Professor Martin Wachs and his wife, Helen, at the 2019 Wachs Lecture, delivered by David Levinson. (Photo by Stan Paul/UCLA Luskin)

On Monday, we suffered a terrible loss to our ITS community. It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Martin Wachs, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, founder of the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, and dearest friend and colleague.

Professor Wachs was a preeminent figure in transportation planning. Not only did he have an illustrious academic career spanning seven decades, but he is remembered for his teaching, service, and drive to advance the field. He was a consummate professional, willing to lend his expertise whenever needed, even well into retirement. He will be perhaps best remembered as the caring and generous mentor to many hundreds of planners, engineers, and scholars around the globe.

Marty authored more than 160 articles and five books on transportation systems, performance measurement, and the relationships between transportation, land use, and air quality in transportation planning. He also studied the mobility needs of older adults — research that led to twice winning the prestigious Transportation Research Board’s Pyke Johnson Award for outstanding paper in transportation planning in both 1976 and 2019 — a 43-year span.

Marty joined the UCLA Urban Planning faculty in 1971 and chaired the department for three terms. As a professor, he worked with thousands of students throughout his career, winning awards for teaching and graduate advising from both UCLA and during his decade at UC Berkeley, where he directed the Institute of Transportation Studies there as well.

He had a deep commitment to public service. In 2000, he served as chair of the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. More recently, he had been a member of the California High Speed Rail Peer Review Group.

Marty’s wife Helen has asked that members of the transportation community share their memories of her husband. You may do so by emailing rememberingmarty@its.ucla.edu. UCLA ITS will compile your comments and present them to his family.

Read obituaries from UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and the UC Berkeley Institute of Transportation Studies.

Memorial Services

An online memorial service was held April 15 and can be viewed on the UCLA ITS YouTube channel. Below are transcripts of selected eulogies.

There are few things I want to do less than give this tribute to my father. The unflinching approach to reality he imparted had left me noticing his aging, and I was preparing to adapt, over time…. But my father never gave someone a challenge he thought them incapable of meeting.

All the wonderful things being shared about my father obviously come as no surprise to me, and I had so hoped to spend the next few years, hearing those things with him, but knowing how uncomfortable it would have made him to hear so much praise, as his own ability to act diminished, I have to appreciate that, as hard as this is on the rest of us, it was an ending with which he would have been satisfied.

I had hoped to spend the next years supporting him, as he always has supported me- my father has been at anything I asked him to be at, and volunteered for things I didn’t intend to subject him to… And The outpouring of remembrances from my friends, has reminded me, of how important it was to him, to know the people important to me.  I was touched by the photos my parents saved, not only of me, but of Niki, Jeremy, Erica, Jason, Abe, and so many others.  Many of my students and colleagues had stories, as they’ve driven out to Cal Poly Pomona for multiple events, marched with my students for a sustainable future, and for the rights of immigrants, and were happy to attend CPP sponsored Dodger games.  Despite his years of public speaking at high-stakes events, family members have reminded me of how the event for which he showed some concern for his performance, was when called upon to officiate my wedding.  He saw that a high stakes event.  I think Navid would have stayed even with a minor error…. And the depth of his loss, is a testament to my father’s ability to welcome people into his family- completely.  When you’re in, you’re in… That’s the for better or worse.  And with my father, it was almost all better.

My father didn’t know how to be unproductive, and he will have posthumous work published (not a hint to his co-authors, or a comment on the reviewers- #2 I’m looking at you…), but the idea of slowing down, of doing less, of relaxing, was not at all appealing to him.  Nor had it ever been.

Even now as he prepared to “retire” for the fourth time(?), he was finally finding the time to research our family history, finding a master’s thesis on one relative, connecting with ethnomusicologists while researching a family melody… he was organizing photos and records, and of course, gardening.

I’m not sure I ever remember my father reading a novel, though the books he gave me to read, were always meaningful.  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Yearling, Black Boy…. Ya know light childhood reading.  He never binged anything on Netflix.  But he wasn’t quite as out of touch with popular culture as we used to joke.  I remember him telling me these films will change how movies are made, when he took me to 2001, and Star Wars.

To vacation with my father was not per se relaxing, but it was always educational.  Weren’t there museums to see, history to be learned, culture to be appreciated? I can’t imagine a trip to a beach resort without a sustainability tour.  And I have been to an embarrassing number of train museums.  From the family albums, apparently my mother married him despite the train museums.

My father had a quintessentially east coast Jewish sense of humor. Political, ironic, dark, but never mean.  He had a good chuckle when he learned the Jewish space laser conspiracy centered on high-speed rail, and we certainly have exchanged our share of dark political humor over the years.  But he also would go long game on humor, in a way I don’t think most knew….  When my brother was roughly 8- around 1982 (fine I checked the year online), he saw the old chalice comedy skit redone by HBO as a short, and thought it was hysterical, so in typical 8-year-old fashion (and I have an eight-year-old with my brother’s smile), he made a few too many jokes about the chalice, begging my father to re-enact the skit for him.  My father, good-naturedly threatened to do that as the toast at my brother’s wedding, if he didn’t stop….  Over the years, once in a while he would bring that up… Fast forward to 2004- Steve and Shirley’s wedding.  My father gets up to give a toast, and he opens with the exact same, largely innocuous lines of the skit….  The look on my brother’s face was priceless.  Of course, my father proceeded with a lovely toast, And I know only four people there got the joke… but it was epic.

