Op-Ed: What Flying Ubers Mean For the Future

The future? Oy.
The future? Oy.

When Uber announced its Elevate plan for flying taxis, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a belated April Fools’ prank. Surely, a company already battling yearly operating revenue losses in the billions and losing money on each trip wouldn’t be expanding into transportation modes with operating costs 10 times that of cars. And yet!

Much like hyperloop, which currently remains a tunnel for cars in L.A., the idea of flying Ubers is disconnected from reality. The price estimate is nearly $6 per mile, making a 20-mile trip from the Upper East Side to JFK cost around $120, compared to the current $7.75 combo of the subway and AirTrain. Can someone make money providing helicopter service to the rich? Sure. Is it the mass market a public company like Uber needs? No.

This cost comparison illustrates the problem at hand: Any transportation solution that is inaccessible for the majority of people is not a solution at all. Rather than attempting to improve public transportation or road congestion, flying taxis circumvent the problem for only the richest few.

One of the claims is that, actually, these taxis would be more sustainable than other forms of transportation. And electric helicopters/VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) aircraft are an exciting new technology! However, left unsaid is how people would arrive at the skyport in order to take the taxis. The first skyport is slated to be built at Frisco Station outside Dallas, a greenfield mixed-use development with zero access to public transportation. That means the only people who could use it either already live there or have to drive — or, in what is likely the planned scenario, take an Uber. The environmental impact as compared to a subway carrying hundreds of people running all the way to the airport, then, is still greater.

Transportation networks of all kinds (rail, bike, car) are effective when they allow for hundreds of different possible trips — and that includes picking up and dropping off passengers on routes when requested, whether that’s via a bus stopping only when requested or at the very least a shared ride service that indicates a meeting point for the passengers. A flying taxi accommodates very few people for a few specific trips. Like hyperloop, in any realistic scenario, it only adds a tiny percentage of capacity to the network, but not enough to make a difference.

The future of transportation depends on expanding the capacity of existing networks like public transit, not flashy private options. Want to fix the trip to JFK airport? Have the MTA expand mobile payments so visitors can instantly transfer from the subway and don’t have to wait at a kiosk to buy a special AirTrain ticket. Upgrade subway signage so people know how quickly they can take the A or C train to the airport from most of lower Manhattan. And make it easier for travelers carrying luggage to transfer from a taxi (or an Uber) and use the subway.

It’s true that improvements to existing public transportation infrastructure can be difficult — just look at the two-mile Second Avenue Subway. But that’s not to say we can’t or shouldn’t change the way the system works — it would just require structural change to the way projects are funded and managed.

We need better stories about urban transportation, ones that take the user’s point of view. Stories of frictionless urban travel may seem a little less audacious than helicopters and tube networks, but they have a much bigger impact on the quality and sustainability of urban life. After all, if we’re able to suggest flying taxis as an option, is it really unreasonable to suggest reshaping streets to accommodate something besides cars?

Matt Caywood is the CEO and co-founder of TransitScreen, a Washington D.C.-based “smart city” company providing real-time displays of mobility options, such as bus and train times, Uber/Lyft availability, and micromobility options like dockless bikes and e-scooters in public venues and on the mobile app, CityMotion.

2 thoughts on Op-Ed: What Flying Ubers Mean For the Future

  1. Nothing. Anyone whose ever flown a quad drone knows these things are prone to crashing or falling out of the sky with the most subtle breeze or jerking. Scaling this idea up to the several ton range?

    VTOL has been the dream of both military and civilian aviation for decades to be
    able to eliminate the need for runways, thus eliminate the major need for airports and travel virtually anywhere, including straight into downtown or highrise rooftops. Sadly that defies economics and physics. Helicopters already do that, despite this they have not proliferated the skies as much as anticipated; if a single engine, single rotor aircraft costs this much, why assume a Multirotor is gonna be cost effective or better. A VTOL craft has no center of mass in it’s rotors, so if a rotor fails; a normal plane can emergency land and glide, a VTOL with a rotor failure creates a vast differential of thrust. Normally it’s thrust must constantly come from both sides equally to stay level; If Not, the aircraft will flip and never regain itself. They border on the isle of instability. Helicopters avoid this by having their main source of thrust above at center of the fuselage. Not to mention energy and physics wise it takes more energy to fly a mile than to drive a mile; cars with Start-Stop don’t use any fuel while standing still and electric cars are growing as pollution reduced urban transportation. The Aircraft would have to generate thrust constantly just to stay airborne let alone move anywhere.

    Lastly Economics; Uber and Lyft have not raked in net profit for a while, it stays afloat on venture capital inputs. The company lost 2.8 Billion in 2016….why would they sink MORE capital on a venture where maintenance of a aircraft is FAR MORE demanding than a simple car. Back in the turn of the century any individual with a license and a car could paint the word “Taxi ” and they were in business for themselves. Jitney’s used to run thru cities galore all the time. Regulations ran them out of town literally. Deregulate that and individuals can have their own small ride shares.

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