July 15, 1947-Feb. 14, 2019
No matter how daunting a task, Joseph Kott believed that Palo Alto and the greater Silicon Valley region could become a national model for how to cope with a deluge of motor vehicles.
The Palo Alto chief transportation official from 1998 to 2005 dedicated most of his life to pursuing ways to get drivers out of their cars, becoming a prominent thought-leader in the push to create a regional transportation system aimed at reducing traffic congestion.
He co-founded Transportation Choices for Sustainable Communities to advance alternative transportation systems in cities nationwide; served as a private consultant at local, regional and state levels; taught sustainable urban and regional transportation planning at various universities, including Stanford and San Jose State; and mentored emerging planners for more than three decades.
On Feb. 14, Kott died of heart failure while at his Oakland home with his wife, Katherine. He was 71.
"Joe was a true pleasure to work with. He always had a smile on his face and was ready to talk to any resident who wanted to talk, ask questions or give opinions," former Palo Alto Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto said Tuesday. "He was passionate about transportation."
Kishimoto said Kott represented a "changing of the guard" of transportation professionals who had been trained to get cars through town as fast as possible. He understood that "streets are for people in all modes of transportation and there has to be a balance to allow people to get places by walking, biking, transit, as well as ... vehicles," she said.
Kott worked as Palo Alto's chief transportation official during a time when the city was coping with an overflow of traffic caused by hordes of commuters coming into the city every day.
While not all of his forward-thinking ideas earned him praise in Palo Alto, colleagues considered him a hands-on visionary who didn't shy away from new and sometimes controversial traffic-calming proposals, such as roundabouts.
Kishimoto told the Weekly his resignation in 2005 was "a real blow" to the city. "We're all devastated by his leaving," she said, calling the sometimes-embattled Kott an "out-of-the-box" thinker. "He was willing to stick his neck out."
While in Palo Alto, Kott worked to bring regional solutions to city streets. He pushed to improve Caltrain service with more express trains between Palo Alto, San Francisco and San Jose; bring better bus connections to get people from Caltrain to work; improve biking facilities in Palo Alto; and add more physical traffic-slowing devices on Palo Alto's streets, such as speed humps.
He described his role as a delicate balancing act to keep overburdened city streets calm and safe.
"The key is not to keep people out but to reduce the number of cars on the road by encouraging people to use carpool or public transportation," he told the Weekly in 2000. "We'd like more people but fewer cars. It's an important strategic issue for the city."
Kott also pushed to bring plans for the city's state-of-the-art Intermodal Transit Center downtown closer to reality, which the City Council gave the green light to while Kott was chief transportation official. The new transit hub was designed to attract between 1,500 and 3,000 drivers to mass transit and improve access from between Palo Alto and Stanford Mall.
Kott also supported a $50-million proposal for personal rapid transit (PRT), a futuristic monorail-like system that would connect Palo Alto to Stanford Research Park.
"There are so many opportunities to innovate in Palo Alto," Kott told the Weekly. After drawing fire for a number of the transportation projects he managed, including the Downtown North traffic-calming trial and the Homer Tunnel, Kott left his position in 2005 to work for the transportation firm of Nelson/Nygaard, which helped Palo Alto develop its transportation master plan in 2000.
"Some of the controversies have been very worthwhile experiences in terms of personal growth," Kott told the Weekly at the time. "I learned how good people can disagree."
Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson called Kott's position "one of those lightning-rod posts in which the person can do virtually nothing right -- in the eyes of someone in town."
Kott continued an active career in city and regional planning for the remainder of his life. He earned a doctorate from Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia in 2012; held a master's degree in transportation and traffic engineering from Monash University in Melbourne, Victoria Australia; a master's of regional planning from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill; and a bachelor's in political science from Wayne State University.
He was a charter member of the American Planning Association and maintained certification with the American Institute of Certified Planners.
Colleagues from Transportation Choices said Kott was the organization's "most ardent supporter and its most important leader. He was the glue that bound us."
Born in Detroit, Michigan, on July 15, 1947, to Joseph Frank Kott Jr. and Catherine V. Szydlodski, Kott is survived by his wife of 45 years, Katherine (Kitto) Kott; son Paul Thomas Kott; daughter, Amy Elizabeth Rands; brother-in-law William Dean Brown; and numerous nieces, nephews and cousins. He was preceded in death by his parents, son Andrew Joseph Kott and siblings Shirley Brown and Raymond John Kott.