Bus, bike or...air taxi? US cities prep for road-free travel

An electric air taxi by Joby Aviation flies near the Downtown Manhattan Heliport in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., November 12, 2023. REUTERS/Roselle Chen

An electric air taxi by Joby Aviation flies near the Downtown Manhattan Heliport in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., November 12, 2023. REUTERS/Roselle Chen

What’s the context?

Cities strap in as air taxis ready for takeoff, perhaps as early as next year

  • Small, electric aircraft could transform city travel
  • Industry hopes for liftoff next year
  • Backers see fares on a par with car share 
  • Residents worry about noise, fairness and risk

WASHINGTON - It's a bird...it's a plane...no, it's an air taxi and it's coming in to land soon, prompting cities across the United States to get ready for airborne urban travel. 

Nobody yet knows exactly what an air taxi even is, how it might look or who will get to use it, but cities know it's on the way and want to be ready for takeoff.

None of the small, electric aircraft in development has yet won full U.S. regulatory approval, but the process is underway, with some companies vying to fly as early as next year

"This is coming sooner than a lot of people think," said Jacques Coulon, mobility innovation manager for the city of Orlando in Florida.

The prototypes are far from uniform, with a host of competing designs for rotors and wings. Some are flown by in-vehicle pilots, others operate autonomously.

"While we haven't gotten an application, we'll probably get one sooner than later, and we want to make sure we're prepared," Coulon told Context.

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Officials such as Coulon need to weigh the vehicles' possible upsides - for the local economy, jobs and connectivity - against potential problems such as noise, environmental damage and fears about safety or fairness.

"What incremental changes can we make that allow for this new, innovative mobility option to occur in a way that won't negatively impact our existing neighbourhoods," he said.

Referred to as electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles (or eVTOLs), the vision is for small, electric machines that can be used for local and regional transit, emergency or medical services, and more besides.

Air taxis would operate more quietly and with less pollution than existing air travel options, backers say, allowing for more seamless integration into urban life.

New York, Paris, Dubai and others are already building "vertiports", where taxis could land and take off vertically, said Maria Alonso, head of autonomous mobility for the World Economic Forum.

She said cities in the United States, China and UAE were leading the way in getting ready, but more attention was needed from local policymakers.

"There's a real driving demand for this to happen quickly," said Brittney Kohler, legislative director for transport and infrastructure at the National League of Cities umbrella group.

Cities see a potential boon in terms of greater connectivity but are cautious, too, she said, about who will benefit.

"We want to make sure we aren't creating the same mistakes (as we did) with aviation...that really irritated communities and caused a lot of health and mental health impacts," she said.

An electric air taxi by Joby Aviation sits at the Downtown Manhattan Heliport in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., November 12, 2023. REUTERS/Roselle Chen

An electric air taxi by Joby Aviation sits at the Downtown Manhattan Heliport in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., November 12, 2023. REUTERS/Roselle Chen

An electric air taxi by Joby Aviation sits at the Downtown Manhattan Heliport in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., November 12, 2023. REUTERS/Roselle Chen

Pros and cons

The Federal Aviation Administration last year released a "blueprint" for the industry that envisioned the initial use of these aircraft would be similar to that of helicopters, after which air taxis would fly between airports and vertiports in city centres, with flight corridors becoming more complex over time. 

The regulator plans for services starting by 2028, even if some innovators hope to launch earlier.

For all their "transformative" potential, air taxis could also be "very disruptive" to city life, said Adam Cohen, a senior research manager with the University of California's Transportation Sustainability Research Center.

While local governments will have significant say over where they can take off and land, federal government controls the air.

Still, Cohen said cities have plenty of tools to address local concerns – such as limiting hours of operation – and will have a key role to play in ensuring the sector develops fairly.

"The public sector can play a really important role in trying to encourage equitable outcomes based on where infrastructure is located," he said.

"Also looking at policies that could possibly expand the potential benefits to a broader segment of society – supporting public good-use cases such as emergency response and aeromedical use."

'Change how cities are defined'

Air mobility companies are already working closely with cities to prepare for federal approval.

Wisk Aero, which last year was bought by U.S. aeronautical giant Boeing, is seeking approval for an autonomous electric aircraft capable of carrying four passengers, with an eye on launching in Los Angeles, Houston and cities beyond.

"Ground transportation is becoming more and more congested, and we need solutions to transition to sustainability, but also new tools for cities to serve their residents as best as possible," said Emilien Marchand, the company's head of local city partnerships.

The company hopes to start operating this decade, with a fare similar to a luxury car share service, such as Uber Black.

"It will change how cities are defined," he said. "If you think that now it will take you 15 minutes to cover 30 to 50 miles, that really extends the radius of what your metro is."

A study from California State University last year looked at the potential economic impact of air taxis on Long Beach, California, and found that a six-vertiport system (eventually expanding to 20) would lead to more than 900 jobs in operations and nearly $30 million in new, annual taxes. 

Long Beach Mayor Rex Richardson said by email that the sector offers opportunities to "advance job creation, increase tourism, and establish new connectivity".

The American Association of Airport Executives studied four airports and found that integrating air taxis within existing airports "is achievable and that vertiport operations could start soon and scale".

Noisy, risky, intrusive?

Cities such as Los Angeles are also trying to introduce the technology to locals so as to assuage any worries.

"Concerns about flight altitude, the lack of active air traffic control, and flyover noise have been raised," said Francis Pollara, founder of Urban Movement Labs, a public-private partnership working with the city on preparations.

Pollara helped the city develop a public simulation space to demonstrate the noise level of various aircraft in urban spaces.

Sceptics say the noise level is not the only unknown.

The town of Middleton, Wisconsin, said in September that the FAA blueprint "appears to give little to no regard to the quality of life, noise and safety concerns of people living on the ground." 

That's a concern for Arline Bronzaft, a professor emerita at City University of New York and an expert on the impact that elevated-train noise has on learning.

"A selling point is these make less noise, so it doesn't intrude on people," she said, but that benefit could be counterbalanced by the greater regularity of any air service.

"With more frequent sounds that can still be heard, it might even make it more intrusive. We just don't know."

(Written by Carey L. Biron; Edited by Lyndsay Griffiths)

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