn how to do HR, administration, operations, make payroll, and balance the books. Working in business for the first 12-15 years of my career prepared me well for government and gave me the ability to pivot and have a never-lose mentality. You see a lot of people going from government now into the private sector, to Google, to Lyft. There are lots of tech companies who are realizing that they have the technology and the business model, but they’re not relating to government well. That cross-pollination of ideas and experience is really crucial.
What’s a city in the US that gets it right in this realm?
There are cities that have done so much for quality of life – great public spaces, equitable transportation systems – and you always hear about Portland. They’ve been working on this for a long time and have done an incredible, holistic job looking at how the city works, from the sustainability of the streetscapes to the interactions between the sidewalk spaces and the built environment, to making sure the facades work, to the bike share and gondola systems. Los Angeles is making some of the biggest strides right now. It’s moving away from an auto-dominated culture and saying, “We can be something else. We can quick-build a mass-transit system. We can reinvent our gas tax. We can look at tech in a different way and maybe leapfrog some of the biggest planning mistakes we’ve made in the last century to something more sustainable and livable.” Ashley Hand – the mayor’s former transportation technology fellow and now my partner in CityFi  – last summer finished a plan  with LADOT for technology and autonomous vehicles and I think it’s a game changer. We are excited to work on the plan’s implementation in 2017.
There are also great, smaller cities. I finished a project last year in Nashville with Mayor Megan Barry and the Urban Land Institute. Mayor Barry is young, open to change and doesn’t have a lot of preconceived notions about the role government can play and how fast things can get done. You’re starting to see that in a lot of smaller cities – Aspen, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chattanooga, and Austin, to name a few. We focus a lot on the big cities in this country, but I think there’s a lot of movement going on around design and sustainability and economic growth – and how it all ties together with the built environment and transportation – in a lot of these secondary and tertiary markets.
You call the Uber business model “disruptive.” Can you elaborate on that and point out other realms outside of transportation that might benefit from that type of thinking?
One of the reasons I refer to Uber as disruptive is that Uber inadvertently taught government a bit. You can love or hate their tactics, but the reality is that they showed government that once you open the Pandora’s box of the internet – particularly where technology meets transportation – and people like it, it’s very hard to close it. I think it’s disruptive to the old business models, but it’s also been disruptive to government, particularly because Travis Kalanick wouldn’t take no for an answer. We had a similar approach with Zipcar, which we operated as a rental car company based out of peoples’ driveways. The model has changed the balance of power a little bit. I think government has realized that when you have something as innovative as Lyft or Uber, where you take not only a disruptive technology but you merge it with a disruptive business model, then it may happen anyway. Government needs to focus more on shaping the change rather than controlling every aspect of it, so I think government’s role is changing and it’s not a bad thing if they adjust quickly.
You point out how Mayor Emanuel handled Uber in Chicago. How do you think we can get more cities across the US to approach businesses like Uber the way that Chicago did, as opposed to what happened in Austin, TX?
I’m a proponent of technology, but I’m also a proponent of democracy. I like the approach Mayor Emanuel took. When I worked for him, he decided not to take an overly prescriptive approach, but to see how it works and what people like. It was interesting watching how the competition of Sidecar and Lyft and Uber played out. What’s interesting about Austin’s case is that it was the people who made the decision to ban Uber through a referendum. It’s easy to say that Austin isn’t into innovation, but that’s not true. I think that ultimately, Uber overplayed their hand and spent too much and hit people with too many flyers in their mailboxes. In many ways Austin is like the Portland of the South – where people don’t like being told what to do and where people think for themselves – but I don’t take issue with Austin’s government per se. It’s a classic example of what my book is about: government and the private sector not relating on the same wavelength, not understanding each other, government not understanding a company’s business model or the reasons behind doing things a certain way, and the private sector not being open to listening to what the government wants. It’s classic change management.
Do you think we’re at a point where autonomous cars are one of the factors that could be essential to achieving Vision Zero – the international effort to eliminate traffic-related road fatalities – in terms of pedestrian deaths?
I don’t think the car itself is an inherently bad thing, but I think you could make the argument that it’s not been a good thing overall for society. Last year in this country, we lost 35,000+ people to car deaths, the number one killer of young people here, and worldwide. If we have autonomous cars, that’s great, and they can make the city a lot safer. However, there is a risk that we could start to rely on autonomous vehicles as the de facto mode of transportation for everything. That would be a mistake. Even though we will take cars off the road, we still don’t want everyone rolling around in pods constantly for many reasons.
