Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpCounty board members who balked at spending $350 million on a Columbia Pike streetcar have not—in the 13 months since dropping that bombshell—settled on an alternative traffic cure.

Ideas like fancier bus rapid transit still percolate as the board prepares to swear in two new members. Enter one private entrepreneur who thinks he has the solution.

Bill James, a Minneapolis-based West Point graduate who crusades to wean the U.S. off of oil, ventured to Arlington this fall to promote JPods. His brainchild is a personalized transit system elevated over a car-packed roadway with air-gondola-like pods suspended from rafters.

As James told a Columbia Heights Civic Association gathering this fall, the light-weight JPods are privately funded, operate with solar panels (no carbon!), move steadily and quickly, and eliminate need for special roadway lanes or digging to install streetcar tracks. The county would collect 5 percent of revenues.

Several hundred such JPods in our county could carry cargo as well as people, he enthuses. You and family or friends—no mingling with annoying strangers–board your own pod, press a button and then zip to the destination without irrelevant stops. “It’s a circulatory system for an economic community,” James says. “We can power Arlington’s mobility with Arlington’s sunshine.”

An antecedent of JPod was installed in Morgantown, W.Va., in 1975, James reports. It has thrived with no injuries while 1.6 million Americans since then have died on highways.

Designed in 1999 and patented by James in 2004, JPod’s computerized packets have been tested recently in such places as Ottawa, Poughkeepsie, Boston and San Jose. His company won over the town of Secaucus, N.J., though the state Transportation Department has blocked his contract. James has a tentative deal to bring JPods to Anshan, China.

My question would be—is this amusement-park-like spectacle an eyesore?

Funny I mention it. James says theme parks are one model “that solved the ground-clutter problem. They are ideal cities designed around pedestrians” built to that industry’s international safety standards, which are “more innovative and safer than Transportation Department standards,” he says.

James’s aversion to U.S. oil dependency in the late 1990s peaked his interest in the low-energy-use, above-the-street transport worthy of the Jetsons. “In freight rail, we can move a ton on average at 476 miles per gallon, so why are we moving a person at 18 miles per gallon?” he asks.

If people view JPods as an eyesore, he’d build elsewhere, “but most people think they’re quite pretty,” James says.

The 100 Pike residents and neighboring suburbanites who heard James’s spiel Sept. 28 displayed mixed feelings, according to Sarah McKinley, the civic association’s past president. “Some came totally opposed from the get-go” but others were enthusiastic about the option environmentally. Some prefer a simpler solution such as more ART buses, declaring “This is an amusement park ride, not real transportation,” she says. “But have they no imagination?”

County staff are aware of the JPods push as they update the broader transportation plan in the context of countywide bus service, said Environmental Services Department spokesman Eric Balliet. But officials can’t respond to James without more “detailed technical or cost information.”

For James, that’s the county “making us jump through another hoop.” He can’t give specs or more studies, he says, until Arlington goes first and creates rules under which JPods would operate.

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County curiosity: One of Arlington’s most famous neighborhoods does not have its own civic association.

Residents of elegant County Club Hills, our only formalized area whose name could title a chapter in a sociology text, have never banded together like the other 81 associations.

Homeowners near the club who get jazzed up by a local issue, I’m told by Arlington Civic Federation veterans, participate in the nearby Gulf Branch and Old Glebe associations.

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