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meet our episode 44 guest Don Kostelec

From Don Kostelec’s beginnings in the transportation planning field, he’s questioned the orthodoxy that many cities and states just accept about how streets should look. The result? He’s democratizing access for advocates everywhere to create safer communities.

If you enjoyed this podcast, check out this blog post on what it takes to make a transportation network successful! 


Cohen: Josh Cohen
Kostelec: Don Kostelec

Cohen: If you’re in the transportation industry and use Twitter at all, you’ve probably seen some of Don Kostelec’s zingers about journalists, police, and other officials who victim-blame pedestrians and cyclists. He’s got a couple more bon mots in this episode of The Movement podcast coming up now. Let’s go.

F: Mobility is an essential component to the cities of our future. To build this future, we need to do more than invest in technology; we need to invest in the people who will make the hard decisions necessary to create vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities. Welcome to The Movement where we talk to the brave leaders who are effecting change in an effort to build a coalition of leaders who will make tomorrow real. Here is your host, TransLoc’s National Director of Policy, Josh Cohen.

Cohen: My guest today is Don Kostelec, a principal at consulting firm Vitruvian Planning based in Boise, Idaho. Their focus at Vitruvian is to look at mobility more holistically by connecting it to public health and using that connection to help citizens live happier and healthier lives. Tell us what led to you being in this industry and your work as a planner.

Kostelec: Yeah, I got my master’s degree in urban planning with a focus in transportation at the University of Illinois at Chicago. And prior to that I didn’t really know that this field of urban planning, urban transportation, what have you, existed when I was attending my first two years at DePaul University in Chicago and took a class on Chicago neighborhood politics. And that’s where I was really first exposed to things like urban studies and the, “Hold on. Like, wait a minute. There’s this thing you can do?” And I’ve always been fascinated with cities, and my mom would joke I’d sit in the back of the car looking at roadmaps, and she was like, “You don’t have to know your way around every city on the East Coast.” I’m like, “Yeah, I kind of do. I kind of want to.” So that’s how I got into it.

One of the things at UIC that I didn’t think about at the time but one that I kind of found to be somewhat unique in the realm of planning was that it was really a hybrid planning and engineering degree, as much of our transportation courses were cross listed with the school of civil engineering. And so we were doing traffic-engineering things about 50% of the time in the studies, as with urban planning. And that’s what propelled me to my first job as a transportation planner for a highway agency here in Boise.

Cohen: Was it that from the very beginning study of the Rand McNally atlas in the back of the car? Was that what kind of led you to this graduate degree?

Kostelec: You know, like I said, I grew up somewhat in a rural area. I was born in Atlanta, and then when we would travel to Chicago and other places my mom—there’s a picture of me from 1977, and I’m on the back of a bike in suburban Atlanta. And thinking how my mom was riding around on a bike to run errands and do things in suburban Atlanta in the 1970s. She doesn’t like the picture because she’s wearing hotpants in it. But I think back at that and all the people I know and interact with who live in the greater Atlanta area, that it doesn’t even feel safe doing that today. So, you know, my grandfather was in the transportation realm, was an over-the-road truck driver, my mom was kind of in that, and my fascination with cities, so I think all of that just kind of gelled when I learned there was actually a forum in which you can study that and work in that field.

Cohen: Wow. So there is some family history there. It’s funny you mention that about reading the atlas there in the car because I did that exact same thing, so maybe there’s something to that that leads us to this field. So I got familiar a little bit with your work from your presence on Twitter. And you’re pretty prolific there. I know you’re kind of quick to call out some of the inane things that cities and states sometimes do that are either victim blaming or really focused on pedestrian education as opposed to what’s the responsibility of someone operating a vehicle. So I guess I’m curious from your perspective of what’s the source of some of this, and what can we do to stop it?

Kostelec: So the first six years of my career I worked at an agency called the Ada County Highway District here in Boise. And it’s unique in the United States in that where Boise exists and there’s five other cities in this county, none of them have their own streets department. The agency was founded by referendum in the ’70s with property tax authority, impact fees, and vehicle registration fees to manage all of the roads. And in that, because of this hybrid planning and engineering background, I was really their first kind of long-range planner, long-range project vision developer person and worked under and with engineers.

