BRT Improving the Environment

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.”

“This wasn’t very fast,” he admits, “but it was an innovation, a technological innovation, rather than having to walk or ride a horse or something.”
In a slow, soft manner he stresses, “It’s important to understand that there’s always this continuum of improvement.

“The whole thing was convenience, speed, safety... You know, whether it’s 1891,” he stops, breaking off in a laugh and explains the relation to the present.

“We started with a decrepit system in 1970… we were created as a public entity and we had debt, old equipment. It literally took us probably 15-20 years to really rebuild the system.”

Pangborn says it always goes back to what the customer needs. “What is the customer looking for out of the system? Then you take technology, whatever that is, and you apply it.” In 1891 it was a mule-drawn rail car. In 2006 it was bus rapid transit (BRT).

Developing a New Form of Transit
Of course BRT wasn’t an overnight answer. It was in the early ‘90s that the wheels started turning.

Pangborn remembers, “We had a board member [Ron Bennett] who said to us, ‘You guys are doing a great job. Man, I’m really impressed. You’ve got a lot of service, you’ve got a lot of ridership, you’re doing some innovative stuff. Where are you going to be in 20 years? You just told me you’re getting more traffic, the buses are slowing down in traffic, you’re having to spend more money just to keep your headways and stuff, are you going to be in any different of a place in 20 years?’”

LTD needed to determine where it would be in 20 years and it knew the next step forward was light rail. It was about the time that Portland started its first rail line. “There’s no way we could afford that,” Pangborn asserts. He says Bennett’s reaction was, “That’s it? There’s no other option?

“Right about that time is when the Scientific American article came out about Curitiba, Brazil,” he says. “They knew about light rail but they couldn’t afford it. They created these arterials and they actually designed their own double articulated buses… there’s a whole new way of moving this massive amount of people on this system.”

LTD started a dialogue about the concept of light rail on rubber tires, looking at the amenities that make light rail so attractive and efficient. “Curitiba had done it. It was right there,” Pangborn stresses as his inflection rises.

With the high cost of rail, Pangborn says Gordon Linton, FTA administrator at the time, was very attracted to a possible, less expensive alternative.

“We started talking to the FTA, we started talking to the state, we started talking to the local community,” he says. This led to the bus vs. rail discussion that occurs in many communities.

“There were still people in the local community who said, ‘We don’t want to do that’,” Pangborn explains, taking the voice of those people. “‘Oh no. That’s just a warmed-over version of bus stuff. We want to have light rail’.”

At the beginning LTD looked at the cost of light rail. “The numbers were just so glaringly obvious,” he says. “$30 million, $50 million a mile. I mean, who’s going to pay for that?”

Forging ahead along the BRT path, the local congressman, Congressman Peter DeFazio, was onboard with the plan and was able to obtain 5309 funding to start planning the first corridor.

The first corridor is a four-mile stretch between downtown Springfield and downtown Eugene — LTD’s busiest route. “In a sense it created this backbone of a system between the two and then we run radial systems out of both ends of that,” Pangborn says. “From a political point of view, it started out buying-in both communities. You had Springfield part of it and you had Eugene, so they’re both getting BRT and then you can build off either end of it in terms of the systems.” Two more corridors are in the works for the BRT line. The second corridor, running in Springfield, is in the design stage and the third corridor, to be in Eugene, is in the planning process.

Exclusive right-of-way was an integral part of this new service. Whether traffic gets worse, there’s an accident, no matter what happens, the headways won’t be controlled by what’s on the road if it has its own dedicated lane. Pangborn stresses, “What you’re selling with BRT is speed and convenience.
“We’re going to have a product over here that guarantees that it won’t become more congested: that, in fact, would take 16 minutes to get between the two downtown stations now, will take 16 minutes 10 years from now.” He adds, “This is the brilliance that our board member Rob Bennett saw way back, 12 years ago.”

EmX has sensors in the ground for signal priority and works with block signaling. “In much of the corridor we have a single lane,” he explains. “It signals two sets of lights, one is the traffic light that says ‘I’m here, ready to go’. It also signals to the other end of that block that if we have another vehicle coming the other direction, it says, ‘Hold up, you have got to stay’.”

The block signaling is part of traffic signals. Pangborn mentions that both Eugene and Springfield have the same company. “So luckily for us it works the same way.

“It was really fascinating because we could get them on a cell phone, and as we were doing that training with the drivers, we would say, ‘You know, is there any way you could squeeze another second because we have to go too fast to get through, just give us another second’,” he says. “So he got on the computer and he would adjust the phasing.”

