Air taxis could have profound implications for how people move, live, and work. Will they exacerbate socioeconomic divisions, or create opportunities and strengthen connections? Photo: MVRDV
Just about every company working on electric air taxis boldly proclaims its mission as tackling urban congestion and reclaiming commuters’ time, or more broadly — and vaguely — enabling cheaper, safer access to vertical space for the socioeconomic and environmental benefit of communities.
Uber Elevate: “Just as skyscrapers allowed cities to use limited land more efficiently, Uber Air would take to the sky to alleviate congestion on the ground.”
Joby Aviation: “Our mission is to deliver an elevated perspective on mobility that prioritizes the health of our cities and the value of your time.” (The company used to say “we want to save a billion people an hour a day.”)
Hyundai Motor Group describes its investment in urban air mobility as part of an “integrated mobility solution to address the ever-increasing traffic congestion in megacities around the world.”
Bell on its Nexus air taxi: “The safe, convenient Air Taxi is designed to let you make the most of your commute … urban air mobility acts as a significant puzzle piece in the future of city travel.”
In the last twenty years, U.S. metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, Dallas, New York City, Seattle and many others have seen continuous growth in communities further and further away from their urban centers, pared with a rapid increase in super-commuters who often travel more than an hour each direction to work.
This is a complicated problem with many interconnected parts, but one air taxi startups hope to impact through affordable access to third-dimension travel at more than 150 mph, thereby enabling some commuters to “fly over” the congested roads at greater speeds, and others to benefit from fewer cars on terrestrial corridors.
Advocates for air taxis and aerial ridesharing tell the public their solution — affordable, emission-free VTOL aircraft coupled with autonomous traffic management — will seamlessly integrate into a broad urban transit system, offering new options for movement and lifestyle without negative side effects.
Now that billions of dollars have been raised and air taxis are likely on the horizon in some form or another, it may be time to more carefully analyze these assertions. What impact will electric air taxis actually have on traffic, on urban mobility systems, and on society?
Kevin DeGood, director of infrastructure policy at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank and political advocacy organization, recently wrote one of the first in-depth public policy papers on air taxis, presented with quite the provocative headline: “Flying Cars Will Undermine Democracy and the Environment.”
DeGood argues not only that “flying cars” will have no impact on traffic congestion, but that if the technology becomes ubiquitous, it could threaten the progressive vision of democracy. Air taxis, DeGood explains, would give wealthy elites more ability to physically opt out of the spaces and communities used by the rest of society, lessening their dependence and investment in shared public institutions while enabling them to create a “parallel society.”
“Flying cars represent a political danger because they will allow wealthy elites to further opt out of common institutions and everyday experiences, deepening social segregation,” DeGood wrote. “The biggest societal challenges such as combating climate change or alleviating poverty can only be solved through persistent, collective action. Yet, it’s hard to fashion a broad-based political project if the most sophisticated and powerful actors live in a parallel society decoupled from the problems in need of solutions.”
There’s a lot to unpack in DeGood’s article, including: why did he choose to spend the time researching and writing on the impact of air taxis, a mobility option that — even on Uber’s optimistic timeline — won’t exist for at least three years, let alone at scale?
To answer that question, DeGood pointed to claims made years ago by ridesharing companies that their service would reduce traffic in congested city centers by moving more people in fewer cars — a claim Uber has used in its advertising, similar to air taxi companies. By promoting the efficient use of vehicles for on-demand travel as well as higher occupancy through pooling, ridesharing would reduce the need for private car ownership, removing vehicles from the road. Or so the claim went.
In August 2019, Uber and Lyft released a joint analysis admitting that their services “are likely contributing to an increase in congestion,” as Chris Pangilinan, Uber’s head of global policy for public transportation, wrote in a blog post at the time.
In some city centers such as San Francisco and Boston, Uber and Lyft found that their cars made up 13.2 percent and 8 percent of all vehicle miles traveled, or VMT, respective to each city. One-third or more of these vehicle miles are “deadheading,” or drivers who are in between passengers. A number of academic and transit authority studies have also offered evidence that ridesharing apps have other negative effects on public transportation networks, such as declining public transit ridership.
Urban air taxi networks are envisioned as closely linked to existing public transportation options, like buses and subways, so they may be less likely to draw riders away from public transit than ride-hailing. But the message presented by Uber, Joby and other invested companies is similar: our technology will reduce traffic and improve commutes, even for those who don’t get to use it.
“The progressive community was caught flat-footed by the ride-hailing and [autonomous vehicles], DeGood told Avionics. “We let proponents make claims about reduced congestion and other social benefits that just aren’t true. For one, ridehailing increases VMT and congestion. So with VTOLs, we need to think hard in advance about the ways this emerging technology is likely to produce harm.”