And it was funny because I started doing things like managing our community programs, which were retrofitting streets with sidewalks and bike lanes and things. And part of it was because a lot of the longstanding and licensed engineers in our agency didn’t want to manage projects of that scale; it was the big road planning and big intersections. And that’s really how I came about my interest in this. And I always say curiosity killed the transportation planner, because I would start looking into these things that were held up as these sacred guidelines, these sacred standards, these sacred dimensions. And having the audacity to go read the AASHTO Green Book and kind of, “Well, no. It doesn’t make 12-foot travel lanes the absolute.” It doesn’t make, you know, turning radii or level of service the absolute that even in my own agency I was led to believe. And I’m looking at this, and I don’t think I was in tune with the equity aspects and even the health aspects of it at the time, but, you know, started leading projects and things to rethink that in many different ways.

And when I look at something like Twitter and I know it’s easy to kind of get lost in both the echo chamber as well as kind of some of the constant criticism, but to me the value is somebody can be at a public meeting in Wichita, Kansas and be getting told by a project engineer, “Well, we can’t do that,” and if they have the right following or it reaches the right person on Twitter, you can have an image of another city the same size doing what they say they can’t do in a matter of minutes. And what I think is more entertaining than it should be is our public agencies haven’t really caught up to the fact that that information exchange can be so productive and so instant. And where if we can use it in a public meeting and in social media, why can’t they use it in project design and other features?

Another moment I had is when I moved from Boise to North Carolina to be back closer to my family in the 2008 timeframe and stared doing a lot of what North Carolina DOT was funding for comprehensive pedestrian and bicycle plans, primarily for small towns. And you go back to, like, the education and some of the victim-blaming stuff. And as much as there is something where the five E’s of engineering, education, enforcement, evaluation, and encouragement have some validity, I quickly realized in doing a lot of those plans, devoting one chapter to each and making them seem equal in that plan was not right.

And I remember getting in trouble a couple of times because, “Well, you’re really only supposed to scope where sidewalks are and where they ain’t,” and I was out there looking at traffic signal timing and going, “This is inadequate for the senior citizens that go to the senior center here to cross.” And there was even some moments where I was asked by NCDOT to take things out of those plans because I was hitting on ADA compliance and other key things and going, “Wow. I can’t believe I’m getting this pushback” on what I felt was both a fundamental and for my own personal thing an ethical response to address those needs.

And that probably made me the—if somebody were to sum me up on Twitter as being anti state-DOT, I wouldn’t refute them. And that turned me in many ways to believe that and just deepened my desire to look farther into these long-held quote “safety standards” and traffic safety mythology that’s been put out there. And it’s like every time you really peel it away you just go, “Wait a minute. I’m less and less convinced that the things we’ve held sacred for decades are the answer to this.”

Cohen: Well, why is that though? I mean, it sounds like what you’re highlighting there is that the folks that are in these positions that are green lighting these projects and so forth are just kind of not questioning this orthodoxy—right—or this perceived orthodoxy. And I guess—what’s the origin of that? Is it just because it’s easier to not do that? Is it because they just are not taking the extra X amount of time to be mindful about it? You know, I mean, the example you gave with the senior center, I mean, like, that’s a pretty straightforward thing there. So, I guess, what do you think is really driving that?

Kostelec: I’ve thought about maybe the corporate culture of organizations. Especially, you know, state DOTs are these big, hegemonic organizations; they’re not really—they don’t really have to answer to the public in a way in terms of being answerable to the ballot box.

Cohen: Hmm.

Kostelec: And in some ways from a public-scrutiny standpoint they’re a little bit tucked away. I think there’s been a—the values of transportation in our country over the decades has been there. When I look at things like the AASHTO Green Book and other Federal Highway Administration guidance and to see that there is flexibility programmed in there, at some point the values in transportation forced us toward defaulting to doing the maximum we could justify for motor vehicles and the minimum we could justify for any other road user. And I think at its most innocent it’s those kind of things piling on top of one another.

When we get into—and this is a criticism I still have of an agency like the NCDOT; they talk about, “Well, we’ve had a bicycle and pedestrian transportation division since the 1970s.” And for almost 50 years now that part of the organization has sat on the opposite side of the org chart from the engineering and design group. And so while they have this bike-ped unit that does a lot of planning, a lot of safety research, a lot of analysis, they don’t make the call in the design of projects and for a long time had zero input into the design of projects.

So there is this disconnect in there, and in some ways I kind of jokingly refer to it as accessorizing that element within a DOT. It’s, “Let’s lay out all the vehicle features of a road first, number of travel lanes, turn radii, turning lanes, and then let’s slap a bike lane on it or slap a sidewalk on the side. Maybe we do it to fulfill complete streets; maybe we do it if somebody complains, but we’ll try not to do it.”

