We all know plenty of people who started out working in a bike shop as a kid… most of us for a start. But how many of us have gone on to revolutionise billion dollar transportation organisations?
Gabe Klein has done this, not once but at least three times and counting in his seemingly frenetic 44 year life to date.
Amongst other achievements he as been the Commissioner for the Department of Transportation in both Washington DC and later Chicago. In both cases he oversaw the implementation of large, successful bike share schemes and a huge increase in bicycle lane construction which resulted in increased cycling activity and sales of bicycles.
This high profile American recently visited Australia to speak at the Bike Futures Conference in Parramatta, NSW. Sandwiched between giving the keynote speech and being whisked away for an interview with the SBS TV program The Feed, ‘Bicycling Trade’ had the following enlightening conversation with Gabe about the bike trade and more…
Bicycling Trade: You started your career in a bike shop owned by your father.
Gabe Klein: In 1976 my dad started his first bike shop. He was a lifelong entrepreneur, civil rights activist and was always in love with all things wheel or antique, cars, bikes, trains, so he started a bike shop during the oil crisis, in Connecticut.
I got my first bike when I was five. I got this eastern European long bike with 20” wheels and I used to love riding it. It was the weirdest bike you’d ever saw. So I fell in love with cycling at a young age and also with the business of cycling.
When I was probably six or seven I started working in the store and actually selling bikes to people. When I was older, I actually ran a store for the first time when I was 11. My dad went out of town and let me run the store with some adult supervision, but I was responsible for all the sales. We had our best weekend in sales that year. So I was a natural!
I went to school for business, came out and worked in my dad’s stores, then was Director of Stores for the largest bicycle retailer in the United States at the time called Bikes USA.
These were large stores, 10,000 square foot (1,000 square metre) stores and that really taught me... retail teaches you so much about dealing with people!
You get this immediate gratification from seeing somebody buy a bike and then zip off and have so much fun on a bike and coming back and telling you how much great it was. So I became addicted to the retail experience. Very hard work, but very gratifying work.
For me then working at Zipcar (the car sharing company where Gabe was a manager) and then working in government was an extension of that bicycle retailing background. I still get super excited every time I see somebody on a bike share bike or in the new cycle lane that we created so I see it as all part of the same thing.
GK: I think it used to be that way in the US as well. I think some of the larger companies like Trek and Specialized and those folks started to realise, ‘Wait a second! The more we can make this cultural shift the more business there is to be done.’BT: But in Australia at least there is a significant disconnect between the bicycle industry and bicycle advocacy communities. What do you think we can do to bridge that gap?
So those big companies have gotten more involved in advocacy. I think they’ve seen their bottom lines be affected by it. I think they’ve seen business go up and as I was saying on the stage a few minutes ago, recreational cycling in the US is an $82 billion dollar business. So if we can get people to think about cycling as a utilitarian way to get around there’s that many more bikes that we’re going to sell.
Initially when cycle shops started to hear about bike sharing coming they went, ‘Oh no! People aren’t going to buy bikes!’ Well guess what, the penetration of people buying bikes is so small and you’re getting all these new customers that are trying bikes.
In Chicago for instance they’ve seen bike retailing go way up as a result of bike sharing because there’s all these new converts. They use bike sharing and think it’s great but they also want their own bike to ride on the weekends. Because the bike share bike, you’re not going to take it for a four or five hour ride on the lakefront.
So bicycle advocacy, bike sharing and bike retailing all go together.
BT: What do you count as some of your biggest successes, particularly when it comes to active transportation in general and cycling in particular?
GK: Very broadly speaking, I would say cutting fatalities and saving lives, which is something you can’t put a number on that. I mean you can… it’s about four and a half million dollars per life. But I choose not to, because I think that it’s more than money. For me that’s been huge.
Getting more people active on bikes through bike sharing in particular just warms my heart. Seeing young people that would have had no way to get around, poor people. Seeing obese people on bikes. Seeing people learning how to ride a bike at the age of 60, which I’ve seen. I’ve seen people on bike share bikes in parks and their friend is showing them how to ride a bike. So that really warms my heart.