Now, as air taxi advocates begin making a similar claim — and perhaps look for public investment in infrastructure — he’s presenting a counter-argument.
Will Air Taxis Reduce Urban Congestion?
The massive investment in urban air mobility is predicated on creating a market that is exponentially larger than the entire commercial vertical lift industry, let alone just the existing helicopter air taxi market. Targeting production rates of aircraft not seen since 1946, Uber’s Elevate project intends for thousands of aircraft to fly daily above major metropolitan areas.
This is made possible by reducing aircraft production and operating costs — through scale, autonomy, electrification — to a point that enables ticket prices that would never be achievable via helicopter or private jet. There is a small pool of people able and willing to spend $725 per seat to travel from Manhattan to Nantucket via Blade Air Mobility, a New York-based air taxi company.
With cheaper trips, Uber envisions thousands of commuters choosing air taxis over other options.
“We believe there is a path to making VTOLs economically favorable to private vehicle ownership and a viable alternative to ridesharing on the ground, so long as VTOL customers are willing to trade off some cost and/or privacy for large gains in speed,” the company wrote in its 2016 Uber Elevate white paper.
But ultimately, each trip is made by an aircraft that can only carry three to four passengers. Using national data on the carrying capacity of highways and vehicle occupancy rate, DeGood estimated one lane of a highway can move approximately 3,740 people per hour during peak travel periods. Without incorporating deadhead VTOL flights, which Uber’s white paper estimated at 20 percent of trips, DeGood arrived at 1,246 air taxis, with three passengers each, equaling the capacity of one lane of highway.
“To put this number into perspective, it’s more than the total number of commercial carrier takeoffs and landings at Los Angeles International Airport every day,” DeGood wrote. “It’s hard to imagine even a large metropolitan area accommodating this level of air traffic demand, let alone what would be necessary to equal the capacity of a high-quality transit line.”
Bell's Nexus 4EX air taxi concept, a four-seat all-electric aircraft targeting 60 miles of useful range for use in and near urban areas. (Bell)
DeGood’s reasoning involves an assumption that automated unmanned traffic management systems capable of high-density operations will not be live until perhaps 2050, as he told Avionics — a timeline Uber, UTM companies, NASA and even the FAA would find overly pessimistic.
However, his point remains valid: a massive number of low-capacity aerial vehicles would be required to match the capacity of highways, subway systems, and even buses.
This begs a follow-on question: How many cars do air taxis have to replace in order to improve traffic flows on the ground? In France, for example, the UAM project pursued by the metropolitan region of Toulouse aims to take five percent of cars off the road by 2030, which the city believes would significantly reduce congestion.
According to DeGood, these projections and analyses are missing the point entirely: traffic is governed by induced demand, rather than fixed demand, meaning that any cars “replaced” by air taxis will simply be replaced by other cars.
“Flying cars will not reduce congestion. Claims to the contrary ignore decades of research about induced demand,” DeGood told Avionics. “The total number of trips people take is not fixed. When a little roadway space opens up, people quickly fill it with more trips." Uber declined to comment for this article.
Even if aerial rideshare is capable of adding a “highway lane in the sky,” DeGood would refer readers to studies of highway expansion projects that have resulted in no improvement or even worse congestion on the ground, as “demand” — drivers willing to take the highway — increases alongside “supply,” or space on the highway to drive.
One major advantage of aerial transportation over highways and rail systems, however, is greatly reduced infrastructure costs. Metro and commuter rails are capable of moving thousands of people per hour, but cost millions per mile to construct. The United States spends more than $160 billion annually to build and maintain the nation’s highways, bridges and tunnels.
In an analysis of 74 cities believed capable of sustaining a UAM market, Nexa Advisors estimated the total cost of both ground-based (i.e., vertiports) and traffic management infrastructure to be $32 billion in total— a tiny piece of the total $90 trillion that Nexa estimates will be spent on infrastructure globally between 2020 and 2040. That could make UAM more attractive than some methods of public transit on a cost-per-capacity basis.
However, there are qualitative elements to these calculations as well; not all “trips” are created equal, or undertaken for the same purpose.
“Just as important is that many of the VTOL trips will be additive, not a substitute for a car trip. So, flying doesn’t ‘remove a car’ because the flight is at a time and over a distance that the passenger simply wouldn’t try to make in a car,” DeGood said.
Even if eVTOLs don’t help reduce traffic, they may still improve transportation systems by opening up access to new parts of the distance, time, and cost Venn diagram that aren’t currently covered by highways, metro systems, and existing commercial air travel.
What impact will that have on how people move, work and live?
Societal Connection vs. Separation
Many air taxi advocates envision eVTOLs enabling a larger movement radius in one’s daily life. Using a car, public transit system or combination thereof, people in most metropolitan areas are able to comfortably move 20-30 miles from work to home and other common destination.
