Joseph Kott, who resigned as Palo Alto's chief transportation official a decade ago, is taking a broader view these days on how people move about the region and within their communities, worldwide.
Kott survived seven years in his Palo Alto position, one of those lightning-rod posts in which the person can do virtually nothing right -- in the eyes of someone in town. Ted Noguchi, who held that post in the 1970s, once said that Palo Alto has 56,000 traffic engineers -- the city's population at the time -- after a particularly harsh lambasting he got in the Palo Alto Times.
Kott resigned in 2005 following several controversies, including several "traffic calming" (which someone called "driver irritating") projects and an aborted plan to replace most signalized intersections on Embarcadero Road with roundabouts.
Since then he has been engaged in lecturing locally and internationally, consulting and doing research into a seemingly age-old dilemma of how people can best get from here to there, whether it be home-to-work-and-back, shopping trips and errands, or even delivering kids to and from school.
He founded a nonprofit organization called "Transportation Choices for Sustainable Communities" and is a lecturer in urban studies at Stanford University.
Last April he gave a lengthy presentation in Rohnert Park in Marin County on "The Emergence of Sustainable Transportation in America's Communities."
While "sustainable" and "sustainability" have had a vagueness about them that can be confusing, he goes by the concise but comprehensive and high-sounding definition of the federal Environmental Protection Agency: "Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations."
Well, reasonably concise, perhaps.
In essence, it's where the economy, the environment and society (meaning human activity) overlap.
In transportation, it means it must be affordable, offer choice, support the economy, limit emission and waste, and minimize use of land and noise.
Today's system of transportation (if it could be called a "system" and not simply "chaos") is far from sustainable, he notes. From 1969 to 2009, statistics show that the number of private vehicles is nearly double the number of drivers. The miles of vehicle travel now exceed 3 trillion, three times higher than in 1970, and far above what roads can handle.
Private vehicles dominate transportation, with 83.4 percent in the United States; only 1.9 percent use public transportation, and 14.6 percent walk or use other means of getting around.
There is a flicker of good news, Kott notes. Since a June 2005 peak of estimated miles driven on all roads there has been a 9.34 percent drop.
Kott cites the widely known environmental and other impacts of the overwhelming dependence on the automobile, including smog and particulates, water pollution by fuels and lubricants, damage to plants and animals, damage to public and personal health and "health effects of sedentary lifestyles in young and old," including increased risk of diabetes.
Statewide, transportation accounts for about 36 percent of emissions, far higher than industrial sources, at 21 percent, based on 2008 figures. Electrical generation accounts for about 24 percent, local or imported, and residential uses account for 6 percent, the same as agriculture and forestry practices.
Greenhouse gases, among other things, will cause "uncertain, potentially catastrophic effects -- with detrimental impacts on people, economies, plants and animal life worldwide," Kott says.
But what can be done? I personally have witnessed horrendous traffic jams in Santa Clara County, the Bay Area and statewide -- including and especially in southern California -- and have written about the problem as a full- or part-time journalist for more than 50 years. The British humor magazine Punch once published cartoon panels showing a clogged country road, then a clogged highway, and finally a clogged freeway covering the entire panel.
I literally saw the same thing happen in Santa Clara Valley from the 1940s and 1950s on.
I have had traffic experts tell me, as a reporter, that it is impossible to get people out of their cars. Maybe so.
But Kott's perspective, while visionary, has some practical suggestions, including some baby steps that are already being tested in one place or another around the world. Those include "retrofitting" communities for bicycling and walking (a vision in Palo Alto that dates back to the growth years of the 1950s); integrating land use and transportation; and cleaning up motor-vehicle fleets and increasing per-vehicle occupancy rates.
Cars can also be downsized, which is also happening in the face of high gasoline prices.
Major streets and freeways should be "re-purposed" for public transit or freeway rights-of-way configured "to carry more people, not just more vehicles."
The broader context, he says, is in "complete communities, characterized by a rich land use (housing, retail, office) in walking, bicycling and short vehicle trip distance; a generational mix; accommodation for all physical abilities; affordable housing options; and transportation choices."
That's a huge agenda. And skeptics are numerous. But as with anything in life, belief is a motivator, and "I think I can" may be a decisive element in success or failure.
Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at email@example.com and/or firstname.lastname@example.org. He also writes periodic blogs at PaloAltoOnline.com.