Mark Pangborn believes in kaizen. The Japanese define kaizen as continuous improvement. It is the well-known concept several car manufacturers have adopted to improve productivity and efficiency in its production systems. Pangborn brings the concept to his position as general manager of Lane Transit District (LTD) in Eugene, Ore: “Whether you’re a mechanic or an operator, bus cleaner or general manager, there’s always somewhere out there you can improve what you’re doing. Sometimes it’s technology that comes in and adds a new innovation. Sometimes it’s just how you organize your work.”
He’s surrounded by his collection of art from around the world: the sash for an obi, a batik print from Indonesia, a Northwest Coast Indian print, even the tie he was wearing that he got as a gift during an Eno Tour to Western Europe. His appreciation of other cultures and the awareness of U.S. privileges are conspicuous. “You forget the privilege of our country is so extraordinary in relationship to the vast majority of the world,” he says as he sips his tea. This cognizance ties in with his affinity for public service.
With a father who worked for the Veteran’s Administration and a mother who was a public school teacher, Pangborn considers public service a high calling. Regarding his family background in public service and his own position he says, “I can’t feel more fortunate to be in this position. it’s just a critical service.” It’s clear from the moment I sit down in his office, it’s not just about buses and routes to him, it’s about what we all can do to make this world a better place to live in and how transit is an integral part of that.
Finding a Place at LTD
Pangborn grew up in Seattle, went to school in Massachusettes, and then came back to live and work in his home town. After working for the mayor on a program called the Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA) for some time, it was time to explore. He says, “My wife and I decided, golly, we don’t have any obligations, we don’t own a house or anything, so we said let’s travel.”
After about three years of travel, they moved back to the states. “It was quite literally, we got in our car and drove around. We heard Eugene was a nice place so we got here and looked at it and said, this is nice.” At LTD he started as a department director, essentially in charge of planning, marketing and finance. “Really did that all the way up until, well I’ve had this job about a year and a half now,” he remarks.
“I did a whole different variety of things and grew with the system and learned about it,” he explains. “When I came here I didn’t know anything about transit other than having been a user.
“My kids used to ask me when I was an assistant, ‘What do you do dad? Do you drive the bus?’ No. ‘Do you fix the bus?’ No.” Chuckling he says, “I finally said I sign checks and papers. It’s pretty ephemeral in some ways.”
He thinks for a moment, searching for another way to define his job: “Obviously I have some kind of role in trying to coordinate and to make systems work but it’s what everybody else does.”
Providing What the Customer Wants
When I talked to Andy Vobora, director of service planning, accessibility and marketing at LTD, he mentions Pangborn’s ability to relay history and how he seems to know a bit about everything. Maybe it’s Pangborn’s appreciation of history that makes him realize the importance of passing that information along. Just as he presents the background history of transit in the area to new staff members, he passes the information on to me to give me a better understanding of the area.
“In 1891 we had our first public transit here. There it is,” he says proudly as he points to an old sepia-toned photograph of a mule-drawn rail car. “This mule car would go from the train station south and out to the University of Oregon. The U of O at the time was way out in the country. It was surrounded by farms and they didn’t have any boardwalks or graveled streets so it was muddy to get out there.”