We need a balanced transportation system, and that’s what I try to convince people of. For trips less than one mile, you should walk or ride your bike. There are easier, simpler, cheaper ways to get around. Sometimes we overcomplicate things by thinking there’s always a technological solution. I think we need to figure out which outcome we want. Do we want healthier cities? Happier cities? Safer cities? More economically vibrant cities? Let’s figure out the role of the bike, the pedestrian, and the autonomous pods, because everything has its place. As humans, we tend to oversimplify and think that technological developments like autonomous pods will solve everything, eliminating the need for a transit system or bike share. But that’s why history is so important. In the 1950s we got rid of the streetcars, and it led to a huge problem in our society, where we relegated people to suburban cul-de-sacs where people didn’t talk to each other anymore.
To what do you attribute some of the fears and stigma associated with autonomous cars, and are those valid or not?
Yes and no – it all depends on the implementation. If you pack a four-seater car full, it can be more efficient than a bus, but that’s not necessarily how we’ve used them, or how this technology might be implemented. The education of the public of what a more utopian outcome could be – versus the dystopian one – is important, because we all have a voice in shaping it. Even though the National Association of City Transportation Officials policy document  on this topic is concise – it’s two pages – it hits all the major nails on the head. We want low-speed vehicles with a maximum speed of 25 miles per hour and level-four autonomy, with no steering wheels or ability for the human to take over. We have 50 cities in the US and Canada and Mexico that want this. It’s a clear message. Ford, who recently announced they would build level-four autonomous vehicles, saw the writing on the wall. Good for them, and good for NACTO for putting it out. That’s how you shape, but not necessarily decide, the outcome.
Are cities also seeing the writing the wall at the same speed auto manufacturers are?
I think they are now. I think the Smart City Challenge  helped a lot because it propelled 78 cities to put together a Smart City Business Model including autonomous vehicles. People don’t necessarily understand the exponential nature of technology and the fact that it’s not linear. Every increase in productivity and technology is feeding on itself and becoming more and more productive, whether it’s bots, autonomy, et cetera. We’re heading towards a very automated world very quickly, and just because it’s not here today doesn’t mean it won’t be here tomorrow. CityFi is helping Columbus, Ohio, who won the challenge to work through what’s real in the world of Smart Cities and how to have long term impact for people in their region.
What does the autonomous city physically look like?
That’s all in our control. Autonomous vehicles are designed to operate in a mixed environment for the most part, except in bad weather. The city doesn’t have to change, but I’d like to see us eliminate parking in cities and use that space for affordable housing, giving low- and middle-income people opportunities for home ownership and developers opportunities to make more money. I recently gave a TedX Talk  on the subject. I’d like to see policies that mandate – or at least incentivize – abandoning vehicles if they’re not needed. Every street doesn’t need to be a car priority street. What about starting with 50 to 70 percent fewer lanes for automobiles? Neighborhood local streets could be closed to traffic with cars limited to arterial roads. That also nudges cities to adopt it sooner and make the air cleaner, the kids safer. If you just flood the street with individually-owned autonomous vehicles without any regulation so people send them out on their own to run errands, you would end up with a much worse situation than we have now. That’s the difference in implementation.
That’s why you’re a proponent of the ride-share model?
Right. Otherwise you could be adding more individual vehicle miles travelled.
Instead of having a car just sitting on the street unused?
A car sitting there depreciating is a massive inefficiency, and that’s one of the reasons so many companies are going after this market – they recognize that. But there are going to be a lot of losers too.
What are some ways you see autonomous vehicles helping the economy?
There’ll be a lot more disposable income that can be used for things other than transportation: education, savings, local spending, and housing. Many people, especially poor people, are tying up a tremendous amount of money in the capital invested in – and maintenance of – an automobile, so there’s a huge impact there. The fleet management industry will be hugely important. There will be fewer automakers, particularly those focused on massive continual growth of individually owned vehicles.
Do you see driverless cars helping the electric car industry? Elon Musk talks a lot about how they’ll help with Tesla.
Yes, coal is going away. Those were not good, safe, or healthy jobs. It’s the same thing with fossil fuels, which is one of the most heavily subsidized and dangerous industries for our environment. It doesn’t make any sense to continue to strangle our environment for economic reasons; not only is it counterintuitive, it’s wrong. I think there’s been a lot of propaganda from – and a lot of tax breaks given to – energy companies. I think most experts agree that we will have switched to renewables – and most energy will be free – in the next 25 years. That’s going to be a huge shift. Electric cars are part of it, but we need to get people out of cars – period. The vast majority of urban trips are less than three miles. You don’t need a car for those trips, electric or not.
I hope we get to this vision sooner rather than later.
We have to. I’m hopeful about the next generation. I think millennials get pooh-pooed a lot, but they have a different frame of reference; they’re smart, and they take for granted that issues like climate change are real. That’s why political candidates who claim it’s not real won’t win anymore in a few years, not with young people. So I’m hopeful, but people still need to understand the extent of the problem.