That just seems to me this project development paradigm that’s emerged over the years. And so all those things together. And then when we think the answer then is to tell people to wear helmets and bright clothing when the roads aren’t designed for safety, I go, “No. Wait a minute. Somewhere else in the system has broken.” And something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately—like, I don’t know you’ve seen the furor over the armbands in Toronto the last few weeks.

Cohen: Yeah.

Kostelec: It’s not that wearing a helmet or reflective vest or all that if you’re in the right circumstance in life and within your individual day to do that; it’s that the same agencies, a state DOT, a city office that has full control over the design of roads that could make them safer don’t do the safest thing in the design of the roads but are more than willing to tell people what to wear, that I don’t comprehend how that is a value of an organization out there. If it’s a safe-routes-to-school nonprofit, they don’t control the design of the roads; they’re out there making the best of the circumstances for kids walking and biking to school. When they put out those messages, I don’t mind it as much because they’re to deal the best they can in a hostile environment in an unsafe situation. But when the agency that controls the design of the roads thinks the answer is a helmet or a reflective vest, that’s where we have a problem.

Cohen: Yeah. No, that’s definitely true. It makes me wonder if maybe one of the areas that this got a little sideways is, you know, the culture now kind of thinks about these quick wins and, you know, “What can we do to get a quick win?” Right? You hear that in the business context sometimes. And certainly I could see where to do those streets right in Toronto would take a lot of work and take a lot of time, and so someone said, “Well, what can we do to get a quick win?” And I’m sure somebody had the wise idea, “Well, let’s order some reflective armbands and distribute them.” Right?

And so, you know, and obviously I think that’s where I think some of this kind of runs up against, you know, kind of what’s actually needed, which is just kind of the hard work and the investment to actually do that right and actually attack the root cause, as opposed to just putting some reflective armbands on folks.

Kostelec: Or I think, in that vein, coming down, you know, to the money issues, “Well, yeah. You know, it’s expensive to retrofit streets,” while at the same time they’re widening highways for motorists that won’t exist until 2040. So I’m like, “No, it’s not a funding issues; it’s a priorities issue.” So then your priorities become armbands and handing out helmets. Again, to me that’s this disconnect in those agencies trying to pitch in some ways this dual message. I think if it was truly looking at it to say, you know, “Our commitment is X number of protected bike lanes and street retrofits and changing pedestrian signal timing and pedestrian crossing frequency. And here is our five-year, X-hundred-million-dollar investment plan to do that,” and I felt the commitment was there, probably give you a little bit more of a pass on the armband thing. Right?

Cohen: Sure.

Kostelec: And the other piece—it’s interesting. You know, I sit here. I work in small cities. I live in a small city, but I think from a bicycling standpoint Boise kind of in the central core is a pretty good place to move around. And the consternation in places like New York City where they’re putting a lot of investment in—and it’s always interesting to watch because I’m going, “I believe,” in many cases—not that they don’t have challenges and shortcomings—“they are putting a lot of money behind that.” Seattle is another place that’s doing it. And yet there’s just still underlying frustration, because I think the safety fear we have walking and biking every day is so personal and so intense and touches on so many more of your senses, that you can’t—be doing the best in the world; you’re still going to get upset when you find three consecutive days of a construction sign blocking your bike lane or snow plowed to block access to a crosswalk, because I just think that experience is so much more personal.

Cohen: For sure. Yeah, definitely. You definitely feel it. So you mentioned some cities that were doing things right. I mean, are there some specific leaders that you see or you interact with that get it—right—that kind of are thinking about this in the right way? And, if so, what do we need to do to get more of those types of leaders?

Kostelec: Um, you know, I think that the generational change, the care and attention to that. I know a lot of people kind of in our age cohort that are, you know, just from my experience in working in this field for almost 20 years now, are the ones that I think about who were kind of into these things. So I think that generational piece is shifting [INDISCERNIBLE]. I retweeted this morning one from Barb Chamberlain of Washington State DOT. And it was quoting somebody from Seattle DOT of, “We just can’t afford to add single-occupancy vehicle trips to the system.”

And I’m like, “What a great admission of the reality of what’s going on here?” And it takes a lot for that to be said. So in terms of leaders, when I look west of Boise and look to Barb Chamberlain at Washington State DOT and Dongho Chang and many others within Seattle DOT, you know, those folks are really trying to change the paradigm. Roger Millar, who was planning director for the 3,000-person city of McCall, Idaho 15 or 20 years ago, is the Secretary of Washington State DOT and is saying things like, “We have a role to play in the affordable housing issues. We can’t build our way out of congestion.” My joke with that is they’re trying to steer a ship when the engineers have built a pier around it for 60 years. But I see the best messaging and the change of mindset coming out of public agencies like that.

