In Memoriam: Martin Wachs, Renowned Transportation Scholar The prolific author and educational leader was an award-winning teacher and caring mentor to generations of urban planners

By Stan Paul

Martin Wachs, distinguished professor of urban planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, died unexpectedly April 12 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 79.

“Marty Wachs was mentor to an entire generation of urban planners and urban planning scholars and a cherished friend of many of the Luskin faculty,” wrote Dean Gary Segura in a memo about Wachs’ passing to the Luskin School community.

Throughout his five decades of service to the University of California — which included teaching and serving in top research and leadership posts at both UCLA and UC Berkeley — Wachs earned a reputation as a world-class scholar and expert in the field of transportation planning. He garnered numerous accolades and academic awards.

Wachs was a prolific author, writing and collaborating on more than 160 articles and four books on relationships between transportation, land use and air quality, and the use of performance measurement in transportation planning. He also was interested in many related aspects and social issues, including professional ethics, aging, the environment and finance.

He came to UCLA in 1971 as an associate professor in a newly founded Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning, and Wachs was widely known as an outstanding teacher and caring mentor. In the wake of his death, numerous colleagues, former students and friends have shared memories and tributes that will be collected on a page of remembrances over the coming weeks.

Among one generation of planners influenced directly by Wachs is Brian Taylor, who studied under Wachs as an urban planning doctoral student at UCLA Luskin.

“The number of students who studied under Marty is legion,” said Taylor, professor of public policy and urban planning at the Luskin School and director of the Institute of Transportation Studies, which was founded by Wachs. “It’s just a veritable who’s who in the area of transportation policy and planning.”

Wachs’ dedication to students and colleagues included supporting their work and aspirations before, during and long after their studies.

“He was a mentor to people who did and did not study with him,” Taylor recalled. “He’s the person that we went to … late in our careers for advice about things.”

“He clearly enjoyed the role of teacher,” said Chris Tilly, professor and current chair of urban planning at UCLA. “I can’t think of how many times I walked past his office and heard him listen carefully, then offer thoughtful advice to a student, whether an undergrad, a [master’s of urban and regional planning], or a Ph.D. student — not your typical emeritus.” 

Tilly also described Wachs as an “influential person who built institutions, organized things and people, and made change. He did much to build our department. We have all lost someone who greatly enriched our lives.”

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, distinguished professor of urban planning and the former chair of urban planning, said, “Marty was a giant in the field of transportation, someone who early on set the stage for the advancement of transportation planning and policy and who kept contributing to it till now.” She added, “For me, Marty was also an inspiring mentor and role model, a trusted friend, and a wonderful colleague and collaborator. I will miss him dearly.”

At the time of his death, Wachs was collaborating and consulting with colleagues on research, working on papers, actively mentoring students and looking forward to attending a socially distanced game of his beloved L.A. Dodgers, said Taylor, noting that Wachs was also a longtime UCLA basketball season ticketholder.

Taylor described Wachs as a first-class scholar, an exemplary teacher and a caring person. “He was an extraordinarily kind and generous person. … That’s just who he was. He was a true mensch.”

Wachs was deeply committed to public service and over his career served on advisory boards and commissions at the local, state and national levels, including the South Coast Air Quality Management District and the U.S. Department of Transportation. He was a member of professional and honorary societies and served on editorial boards for transportation and planning journals and publications.

In a 2006 tribute to Wachs at his retirement from the University of California, Robert Cervero, a former UCLA urban planning doctoral student and now professor emeritus of City & Regional Planning at UC Berkeley wrote: “I had the privilege of being around Marty as a student and colleague over the past 30 years. It is an unspoken truth by those in the transportation planning academy that Marty is the gold standard on how to be a professor — sharp, decisive and demanding, yet warm, caring and approachable. His profound and lasting influence on the field and today’s generation of transportation planning professionals and scholars is unparalleled.”

In 2000, he served as chair of the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. He retired from the University of California in 2006 and later, in 2010, stepped down from a role as senior principal researcher and director of the Transportation, Space and Technology Program at Rand Corp. in Santa Monica.

More recently, Wachs was a member of the California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group and, in 2016, he was chosen to serve as chair of a design commission for the famed “gateway to New York,” the Port Authority Bus Terminal of New York.

His honors included a Guggenheim Fellowship, two Rockefeller Foundation Humanities Fellowships, a UCLA Alumni Association Distinguished Teaching Award, the Pyke Johnson Award (twice, four decades apart) for the best paper presented at an annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board and the Carey Award for service to that board. He also was named a Distinguished Planning Educator, the highest honor the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning bestows on a faculty member.

Prior to coming to UCLA, Wachs was an assistant professor in civil engineering at Northwestern University and an assistant professor in systems engineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He earned his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from City University of New York in 1963, followed by master’s and doctoral degrees in civil engineering from Northwestern University in 1965 and 1967, respectively.

Wachs also served as a U.S. Army captain. 

He is survived by his wife, Helen; daughter, Faye Wachs; son, Steven Wachs; son-in-law, Navid Ardakani; daughter-in-law, Shirley Tse-Wachs; grandson, Ziya; and granddaughter, Leia.

An online memorial service was held Thursday, April 15, 2021.

In lieu of flowers or gifts, Wachs’ family has requested that those interested in making a donation contribute to the Urban Planning Professors Emeriti Fund, specifying that the gift is being made in his memory. Proceeds from this fund support the Martin Wachs Fellowship in Transportation, which provides financial assistance to promising students studying transportation policy and planning at UCLA.

Gifts can also be made by check payable to the UCLA Foundation. Please include “Fund #90695Q” in the memo field and send the donation to the UCLA Foundation, P.O. Box 7145, Pasadena, CA 91109. 

The Wachs family also encourages gifts to be made in Marty’s memory to other causes or charities of importance to individual donors.

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