Farewell Marty Wachs

Marty Wach left us a few week ago, and I hardly need to add my voice to the many, many students and colleagues who were much closer to him than I was. But I am going to.   He is a huge loss, and very unexpected. He has been so active in things here in California for so long, right up to the end, that I think everybody is walking around shocked as well as sad. I didn’t know Marty dreadfully well—we never overlapped anywhere, weirdly enough for all the time I’ve spent in CA—but he was warm and lovely. He was at Berkeley when I was at UCLA, and only returned to UCLA once I left.  I think one reason we seldom interacted was how similar we were—if a committee had Marty appointed to it, they didn’t usually reach out to me, too, and he was very generous with his time with public agencies, so we seldom saw each other. 

Marty genuinely believed in good policy, and you would think that should go without saying in a public affairs scholar, but it doesn’t. He was intellectually rigorous and extremely generous. Even though we didn’t know each other well, he always had time for me, and I suspect that many others can say the same thing.

When I was an arrogant punk grad student, I discounted the old dudes for the most part–and I had some pretty good reasons for doing so (so, so many old white guys telling me “justice is a fuzzy concept, nobody knows what it means, it’s a waste of time, etc”). Marty never did that (nobody at UCLA did that, bless them), and I remember the exact moment that I began to take Marty really, really seriously, not just as an established scholar and kindly man, but as a thinker about topics I cared about.

It was some Metro-sponsored meeting about their rail stuff, and Marty was on panel about futures, and he kept coming back to the past. He pointed out that Metro had made a lot of promises to south LA when they built the Blue Line decades earlier. (It is now the A Line.). At the time, Metro was a relatively newly merged agency seeking to establish its usefulness in managing a rail construction program, and South LA had just had the uprising following the Rodney King verdict. The Blue Line would brings job, opportunities, development….they said. Welp, the region and Metro got its rail line, which is an amenity, certainly, but not much of the other things that planners like to trot out to impoverished people as promises.

Marty said in that meeting, 18 years later:
We need to deliver to south LA what we promised to south LA. We need to make good on that.”

The world slowed down a bit as I realized: everybody in the room thinks he is being quixotic–an academic. But he’s right. The idea that planning should be expected, as a matter of course, to deliver on what it promises even it takes a long time was important to me then, and it still is now. Marty wasn’t a fool; he later in the day said something about how one reason he loved to study technology is because, unlike like structures and institutions, technologies actually change (also insightful.) The idea that the guy would use his position–his basically untouchable position (because by then he was already a giant)–to say the inconvenient thing, instead of the thing that promoted himself, to remind people in the room of the harms done when those people thought the harms and broken promises where safely past–was exactly the point of becoming untouchable as an academic in the first place.

He was so loved–his wife and kids along with legions of devoted students and colleagues. That’s a life well-lived.

Marty has a huge cv of wonderful work, but my favorites are his work on LA sprawl and the streetcars and some work he did on air quality and governance (in part because it get right at the heart of the question about planning delivering on promises):

Wachs, M. (1984) Autos, Transit, and the Sprawl of Los Angeles: The 1920s, Journal of the American Planning Association, 50:3, 297-310, DOI: 10.1080/01944368408976597

Wach, M. and J. Dill. (1999) “Transportation and Air Quality: History, Interpretation, and Insights for Regional Governance in Transportation and Air Quality: History, Interpretation, and Insights for Regional Governance” in Transportation Research Board and National Research Council. 1999. Governance and Opportunity in Metropolitan America. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/6038 . pp. 296-323.

A selection of obituaries from around the web:

UCLA ITS Obituary

UCLA Luskin’ Memorium