Wolf Homburger, Former ITS Assistant Director, Lecturer and Author, Dies

July 22, 2010

Wolf Homburger, the former Assistant Director of ITS Berkeley and the author of a widely used textbook on traffic engineering, died June 9 after he was injured in a fall. He was 83.

Homburger joined ITS in 1955 as a junior research engineer. By the time he officially retired in 1990 he was the Institute’s assistant director, and his popular classes along with his textbook, Fundamentals of Traffic Engineering, now in its sixteenth printing, had influenced thousands of students and transportation professionals.

In 1997, the Institute of Transportation Engineers, a national professional organization, honored him with the Wilbur S. Smith Distinguished Transportation Educator Award. The award recognizes those who have made an outstanding contribution to the transportation profession by relating academic studies to the actual practice of transportation.

The citation read in part: “Mention the name Wolfgang S. Homburger to anyone involved in traffic engineering in the state of California and in all probability he or she will have attended one of his classes. Thousand of students have taken his clear and concise lectures on traffic and/or transit design and management.”

The textbook, which grew out of notes he prepared for the courses he taught, and supplemented by contributions from a small group of specialists, became the best-selling book of its kind. Homburger chose to publish it through ITS, and he donated the proceeds, which amounted to well over $200,000 over several decades, to the Institute.

In his 35 years as an ITS research engineer, Homburger taught graduate and undergraduate courses as well as UC Berkeley Extension courses for transportation professionals. He combined teaching with a diverse research agenda, and as the Institute grew he served as assistant director. He lectured in countries around the world, and authored numerous publications and articles. More than 20 years ago he told Bay Area transportation agencies they could save millions of dollars by forming a regional federation and developing a single ticketing operation that would allow riders to travel around the region as if there were only one system. 

Bridging two transportation worlds

“Wolf was one of those people who really bridged two different generations and approaches to the study of transportation. He had that old engineering, gritty, operational approach. He knew and understood transportation in all its nuts and bolts. He knew how many feet from the curb the bus stop should be. But he also was appreciative and encouraging of the newer more theoretical, more mathematical and more abstract approach to analyzing transportation,” recalled former ITS Director Marty Wachs. “That made him very special.”

“Beyond that he was one of the most thoughtful, generous, and caring people I met at the University. I will always remember that he was the first to invite my wife and me to his house right after we arrived in Berkeley,” added Wachs.

“Wolf saw the importance of professionalization,” added former ITS Director Bill Garrison. “He was very proud of his low California traffic engineering license number—he had obtained one of the state’s first licenses—yet modest about his contributions to creating the professional recognition that led to licensing.”

Despite his old-school background, in the mid-Sixties, Homburger pioneered the implementation of computer-based travel analysis models, and he laid the foundation for what later became the ITS-Systems Unit, recalled former ITS Director Adib Kanafani. "He worked with the IBM 1620, which we had in Richmond long before many others."

David Ragland, founding director of the Traffic Safety Center (TSC), now known as the Safe Transportation Research & Education Center (SafeTREC), credits Homburger’s interest in the relationship between public health and traffic safety as the instigation for what eventually became the Traffic Safety Center.

“It’s because of Wolf that we started the Traffic Safety Center,” recalled Ragland, who, as an epidemiologist at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, was conducting studies of stress among Muni bus drivers in the early 1990s. Homburger invited Ragland and his research team to present their findings to an ITS seminar, and later helped Ragland create two courses that continue to this day: one in the School of Public Health, an epidemiology and injury class with a focus on traffic safety, and a traffic safety engineering course in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Five years later, under the sponsorship of then-ITS Director Wachs, the TSC was created as a joint effort between ITS and the School of Public Health. 

“Wolf had the curiosity and the receptiveness to new approaches that made our partnership with ITS possible,” added Ragland, noting that Homburger “continued to follow the TSC, attending a seminar here as recently as last fall.”

After retiring, Homburger had more time to devise new Extension courses. In 1992 he collaborated with two Berkeley faculty members to develop a course on residential street design and traffic control. In the summer of 1992, he helped present a new transit service planning course. He also taught in New Zealand and Australia, tailoring the Fundamentals curriculum to the specific needs of various foreign audiences.

“What keeps me involved is keeping up with a field that changes every day and is so intimately involved in human behavior,” Homburger said in 1992. He was a familiar figure in the halls of McLaughlin as well as a frequent visitor to the fourth floor Transportation Library.

Early life

Homburger was born in Karlsruhe, Germany on Dec. 18, 1926. In 1939, at age 12, he was sent to England as part of the last Kindertransport, a rescue mission that sent thousands of Jewish children to the United Kingdom where they were placed in foster homes to keep them safe during World War II. He spent the war years living with a British family on a farm and attending school at Eastbourne College. He remained in close touch with that family the rest of his life.

As a young man he immigrated to the United States where he was finally reunited with his parents in New York City. He received a Bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering from The Cooper Union in 1950, and a Master’s of Science in Civil Engineering from UC Berkeley in 1951. He was naturalized in 1951 and served in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from 1951 to 1955, working first as a construction and pavement design engineer and later on active duty with stints in Japan and Korea. In May of 1955, Homburger joined the staff of the Institute.

In 1958 Homburger married the late Arlene Levinson, whom he met at an International House alumni event. Both had great affection for I-House and were generous supporters: Homburger’s former resident room, 760, was dedicated in his honor in 2006, while its south patio was named in memory of his late wife.

Besides traffic engineering, he was passionate about music, and he and his wife were committed supporters of Neve Shalom-Wahat al-Salam, a village in Israel where Jewish and Arab families live together in a peace-building effort.

Homburger is survived by his son, Paul, and daughter-in-law, Donna, his daughter, Joanna, and son-in-law Britton Snipes, and five grandchildren, Julian, Chris, Heather, Meghan, and Brianna.

A memorial service will be held on Sunday, June 27 at 2 p.m. in the Chevron Auditorium at the International House.

-Christine Cosgrove