On Tuesday, Uber announced new plans to unleash its newest mobility disruption: UberAir, a long-promised “flying taxi” service that would lift-off in the Southern California metro by 2020. By then, the company claims, passengers will be able to book trips on electric vertical takeoff and landing (or e-VTOL) aircraft through the Uber app, at roughly the fare of an UberX ride, the company’s cheapest private car option. A promotional video indicates that they’d depart from “skyports” atop strategically located high-rise buildings, whisking photogenic young knowledge workers from glassy urban workplaces to suburban homes, in time for dinner with the kids.
Yet a recent study of ride-hailing’s effect on mobility in L.A. and six other major U.S. metros—the most comprehensive yet—produced clear evidence that Uber, Lyft, and other competitors are doing the opposite. They are siphoning off transit riders and generating new traffic. Pinning this congestion on a lack of helicopters seems like a bit of a stretch.
L.A. is in the midst of remaking itself into a fundamentally more urban place. As Garcetti himself recently put it, the city seeks to detach the personal car from the local concept of “liberation.” That means denser neighborhoods, and more walkable, transit-connected streets. This vision has a mandate: Measure M was approved by 70 percent of voters in L.A. County, in what one critic characterized as a blow to the city’s suburban blueprint “from which it may never recover.” Measure M is now the crux of a decades-long project to help more people stroll, bike, and take trains and buses. Implicit in these plans is a more equitable L.A., for there have always been lots of Angelenos riding buses. It’s just that buses have been second-class to cars.
Ride-hailing companies already seem to be undermining those goals; UberAir would do so even more explicitly. Setting aside the the many practical questions yet to be answered (the electro-choppers don’t quite exist yet, for one), the fundamental model here—a network of private, high-rise launchpads—does not a walkable city make. Nor an equitable one: Even if UberAir somehow overcomes the safety, technology, and regulatory challenges and delivers on super-low fares, consider that adoption of UberX has been highly uneven across income and education brackets. Poorer Americans aren’t riding Ubers and Lyfts like they’re riding transit. Meanwhile, bus routes are getting shortened and slashed. Ride-hailing, even when it’s shared, is creating a new class of transportation. UberCopters would give rise to an even loftier one.
This doesn’t have to be.