Imagineering Sacramento

Not a 747.

Not a 747.

Bites loves some pod cars—can’t get enough of the (mostly hypothetical) transit system of the future, a.k.a. Personal Rapid Transit.

PRT systems feature driverless cars (or pods) that glide along on elevated guideways and allow a single passenger (a group of friends, or two passengers and their bikes) point-to-point service, making any trip on a fraction of the fuel but with all the convenience of a personal car. Or more convenience, since parking is never an issue.

Call it a science-fiction daydream, but Santa Cruz is considering building a waterfront pod-car system. San Jose is taking proposals for a PRT system that would connect its airport to nearby businesses and other transit systems, like Bay Area Rapid Transit. For Masdar City, the state of the art “zero carbon” city being planned in Abu Dhabi, city engineers have made PRT a centerpiece of the new city’s design.

As far as visions for a city go, it beats NBA arenas and trash vaporizers by a mile. So Bites has nurtured a lonely and somewhat unrealistic crush on the pod car.

But then, out of the blue, at the end of a Sacramento City Council meeting on January 13, one Bill James stood up to proposition the council. He wanted to build pod cars! “We could start building these networks here, and change the lifeblood of our economy from oil to innovation.”

Nobody on the council even batted an eye in response to James’ two-minute pitch and 20-page proposal. But Bites caught up with him later, and found out that James is an engineer and former Airborne Ranger. He founded J-Pods about 10 years ago and is one of a very few people working on the problem. “It’s like the computer industry in 1982; there are only about 10 of us out here on the lunatic fringe.”

James says his system would cost about one-fourth of what light rail costs per mile. And, according to his numbers, they are about seven times more energy-efficient per passenger mile than the car. “That’s because you don’t have to move a ton to move a person,” as with the automobile.

James said he could build a one-half-mile demonstration project for a mere $4 million—essentially a very short monorail. “The Wright Brothers invented flight, not 747s,” he explains.

Is the pod car really the right system? Maybe not, but it’s fun to dream about different ways of doing things. We already know a lot about the wrong way to do things.

For example, there are so many wrong ways to build new neighborhoods. Consider Delta Shores, an 800-acre future suburb planned between Meadowview and the town of Freeport. Development plans include 5,000 houses and apartments, and a whopping 1.3 million square feet of retail. That’s more retail than Arden Fair mall.

Environmentalists, residents of the nearby town of Freeport and some council members are asking, “What’s the hurry?” There’s no market yet for all that retail. And some complain that the plan is too 20th century—particularly considering this is the last, biggest piece of developable land in the city. (It’s about four times the size of the downtown railyards.) Critics say there’s too much big-box retail in the plan, and too many suburban-style single-family homes. And overall, they complain it just doesn’t show much imagination for what should be a truly 21st-century development project.

“Is this really planned to be different? Or is this going to be a tweaked version of the stuff we see in Folsom or Elk Grove or anywhere else?” asked Councilman Rob Fong, who ultimately went along with the plan despite his skepticism.

“This is the last frontier of development in the city of Sacramento,” agreed Councilman Kevin McCarty. With the state attorney general breathing down Sacramento’s neck to be more innovative with land use in order to help fight global warming, McCarty says the city is falling short with Delta Shores. “We need to be talking about greatness,” he told Bites. Looks like greatness will have to wait for the next last frontier. With McCarty dissenting, the council voted 8-1 to approve the project.