Also seeing places, as you get more people on bikes and more people walking and seeing them go from very car oriented places with speeding, but by reengineering the streets, by educating people, by encouraging people and enforcing the traffic laws, so the four E’s, watching them change into people orientated places. Active transportation places.
In my home town of Washington DC, it’s a completely different place now than it was 10 years ago. A lot of other people played a role in it, people before me, people that worked for me, but to get to play a role in that is awesome.
BT: You’re a technologist. How do you see new technology enhancing cycling in particular? If you could refer to the bike trade in particular, how do you see the impact of new technologies in that space?
GK: I can tell you in the US we’ve been real laggards on electric bikes. I think that’s going to change. I think electric bikes give the bike industry this inroad into the auto and motor cycle business. But it’s so much healthier. The vehicles are lighter and smaller and they can operate typically in most places without licences.
I think electric and solar are going to be big for cycling. I think shared use is going to be big. I think we’re going to see tens of thousands of shared use bicycles. So I think whether it’s servicing these bicycles, selling these bicycles or then selling bicycles to the people using the shared use, technologically enabled bikes is going to be huge.
Also with the advent of autonomous vehicles (such as the Google car that does not require a driver), I think that in inner cities in 10 to 15 years, the only way you’ll be able to self-navigate around a city is by bike or on foot. And people are going to have to desire to control their own experience. Autonomous vehicles will replace the majority of self-driven vehicles and that’s a wonderful thing for us. It means cycling will be safer, walking will be safer, more people will want to ride. On top of that do you want to navigate around and see a city at human scale, biking will be one of the only ways to do it, so a huge advantage for bicycle retailers.
One other thing on retail, is that in the US we had a problem for many years with this sort of snobbery in bike stores. I saw it. I hired people who had this problem. Same thing in ski shops. The more we can get away from the snobbery of cycling and mainstream it for everybody, then cycle stores are going to do a lot better in the long run.
BT: Just looking at first world cities such as those in the USA and Australia, can you paint a picture of where you see transportation planning and real world transportation heading over the next years and decades?
GK: I think we’re going to have to become much more practical and pragmatic. The era of just building road capacity because the road builders and the politicians want to because they’re all intertwined, that’s going to go away. We can’t afford it anymore. It’s wasteful spending.
I think you’re going to see a lot of dense land use and you’re going to have a lot more active transportation oriented streets so that people can walk and bike to where they need to go. That’s really a more utopian society. Not this idea of being able to live 40 miles (65 kilometres) away from your work and drive a car. That’s not pleasant!
Once people have a taste of what it’s like in downtown Sydney when they make that better, downtown Washington, downtown Melbourne that’s what people are going to want. It starts typically in the inner city core, but sometimes you have an outlying suburb like Arlington Virginia or Parramatta who want to do real forward thinking stuff.
Cycle shops should be pushing for this because their business is going to go through the roof. They will also need to adjust their mix, so maybe less high end mountain bikes and road bikes and more utilitarian commuter bikes, single speed bikes, simple electric bikes… And they should become advocates for new urbanism. They need to start making that connection.
BT: If you were back running a bike shop today, what areas of your business would you be focusing on?
GK: Women, children, young people in general and old people. I think what I learned at Zipcar through a market segmentation study that we did was that the millennial generation and the empty nesters want the same things. They’re moving back to the cities in droves because they want the quality of life.
So again, less snobbery in the bike shop, more openness, more inexpensive simple bikes and more high end electric bikes
One thing I tried to do when I had stores was more group community bike rides, making more of a community something like Starbucks has done. Starbucks, their coffee is okay, but they have created that ‘third place’ and that sense of community there where you feel comfortable going in.
You need to feel comfortable going into the bike shop. The people are open to you, they’re open to women, older people and kids. They’re going to have a product that meets everybody’s needs, not just one small segment of the population.