There are four vehicles running at a time, two in each direction. The EmX vehicles leave the stations a minute before the buses, so it is ahead of all the other buses that are pulling out, kind of a que jump.

“You’ve got to beat them on speed,” he emphasizes, striking his fist on the table. “Everything we did on that corridor, starting with exclusive right-of-way was for speed. You have signal priority so you don’t get stuck in everything. Then you have raised platforms so that you can have level boardings. It’s really convenient to get on and off, no lifts going up and down. We’re eventually going to have prepaid fares. The system is free now, but we will have prepaid fares so you don’t have to have that barrier where you have to go by the driver. You just get on and off and you make it fast.”

Funding this New Service
The payroll tax has been a key component in the building of EmX. Pangborn explains, “Portland and Eugene operate off a payroll tax. The payroll tax is essentially, every employer, they pay a thousand dollars to their employees’ salary, they are taxed an additional $6.20 or so, which then goes to pay for public transit. It’s a very unique source.”

He elaborates, “Salem and Medford operate off of property tax. The thing with the payroll tax, it’s indexed to the economy so the good news is; the population grows as salary goes up.

“There’s a property tax limitation in Oregon of essentially 3 percent. Costs grow at least 6 percent a year and so you’re always losing money on an annual basis.”

During the ‘90s the economy grew at a much greater rate than LTD. “We knew the ‘90s were going to be over so we took some of that excess revenue and we put it into a reserve fund for EmX, for the 20 percent federal match,” Pangborn says. “When we built the first corridor, we had the match. When we built, getting ready to build the second corridor, we had the match.” He emphasizes, “We don’t have match for the third corridor.

“When we started out planning, it was before there was even Small Starts,” Pangborn says. “We had been on this BRT Committee and urging FTA and Congress to look at, with SAFETEA-LU reauthorization, something that would provide some sort of set funding for BRT.

“And they did,” he emphasizes. “They set aside $200 million out of the New Starts money.” The next obstacle he mentioned was that there were no rules. “There are interim rules now, but the final rules are not coming out until next year.”

Preparing for a process that doesn’t quite have the rules hashed out creates an obstacle. LTD wanted to be at the front, before a wave of applications came in once people knew what was happening. “So we said, ‘Well, the worst it could be was that they could say you have to do it like New Starts, which is very complicated’,” says Pangborn. “Probably doesn’t make sense, but if we learned how to do New Starts, we would be ahead of the game for Small Starts.” And that’s just what it did.

LTD started running Summit Software, started putting in the numbers and refining it so by the time New Starts rolled around, it was ready. It had the numbers. It had what was needed. “They didn’t require as much as we had done,” Pangborn reveals, “but we were prepared so whatever they had asked for, we could have provided.

“The reason we got funded was we were prepared,” he continues. “We knew where we wanted to go; we had taken care of all of the planning steps so the FTA could look at it and say, ‘yeah, these guys are ready.’

“It was really trailblazing for the United States and for the FTA,” he says. “We hadn’t done it before in quite this way. We were combining exclusive right-of-way and signal prioritization.”

Finding the Right Vehicle
One piece missing from the puzzle was the vehicle. “There were no vehicles in the United States we were looking for,” Pangborn declares. “We wanted a new, futuristic-looking vehicle. There was nothing. Bread boxes on wheels. That’s what you had out there.” LTD was looking for an innovative vehicle to run on this innovative corridor. It knew if there was an ordinary-looking bus coming down the road; it would look like the ordinary service.

Working with the FTA and several other properties in the United States, it talked to the bus manufacturers about developing a new type of vehicle. “We said, ‘guys, we need a new bus,’” Pangborn says. “They said, ‘Oh boy, the market’s tough, there’s a lot of R&D, these things are really, we just can’t go there’.” So LTD started looking in Europe.

“Suddenly the Civis started coming in with that slick look and stuff and people started looking and going, ‘Ah, I see what you’re talking about. This is different, I get you’,” Pangborn states. “At that point, the Euro switched. When the Euro came in it was like 80 cents to the dollar and in that period of time, when we were all going through the planning process and urging a kind of redesign in the vehicle, the Euro flipped up to a buck twenty to the dollar so the vehicles became prohibitively expensive.”

