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At 79, a Grad Student Who Is Tackling Transit Problems

In most ways, Ralph Montview is a typical graduate student. On a recent weekday, he looked tired after a late night of proofing his master’s thesis, “Elements for Design of a Public Transit System.” His apartment in Anaheim, Calif., was messy, with books and papers piled on every available surface.

He even jokingly insinuated that he drinks like a graduate student. He offered a glass of water but took none for himself, saying, “I drink only vodka.”

But Montview is an atypical graduate student in that he is 79 years old.

In fact, Montview is atypical, period, and not just because his experiences have been varied and at times extraordinarily difficult. Montview’s life has been marked by concern for the environment, as well as an intense desire for knowledge and education.

He was born in 1930 in Siedlce, a small city east of Warsaw, Poland. Montview lost his family in the Holocaust. He didn’t want to talk in detail about his wartime experiences, but he did say that he had lived for years on the streets, in a state of fear and near-starvation, clothed in shmattes, or rags.

After the war, Montview made his way to a camp for displaced children in Lindenfels, Germany. Hungry to learn, he joined a makeshift school. “There were no professional teachers,” he said. “And there were two or three books for all of us. We would read them aloud to each other.”

In 1948, Montview immigrated to Israel, where he served in the military, and later as a youth counselor in Beersheva. He eventually trained as a draftsman and worked for architects. He also was an archivist for the Israeli housing ministry.

“I learned about plumbing, electricity, building,” he said. “Whatever I could acquire, I did.”

But most of this study he did independently. In Israel it was difficult, he said, to find ways to formally complete his studies. Seeking more opportunities, Montview immigrated to the United States in 1963. A year later, he got his GED, and eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the City College of New York.

That degree led Montview to work in the aerospace industry in Orange County, Calif., until 1990, when he retired.

In 1999, while recovering from bypass surgery, he relied on public transportation, which he found “ailing” and “a disappointment.”

“I was overwhelmed by the lack of planning,” he said. “It’s not people-oriented.”

Although he had a number of ideas about how to improve it, without an advanced degree, he couldn’t get anyone to pay attention. So in 2006, Montview began a master’s degree program in civil and environmental engineering at California State University, Fullerton.

In focusing on public transportation in Orange County, Montview could not have picked a better place — “better” being a relative term. Although people associate traffic with neighboring Los Angeles, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority has been expanding its subway and bus service.

Meanwhile, budget problems have led the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) to scrap a light-rail transit plan, to reduce service on dozens of bus routes and to eliminate late-night routes used by workers on the graveyard shift.

These cuts have complicated the commute of Orange County’s working poor and have kept people reliant on cars, contributing to air pollution.

Although Southern California has made great strides in recent decades in improving air quality, the air in Orange County is consistently ranked among the nation’s worst.

While the OCTA is investigating building a $178.8 million monorail through Anaheim, the primary goal of the new line is not to ease congestion and help low-income people get to work, but to connect Disneyland to Angel Stadium.

So, Montview said, he set about creating a plan “not for business but for people.” His thesis outlines a proposal to improve public transportation systems by basing them on the needs of commuters. His idea involves a year-long survey to collect data on individual journeys. This data could then be graphed to show areas of potential congestion.

The survey results would be used to design a “trunk-branch” system of public transportation — a line along a “major traffic artery” with branches serving peripheral streets or neighborhoods. The beauty of the system is its flexibility. Although Montview would like to see subways in Orange County, the trunk-branch system could be used with any combination of transit methods, including existing buses and rail routes.

“Subways would do a great deal for clean air,” he said. “But we don’t have to get rid of what he have, even cars. It’s about diversifying.”

It is difficult to say whether Montview’s plan will attract the attention of the relevant authorities. Nevertheless, Montview has been noticed. Each year, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, which facilitates educational opportunities for older learners, honors a senior-age student who has demonstrated intellectual excellence in a university environment. Montview is the recipient of the 2010 Graduate Award.

Montview said that he will “cherish” the award. But his greater desire is to see his research have a positive impact on the environment.

“The environment has interested me my entire life,” he said. “My upbringing, my parents, made me sensitive to the Jewish point of view about the environment. My experiences in the war and years after supported this feeling: respecting vegetation, the trees; how to respect the flora and fauna and how to be kind to animals.”

“Even a little bird,” he said, cupping his hands, “has a neshama,” or soul.

Gordon Haber is a frequent contributor to the Forward.

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