How far could one move — commute, visit friends, volunteer — in the same amount of time using aircraft that fly over 150 mph and can land with minimal infrastructure requirements? And how far away from a congested economic center like the San Francisco Bay Area could one live with affordable access to VTOL transportation?
Combined with growing acceptance of partly or fully remote work, it’s not a huge leap to imagine thousands of workers in the Bay Area and other expensive economic centers, struggling due to sky-high housing prices, moving sixty to a hundred miles away from the coast to lower-cost cities previously inaccessible. Quite a few already have.
That vision, which drives many entrepreneurs and investors in the air taxi space, is precisely what DeGood views as a threat to the common experiences that unite members of a democracy. Today, only the wealthiest few are able to entirely “opt out” of traffic and public transportation, building their homes and communities and lives separate from what the rest of society relies on.
If the top five percent of income-earners in society were able to live that life, rather than the top 0.1 percent, the impact of that separation on society would be much more profound.
“It may be tempting to argue that flying cars are a new twist on an old problem since wealthy elites have always been able to purchase exclusive goods and services,” DeGood wrote. However, flying cars deserve special scrutiny because they have the ability to greatly exacerbate the trend of rising social segregation.”
“Country clubs, private schools, and gated communities have existed for a long time. The danger of flying cars comes from their ability to exacerbate existing patterns of exclusion,” he added. “The threat is pronounced because the startups and aerospace companies building prototypes are aiming for a price point that, while clearly out of reach for the average traveler or family, will extend the special privilege of flying to a wider circle of elites.”
EmbraerX's approach to eVTOL vehicle design included significant user experience research and new ideas concerning early adopters and use cases for air taxis. (EmbraerX)
But these outcomes are far from guaranteed. Instead of constructing entirely new “VTOL communities” of wealthy elites, as DeGood fears, air taxis could strengthen the connection between existing communities on the outskirts of economic centers like Stockton, California, or Prince William County, Virginia. The positive impacts of eVTOLs are even more clear in remote communities, like those across Alaska, or inaccessible by roads.
Cities and counties have numerous public policy levers at their disposal to shape socioeconomic and environmental impacts to meet their needs and values. For air taxis, these levers will include zoning laws, service availability and other development requirements — levers that were mostly unavailable to communities when confronted with the rise of ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft because they didn’t require new infrastructure projects to be approved and built.
In conversation with Avionics, DeGood explained that he doesn’t take issue with NASA, FAA and Air Force government spending on research and development related to UAM, or “advanced air mobility,” as NASA has re-termed it. Rather, he opposes the use of public money to “subsidize the hypermobility preferences of elites” through transportation projects, whether from federal pots of money for infrastructure or incentives offered to developers by local governments.
“There are legitimate concerns about social equity and broad societal value with the roll out of any new technology,” Anna Dietrich and Yolanka Wulff, co-founders of the Community Air Mobility Initiative, wrote to Avionics. “Transportation technologies in particular have a spotty history when it comes to ensuring broad public benefit. This is not however a reason for the public sector to ignore or shun urban air mobility - which includes MUCH more than personal use within a metropolitan area. Rather, it is a call to action to ensure that this new technology is implemented in a way that provides the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people.”
Conclusions Not Yet Foregone
Even if DeGood is right about air taxis’ lack of impact on traffic congestion, it is not a foregone conclusion that more affordable access to vertical flight will exacerbate socioeconomic divisions in societies.
Initial air taxi services — piloted, using current battery technology, and without economies of scale — may indeed only be available to the wealthy. If the industry fails to reduce prices enough significantly in the decade that follows, it will likely fail to create a market large enough to justify current levels of investment.
Contemporary technologies just barely allow for a four-passenger air taxi to be electric and acceptably quiet. In ten or twenty years, due to continuous improvement of energy storage and propulsion systems, aerial transportation networks could include larger electric aircraft capable of moving a dozen passengers or more.
Few architects of modern-day systems and devices — Steve Jobs and the iPhone, Tim Berners-Lee (and others) who built the internet — predicted how these technologies would transform lives, in many unforeseen positive and negative ways. However, with air taxis on the horizon, DeGood is right to raise questions of societal, economic and environmental impact.
“Mr. DeGood raises excellent points concerning the potential impacts of advanced air mobility, and the dangers of inadequately exploring the ramifications of elitism and techno-sprawl this technology could exacerbate,” J.R. Hammond, founder of Canadian Air Mobility, wrote to Avionics. “Our goal in Canada has been to focus efforts not on the question of how to make AAM fit, but rather how AAM can fit our environmental, social and economic needs. The answer comes from creating a diverse ecosystem focused on slowing down to identify specific use cases where AAM would make sense. This is not a ubiquitous solution.”
At this point, the development of electric VTOL aircraft is likely inevitable. Their effect on cities and communities around the world, however, is not.