It was about this time that Cleveland, Ohio, was looking at going with BRT and it wanted a new vehicle too. With Cleveland needing 21 vehicles and LTD looking at five or six, they decided to approach the American manufacturers together. “We each put a bid out, but it was at the same time,” Pangborn says. “New Flyer stepped forward and said, ‘We’re interested in doing this’.

“The one thing that we wanted, well, we wanted a lot of things, but we wanted this new, slick look, we wanted an articulated vehicle, we wanted one that was as ‘green’ as possible in terms of technology, and we wanted doors on both sides. That was really key,” Pangborn states.

Adjusting to a New Service
This new type of service took a bit of getting used to in the community. Pangborn mentions a story that illustrates the difference of this new service. “We had a father with two young children and he said, ‘Well, I’ll take them on the BRT’.

“Well this guy thought he was still on our old system,” he says. Being used to the old service where you can take your time gathering your items before getting off the bus, this guy learned it was different on EmX. “He takes his two kids, puts them on the platform. Goes back on the bus to get his stroller that he had left there, the doors close, the bus takes off.

“He runs up, people are screaming, yelling,” he explains. “So for four days we were on the front page of the RG [The Register-Guard] about how could we be so stupid. Of course, then, letters to the editor, how could the father be so stupid?

“The good news was we handled it right. Everything was OK; nobody got hurt.” He emphasizes, “It really demonstrated to everybody, this is a different product. It’s not the same old bus system anymore.”

With this unique type of service, management had wanted to do a self-selection interview type of process to find drivers. He says with a laugh, “And the union said nope, that’s not seniority. We do it all by seniority.

“So we said, ‘OK, how can we make this work with seniority’,” Pangborn says. Each EmX driver spent 80 hours on training to learn how to drive this service. With different docking, higher speed and efficiency and signal priority, there were little tricks as to how the system works better. “We don’t want to have to go through every bid having to do that again,” he stresses.

“So we said, ‘If we’re going to do this by seniority, we’re going to require that you bid it and that you stay on it at least for nine months and then we’ll see how it works out’,” he explains. “What we agreed is to pay a premium not for driving the service, but for giving up your bidding rights.”

Pangborn mentions that there are some riders and drivers that prefer the traditional system’s slower pace. Some riders prefer taking their time, chatting with the driver during the ride. Some drivers prefer the traditional routes as well. “There are some drivers that love that [the new service] and there are others that go, ‘Give me a root canal without the anesthetic’,” he says with a laugh. “They like the interaction. ‘Hi Mrs. Jones. Did your daughter come down for Mother’s Day? Did you have a good time?’ And they like it a little looser. If you take an extra five seconds until Mrs. Jones sits down it’s OK because you can pick it up somewhere else.

“This is doors close and off we go,” he emphasizes.

He reflects for a moment on his personal experience with the systems’ differences. “When I ride it, there’s been a little bit of a sense of loss on it, but this is what our community needs, particularly if you look at global warming and sustainability.” He adds, “If we had one bus carrying 30 people every 15 minutes and we can now have a bus carrying 40 people every 10 minutes, what have we done in reducing the carbon load and carbon footprint in terms of global warming? This is what we need. We really have to have a system that’s convenient enough that people will make that choice and say, I’ll do that.”

Getting People on Transit
“Ridership has been great,” Pangborn says with a large smile. “We all had our fingers crossed. It jumped up the first week, but it has steadily built every week except when school was out because it goes right by the University of Oregon.” LTD is running more than a 50 percent increase in ridership compared with what it had before.

This new service has sparked more ridership with the regular fixed-route service. “We’ve had to add extra service to that,” Pangborn states. “It was only 15-minute service and we’re adding extra buses in the afternoon because more people are riding with a transfer.” He adds, “That’s counterintuitive. It must be something about this that is working.”

As Vobora and I ride from the office to downtown Eugene on the EmX, there were two bicyclists onboard and most of the seats were full. Vobora mentions that the seating capacity is about 38 and standing brings capacity to about 100. Due to the left-hand doors, you lose a lot of seating, but that doesn’t affect most riders, as most trips are fairly short with people hopping on and off as we ride.

For the time, riding on EmX is free. “There’s a couple of things happening here and this really made sense for us to make it free,” Pangborn states. “We’re assuming 2010 this Springfield section will open and as we add that, then we would add fares at that time.”

Many people ride the traditional bus service to the Springfield or Eugene station, then ride EmX to their final destination. Many riders are from the University of Oregon or Sacred Heart Medical Center and they are already group pass holders. Pangborn adds, “So we said, well, let’s make it free because people have paid in one way or another.

“The other piece is the fare technology. It’s evolving so quickly that you know, it’s kind of like computers. What was a hundred thousand dollar machine two years ago is now a 50 thousand dollar machine that does more.”

LTD’s group pass was an idea it got from the University of California at Santa Barbara, Pangborn says. “They needed a way to move people around so they came up with this group pass.” So LTD approached the University of Oregon.

“At that time we had really simple drop boxes for fareboxes so we said we can’t do registering. We can’t keep track of who rides and who doesn’t.” Pangborn explains, “We said, ‘we’ll tell you what we can do. We have a fairly good idea of how many students are riding and, therefore, what they’re paying for fares. We’ll take that amount of money plus what we think is going to be an extra cost to provide more service. We’ll add that into it and we’ll essentially divide it by the number of students and say that’s what it’s going to cost each student per quarter or per term to have their student body card function as a pass.’

“Revenue neutral is what we were trying to get,” he says. “It’s seriously discounted and ridership jumped,” he stresses.

There are now more than 40 businesses that participate in the group pass program. That equates to more than 40,000 people in the community with a group pass in their hands. “You can be as small as five employees or as many as, at the University of Oregon, 25,000, 28,000.” He adds that businesses have realized if they provide the pass as a benefit to the employees, they might be able to get a couple more people. And it always goes back to the environment. “Back to this global warming, this eco-kind-of-sense, this carbon footprint, they’re going ‘wow, if we could just get one person to ride the bus’.”

More than EmX
As I walk outside the office and around the grounds, it’s not like other agencies I’ve visited. Many transit agency buildings I’ve seen look pretty similar to each other, some bushes and shrubs outside the entrance, maybe some flowers. This facility is stunning with beautiful foliage and flowers adorning the landscape. When you step inside the main office there is a courtyard in the center of the building with more plants, flowers and water. Just like with EmX, the attention to detail is apparent.

Pangborn mentions that it was really the doing of a previous general manager, Phyllis Loobey. “When we built it [the new facility] we were able to get federal match and we had local funds. We put it together and some people wanted to call it the Taj Mahal. If you look across the street, there’s a Butler Pole building. I think some people said why don’t you build a building like that?”

He mentions that Loobey was quoted in the paper saying we don’t build ugly. Pangborn says, “Some people have this idea of public service, it’s supposed to be cheap, it’s supposed to be crummy. Then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.” He adds with a touch of humor, “But then you build a nice [facility] and, ‘Well, who do they think they are using my tax dollars to build this Taj Mahal?’”

There are various ways they have saved power; they are also aware of other valuable resources. A possibility for the near future is xeriscaping; taking the native vegetation that requires minimal maintenance. “It’s basically because the critical resources that we’re really going to be very worried about immediately are water and power,” Pangborn states. “Probably remove the lawn and put vegetation in that is native to Oregon so that it can live, or maybe more drought-resistant because we may have less water and less rain.

“Over time we will change that. It’s back to that 1 percent,” he says. “You do it slowly. You do it in a way that makes sense.”

He seems to switch topics a bit, going from the landscape to his office, his old office before the current building was built. It all relates back to using the resources you have to the best ability. Describing his old office he says with a laugh, “I mean, you barely would fit in the two of us.” He says about his current office, “This is really a luxury and you know what, in five years we may have to convert this to an office that holds three or four people in it, if we’re lucky enough to have the funding to do that, and I move to the next office next door.

“That’s OK,” he says. “I’ve been in big offices and small offices and this is nice. I can put up my artwork and whatever but that’s not why we’re here.”
Pangborn sums it up by saying that they’ve been lucky in a lot of ways. “A community that’s supportive in terms of really understanding where we’re going.” He adds, “I mean it’s not all Pollyana. We’ve had people who’ve said Eugene doesn’t need a BRT.

“That’s healthy, that’s the dialogue that goes on in communities. But for the most part, we’ve had a business community and a funding source that has supported transit.” He adds, “We’ve had a board that’s been supportive and forward-looking. Staff that is really committed — top professionals — could have gone anywhere else in the United States and [they] chose to stay here and live here. It’s just been a really unique combination.

“And a lot of hard work,” he adds. “For me, that’s the message. It can happen. But it takes a lot of pieces to come together. It takes a community really, to build a successful system like this. We’ve had that community so it’s worked out well.

“I think BRT is one of those grand slam home runs,” he says. “You get there with these 1 percent improvements, you know, to finally solve anything.”