Transportation planner Ron Kirby’s inquiring mind, sense of fairness remembered

November 17, 2013

Ronald F. Kirby was remembered Sunday as a man who found beauty in the arcane details of how Washington gets around.

“Ron Kirby was an artist. Ron’s canvas was the region,” said Chuck Bean, executive director of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, where Kirby was the senior transportation planner. Bean spoke to hundreds of mourners gathered at a memorial service at an Alexandria funeral home and an overflow area nearby.

Neil Kirby recalled his brother’s love of cars, including the Alfa Romeo and soft-top Mustang he once drove. Ron, as they’d say in their native Australia, was “a good bloke.”

“I couldn’t have asked for a better brother,” he said.

Kirby, 69, was found slain in his Alexandria home Nov. 11, shot multiple times in the torso. A suspect has not been apprehended.


Ronald Kirby (Courtesy of COG)

A photograph of Kirby bear-hugging a koala flashed on a screen to the right of his open casket. To the left was a picture his daughter, Marilyn, painted when she was 12. She had wanted to toss it in the trash, but Kirby insisted on saving it, then proudly had it framed.

Friends rose from the crowded benches to add their voices.

One neighbor recalled a terrifying night when a giant rat appeared in her house while her toddler slept. She called Kirby, who appeared, tennis racket in hand, to handle it. Max Williamson, another neighbor and Kirby’s Sunday tennis partner, noted, to laughs, that he “didn’t realize how he did his training.”

Since Kirby’s death, tributes have been coming in from far beyond Washington, including flowers from the Southern California Association of Governments. Many sent in their condolences.

“He was the most exciting, dynamic, cheerful, witty, fair-minded, and thoughtful human being I have ever had the privilege to know in life,” wrote James Hogan, a longtime Washington colleague. Hogan recalled how Kirby described his approach to the dense, highly technical and highly charged job of transportation planning among representatives from more than 20 jurisdictions. It took Kirby just two words: “aggressive neutrality.”

“Ron possessed tremendous intellect, but he was quite unassuming in his everyday conduct with people. He respected the opinions of others,” said Hogan, who was out of the country and could not attend Sunday’s service. He added that Kirby was personally generous, including when Hogan’s wife passed away several years ago.

“Ron was the kind of person you enjoyed seeing each day, especially when times were hard,” Hogan said.

Friends said Kirby’s clear-eyed and searching style helped make him so much fun to be around. He had a way of learning from sharp-edged questions directed his way, instead of hunkering down, equivocating or evading, as can too often be the norm in the public sphere.

Where some might find cause to be defensive, Kirby saw a chance for discovery. Like the time in the 1990s when an elected official pressed him about whether a tally of the region’s pollution was missing a bunch of diesel-belching tractor-trailers.

The pollution analysis accounted for trucks and their emissions on the Beltway and other highways and on big roads such as Route 50 and Rockville Pike. But the analysis didn’t reach down to the neighborhood level; planners assumed tractor-trailers weren’t rumbling down minor roads.

Kirby wanted to know what was actually happening. He asked Robert Griffiths, a senior technical official working on data and modeling, to set up a survey to find out.

“It was always things like that, an investigation. Why is it this way? What are the facts? Let’s get the data, and let’s know and be able to provide information to the decision makers so they can make better decisions,” Griffiths said. “He just didn’t accept assertions that were made by one interest group or another. He’d listen to them and think about, how can we answer that question?”

As it turned out, the assumptions were correct; there weren’t many big rigs on local streets.

“But guess what we found out?” Griffiths said. “School buses!”

The survey found lots of them, pouring forth very high levels of particulate matter. That insight led to a push to replace dirty buses with cleaner-burning ones, which ended up cutting emissions and having health benefits, said Griffiths, who attended Sunday’s service.

In recent months, the two men, colleagues for decades, had been trying to get to the bottom of other questions, including why the number of miles traveled on Washington area roads has basically been flat since about 2007, Griffiths said. Was it because of a sinking economy, or because millennials and other young residents get around differently than people used to?

Nearly a quarter-century ago, as Kirby walked to lunch downtown, a car sped through an intersection and hit him, breaking his pelvis. The accident happened just before an important conference that Kirby was to help organize.

As Kirby recovered in the hospital, he insisted on making conference arrangements, using a yellow pad and clipboard, Griffiths recalled. Kirby was responsible for the speakers who would weigh in on transportation, but he also focused on what seemed to be the tiniest of details, including the planned luncheon.

“He was very specific: ‘We need to have a buffet and not a sit-down lunch,’ ” Griffiths remembered Kirby saying. Kirby’s philosophy about transportation — and lunch — were the same: “People like choice.” Whether it was carpools, subway trains or individual cars, “it wasn’t just one solution for everyone,” Griffiths said.

On the Friday before he was killed, Kirby sat with staff, discussing his numerous edits to a major new document known as the Regional Transportation Priorities Plan.

Before he started work at the Council of Governments, colleagues said, the region’s transportation plans were often impractical wish lists with limited connection to real-world constraints, such as budgets. Kirby helped bring discipline to that process.

The latest effort is an attempt to find consensus on key priorities, factoring in increased transportation dollars being raised in Virginia and Maryland.

“Ron was famous for his pencil,” Bean said, “and his pencil worked the length and breadth of this 89-page plan.”

Mike Laris came to Post by way of Los Angeles and Beijing. He’s written about the world’s greatest holstein bull, earth’s biggest pork producer, home builders, the homeless, steel workers and Italian tumors.
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