My father did love baseball.  Growing up in New York in the 40s and 50s, he and his Uncle Harold’s favorite escape was in the rooting for the underdog Brooklyn Dodgers. And many of you who may have attended games could have mistaken him for teetotal, as he almost never enjoyed a beer at a game.  Why?  Because once, during a restroom break- he missed a triple play.  Fortunately, he stayed in his seat in 1988 for Gibson’s home run, and As a Brooklyn Dodger fan, he saw most of the greats play live, including Jackie Robinson.  He also took me to some pretty amazing baseball games, and thanks to his busy travel schedule, I was frequently the lucky recipient of tickets, even when he couldn’t attend.  My first Dodger Game went into extra innings, and the Dodgers won on a hit by Steve Garvey.  Since we never leave early, we were at the game where the Dodgers hit four home runs in the ninth, though we also suffered through a game where they blew a 13 run lead…. I was at Orel Herscheiser’s first start as a Dodger at Shea with the somewhat traitorous but still beloved Uncle Harold who had defected to Mets fandom…. We’ve seen more than one win by pitchers like Valenzuela, and Kershaw… And I got 18 innings of world series baseball- in one game.  No, I did not leave early.  And I rode my bike.

Despite his impressive personal achievements, he told me, more than once, that the real influence he had and what he was most proud of, -were the people he had the privilege of working with, educating and developing.  He told me, “Not very many people read academic papers, but the influence we have, is in not only the scholars we train, but the many students who don’t become scholars, but go into the world, carrying what we teach them, the messages, values, ideas, and ways of thinking that we impart.”  He saw himself fundamentally as an educator, and that approach, allowed him to remain true to himself, his ideals, and his values.  Because what he valued most -were people.  And being an educator wasn’t a one-way street.  He valued what students brought and he integrated it into his thinking and as a result he never stopped growing- challenging his own thinking. That this was the real value of being an educator, the opportunity to expand people’s minds, and in turn, have your own expanded.  Recently I had the wonderful privilege of two of my own former students returning to guest lecture for our annual professor for a day campus event.  I had them speak about research, about data.  And they blew me away.  They had this deeply compassionate, humane view of policy, of research, of data.  I was shocked at how much of my father’s voice was in their words.  When they ended with, and this is what you taught us Dr. Wachs…. It wanted to tell them it wasn’t really me.  I was just passing on what I had lived.

One of my friends jokes that when you bring sociology (and my father was undecided between sociology and civil planning) to other disciplines, everyone thinks your brilliant, but one is just asking for people-centered, critically evaluated, long-term planning.  And that was effectively the mantra of my life.  My father imparted that fundamentally research is about people, and people’s lives.  My father lived his life never forgetting that every equation, every budgetary decision, every funding priority, wasn’t a number on the page, it was people’s lives.  And those lives were precious, valuable, worthy things.  For my father, every person mattered and should be treated with dignity and respect.

And seeing the many wonderful students he taught, and the people they have become, and who my brother is, and who we chose to marry (Shirley and Navid), and who Leia and Ziya are, he will never be gone, and the world is better because he was in it.

I think the many tributes and accolades that continue to pour in would have overwhelmed my father.  He was a practical person at his core.  But that’s not his legacy.  The legacy he leaves is a cadre of people committed to social justice and equity, and human-centered policy. And I am confident that the scholars, practitioners, and activists, he mentored can and will achieve this.  And that will be his legacy.

There is no one I admire or respect more than Marty Wachs, and I am grateful to Helen for honoring me with the chance to say so today.

I telephoned Marty on Saturday afternoon, and he was cheerful and optimistic, as always. By a wonderful coincidence, that morning I had looked at a word quiz on the web, and the question was: What adjective contains the letters s, p, and n and means “possessing or expressing great sagacity”?

I guessed right with the word “sapient,” and then looked at its synonyms, which are wise, sage, insightful, judicious, prudent, sensible, and sane. This string of words immediately made me think of Marty, and fortunately I told him that during our conversation.

We usually don’t have the opportunity to tell our friends how much we admire and respect them. I am thankful to have been able to tell Marty this collection of words reminded me of him, and he received the compliment with his characteristic good humor.

The outpouring of praise and gratitude for Marty on the web this week is overwhelming, and his former students frequently use even more adjectives to describe Marty’s virtues, such as brilliant, inspirational, passionate, amazing, generous, kind, caring, and ethical. In addition to having all these virtues and more, Marty was always witty and cheerful.

Marty has done so much in so many different fields that most of us know only a small part of everything he accomplished. The tributes flowing in are helping us to see many facets of these accomplishments previously unknown to us.

The transportation profession heaped on Marty every award it could give, sometimes twice. His writing was apparently simple and straightforward, but often what he said had not previously occurred to anyone else.

Marty was an exceptionally gifted teacher, and he has surely done more for young people than anyone else in the field of transportation planning. In addition, I believe that Marty has also done more for older people than anyone else. Although I am older than Marty, I always thought of him as my mentor.

I have had two great mentors in my life, Marty Wachs and Harvey Perloff. Together, they set examples that many of us have tried to follow. As one of Marty’s PhD students said, “When I grow up, I want to be like Marty Wachs.” Those of us who were lucky to work with both Marty Wachs and Harvey Perloff have had the best possible models for lives well lived.

Marty was not only the perfect professor of urban planning, but Marty and Helen were the perfect couple. Marty and Helen, along with their children, Faye and Steve, were the ideal family.

As Mae West said, you only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough. Marty did it right. I am more grateful than I can say that he came into and will always remain a part of my life.

Photos courtesy of Wachs family, UCLA ITS and the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs