Africa Program Director of ITDP, members at the Nairobi Garage

We consider ourselves quite lucky at the Garage to have the members that we have. They are all full of ambitions, full of brilliance, ready to burst with innovative ideas, and on top of that all, they channel all that they have into making a difference. Take Christopher Kost for example, the Africa Program Director for the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP). At first glance you can tell that Chris is a simple guy with a great heart. Even though he is always clearly busy typing away on his laptop or consulting his colleagues, if you approach him at his desk, he’ll always dedicate time to turning his chair to face you with a warm smile, and you’ll see the spark in his eyes. His demeanor, his obvious passion for his work, and the changes he has made during his long career with ITDP (he has been with them for 9 years now!), made him an no-brainer for this month’s #ZoomIn feature.

If you haven’t already heard about ITDP, they’re another one of our member companies that work to make a lasting impact, helping to improve our cities and the day-to-day life of the average person. When thinking about how we can go about improving people’s lives, we firstly think about food or housing, but often overlook the importance of the role transport plays in our lives. Chris said that “in policy discussions we tend to downplay the importance of transport in building sustainable cities. We build affordable housing but don’t think about how people in those houses will get to work.”

After I asked Chris to spare a half-hour of his time, he was happy to give me his full attention. We met at The Good Food Company’s cafe at our Westlands space, and not wanting to waste his time, I immediately went straight to his background and the way he was raised. “Well I was raised in California, in a place called Davis, a sheltered university town”, one interesting thing about this town was how it didn’t reflect the “conservative” attitude towards transportation that most US cities have. “[Davis]is a big cycling city, when I got out of there I realized that the rest of the world really isn’t like that”, Chris was moved and proud of his town, and wanted to bring some of its better qualities to the other cities he worked with.

Chris is a firm believer that in most of the world, streets are unjustly being made for cars and not for people. This reality makes for a transport network that completely neglects the majority that can’t afford a car, forcing people to battle the system rather than use it, as it is so unfriendly to those who’d like to walk, cycle, or even use public transport.. “So much of the way we as transport planners traditionally think is really stacked against the people who need access the most. The way we design our cities benefits a few car users, and leaves everyone else in the lurch.”

It’s these sort of transport issues that led Chris to focus his studies on social equity and environmental justice issues early in his life (later with a focus on transport). Chris taught me that so many of the injustices that go on in a society can be seen in the way the local transport system is laid out. He proceeded to give me some examples of these injustices, recalling “once in Accra, in 2004, I saw a child fall into an open sewage drain on a street that didn’t have a footpath. It’s just not fair that the SUV driving on that road got 7 meters of beautiful paved space, while this child had to deal with the drain.”

“We need to create equitable cities” Chris says emphatically. “We owe everyone, including children, elders, women, and disabled people, a transport system that they can use ” Luckily for every issue there is a solution that is simple, but that is however difficult to implement. “A big part of the job is building political will. The most important solutions are relatively low-cost projects—bus-based public transport, footpaths, cycle tracks, and parking management—so we don’t have major industries lobbying to get them implemented. Hence we need to rely on the goodwill of policy makers, and demands from concerned citizens that we design safer, more inclusive streets.”

In many cities, ITDP has concentrated on convincing governments to build better spaces for walking and cycling, but also bus rapid transit (BRT) systems to efficiently and quickly serve the wider population. “A BRT system is like a metro system on rubber tires, yet it is much more affordable, flexible, and quick-to-build than a metro.” Clearly someone who holds the concept close to his heart, he continues “BRT is essential if we want to bring high quality public transport service to the whole of Nairobi within this generation.

With active BRT systems in Ahmedabad and Pune, along with footpaths being used in Chennai, Chris has had a hand in projects that have impacted hundreds of thousands of people. These are all some major achievements by ITDP that took time and effort, so I wanted to know what made him capable of accomplishing such feats. “One of the main values in my family was the importance of hard work.” Chris also considers himself quite the perfectionist: “technical excellence is something we really value. The culture of ITDP matched my disposition because ITDP is so committed to being meticulous.” This trait along with patience are what allowed him to do such good work. “There are setbacks, but you have to persevere, stay in there for the long game, and remain committed!”

Once we were almost ready to wrap up the interview, Chris gave me one final piece of wisdom that stuck with me, one that should apply to everyone working in the public sector. “At the end of the day, my job is really about empowering other people to carry the work forward.” This is an attitude of complete selflessness, the ability to work without trying to make oneself indispensable, is something we should all look up to Chris for!

Now, plans are in place to build a BRT system in Nairobi, with the construction of Line 1 already being funded by the World Bank, very soon we’ll have one extra, very palpable, reason to be proud of this awesome company and the people it brought, as a part of our Westlands family!

Stay tuned to see who our #ZoomIn candidate for November will be!