When I think on the research side, folks like Tara Goddard at Texas A&M and Wes Marshall at University of Colorado Denver, they’re curiosity and care for this is asking different research questions; and as a result we’re getting research products that are informing it in a very different way. I did a blog post a couple weeks ago on what Wes had sent me about road design suppressing active transportation activity. And this is a thing about suburban areas of, “Well, yeah. Look. It must be safe. There are no bicyclist or pedestrian crashes.” And he said, “Well, it could be because there’s an absence of activity.” And that was a challenge he expressed to me in dealing with Vision Zero in smaller cities. And so even just that question; I don’t think that’s ever been asked before about going out to research it.

I think on kind of the journalist/advocate side, people like Angie Schmitt and Alissa Walker; I look up to them a lot. And they’re just asking curious questions that are very different but programmed into this. Bill Schultheiss with Toole Design, Jessica Roberts with Alta Planning + Design on that realm, you know, are two people I look to that again are just asking different questions and then doing different things in the consulting realm.

And then kind of at the—I don’t know what we call it—the rock-star side of things, Janette Sadik-Khan, Jeff Speck, Brent Toderian, Jennifer Keesmaat, you know, those folks that are really steering things at those big levels are the other ones. And then to me—gosh—for part of the joy I get with Twitter is the dialogue with folks from cities all across there. And I can’t give enough credit for some of the one-liners and other things and perspective I have from just replies that people give there, and too many of those folks to name.

Cohen: Definitely. Definitely. So let’s maybe start to wrap up with this, which is what are some areas that you’re really optimistic about right now in transportation, in planning, maybe some trends that you’re seeing moving in the right direction, some of these pots and pans you’ve been banging on, if they’ve started to rouse the folks sleeping?

Kostelec: Yeah. As much as we like to bang AASHTO over the head and kind of the national organization of state DOTs, I wish it was a public document; or get your library to get a copy of the latest AASHTO Green Book, the Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets. There’s some good stuff in there. There is some really good stuff. It talks about target speeds and designing a street for the desired speed based on land-use context and bike-ped activity. And if that’s to be the engineer’s bible and it says that, we can’t ask for it to say much more than that.

And for people that are kind of interested in the realm we’re talking about, yeah, that document is a thousand pages thick; there’s probably 100 to 150 pages that are mostly relevant to this realm. There’s a lot of flexibility and a lot of good stuff in there. So it’s how do we put that into local design standards and policies? The movement on things like setting speed limits and moving away from the 85th percentile or at least bringing about better engineering judgment in design of that is a very good thing. And I’m incredibly impatient with it right now and trying to point out, “Here’s what NTSB says; here’s what the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices says. We should feel comfortable moving in that direction as a policy without all the formal things having to say that. We’re making a road investment that’s going to probably be there for 50 years, so why wait another 18 months for it to be formalized?”

The efforts of NACTO, Transport for America and try—they’re changing the policy discussion at the national level. Those to me are all very positive things that if we can get our local leaders, our local engineers, are local planners to put them into our local codes, we’d be better off starting tomorrow.
Cohen: Yeah, definitely. I mean, it’s one thing to get that in those bibles. It another thing for that to kind of wind its way through all that kind of in-their-head orthodoxy, if you will, and start to chip away at some of what people just accept and start to say, “Oh, yeah. Well, things can change and things are changing, and we can adapt some of the ways we look at this.” And you’re right; there’s a lot of good opportunities to do so with speed limits and so forth, so.

Kostelec: And that’s like to local advocates and others, if you kind of combine the AASHTO Green Book, the AASHTO bike guide, which there’s a new one out, the AASHTO pedestrian guide is 15 years old, but there’s actually some really good stuff in there. And, you know, do your Kickstarter campaign or something to get the $600 or so to buy the hardcopy of those, or get your library to get them. They’re not as complex and detailed as some might lead you to believe, especially for the stuff that we’re most interested in. But they’re paid for with public dollars; I wish they were public available. Let’s take them out of this seeming cloak of secrecy and show them for the good stuff that’s in them. And, to me, to have that advocate or somebody sitting on a steering committee or going to a public meeting with that book in hand, “Well, I’ve read it.” You know, “The AASHTO Green Book page 2-34 mentions target speed. Why aren’t we doing this?” They’re not ready for that question.

Cohen: Hmm. That’s a great point. I guess for a long time, you know, the guidebooks, you know, there’s this education gap between the professionals and the advocates, let’s say. Even the best-educated advocates are not going to be as educated, if you will, as the professionals that live this every day. And so, you know, obviously back in the day when the AASHTO books and so forth were kind of not as up to speed on some of these better kind of ways of looking at active transportation that kind of reinforced that, but now if the advocates can get access to that information and they can just say, “Hey, look. We can help hold those professionals accountable a little bit,” because now these professional guidelines are a little bit more up to speed, that to me seems like this really big change.

Kostelec: Yeah, and in some cases I think you’d find especially at a local city level, especially maybe smaller and medium sized cities, they don’t even know that those are out there or what it says, and not a fault of theirs specifically. And I’ll give you an example. An advocate I’ve come to know pretty well over the last year or so in Washington State and in her efforts in a small city—I won’t name it—you know, I kind of brought that issue up about the design guide. And their response was, “Oh, well, we follow the Washington State local standard. We assume they’re doing their due diligence. We don’t own a copy of that document.”

And, well, okay, we’ve kind of pinpointed a challenge there. One, it’d be great if WashDOT updates that stuff, but cities also need to be curious enough to do it. And one of my suggestions was to do the same kind of Kickstarter campaign locally to buy a city the copy of those types of documents and things. So I think you’d probably find open-minded professionals on that side if they were just given access to the information. They may just innocently not even know that it exists.

Cohen: Yeah, that’s a great point. Where can our audience find out more about the work you’re doing at Vitruvian Planning as well as your random Twitter musings?

Kostelec: Yeah, I probably don’t tweet enough day-to-day about the work we’re doing with Vitruvian. You know, and right now it’s my colleague Chris Danley who founded that company, and I had my own company in North Carolina, and we worked side-by-side. When I moved out to Boise, we went under one umbrella. We’re doing a health and housing study for the City of Boise right now that is looking at about 30 different health-specific data metrics at the Census Tract level through the CDC’s 500 Cities data and really tying it to affordable housing, healthy housing, homelessness issues and pinpointing the geographic areas of the city that are showing challenges or areas of concern. And that’s where we’re integrating a lot of this health information into that.

We’ve also been working for five, six years now on a statewide training program called The Looking Glass Academy to build capacity in small towns across Idaho for walkability and kind of giving these folks the decoder ring to some of these same things that have been the topic of our conversation. And we’re also working closely with the Saint Luke’s Hospital Foundation for health on community and built environment and school-siting policy and a lot of other things. So that’s the day-to-day work I’m doing, and, you know, using Twitter as my outlet for other frustrating things like that.

But we have really been blessed in Idaho with some places that have allowed us to use this state as a laboratory for some of these things and seeing some very positive changes in terms of small towns building. You know, when a town of 500 is willing to paint a pedestrian lane on a street and put a rumble strip in-between it, we don’t think much of that in Portland or Seattle or even Boise, but for that town to create something like that is real meaningful in a lot of ways because it’s very real. And the best part is it can be done in a matter of a few months after the idea. And that’s probably where I’m most comfortable. If I was to be called in tomorrow to go and do something in Portland or Seattle, I’d probably be a little intimidated by it because the small town and small city has been more of my comfort zone.

Cohen: Definitely. What’s the web address for Vitruvian?

Kostelec: Vitruvian Planning. Vitruvian is the Vitruvian Man from the da Vinci era, kind of that balanced human being and that balancing health and mobility. So is where you’ll find our contact information. My blog is at And the goal of that is to—this book I want to try to get out by spring, maybe next fall that really is kind of this guide for advocates on busting these myths and how to go into certain facets of public involvement and public meeting and project design and advocacy armed with these things and understand that.

The blog series I wrote about a year ago, The Twelve Days of Safety Myths, are kind of product for that; and that’s why I’ve probably been a little more active in the blog posting lately, to get some material down to go into that. I’ve got it outlined, probably about 30% of it written, and just need some time this winter to focus on it.

Cohen: Well, good. Well, maybe we’ll get some nice winter snowstorms and you can sit by the fire and get some work done there.

Kostelec: That’s the goal. In Idaho we’ve got to wait until the winter to thaw off to go do a lot of project work, and then we cram it all back in in the fall before the snow flies. So, yes, hopefully winter is that time.

Cohen: Excellent. Well, Don, thank you so much for joining us on The Movement today. I really appreciate you taking the time.

Kostelec: Yeah. You’re welcome. It’s been great.

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If you enjoyed this podcast, check out this blog post on what it takes to make a transportation network successful!