Flying Urban Vehicles: Why not fix our cities instead?

I have had the opportunity to speak at several mobility conferences around the world in recent months including the TravelTech conference in San Francisco, the Future of Transportation Technology World Conference in Cologne and just last week at the Fab City event in Paris and Toulouse. One of the common and pervasive themes in all these conferences is the growing interest and technological advances in urban air mobility. And these conversations are far from theoretical and futuristic. The technology for urban drone delivery and flying taxis for the most part already exists and is being piloted in cities around the world as I write this post.

Dubia Flying Taxi Pilot: Source Travel & Leisure

In Cologne I saw up close and personal some flying taxi technology that has already been tested and approved for further testing in China. In Toulouse, I was on a panel with drone and flying taxi specialists from the likes of Airbus who are bullish, not only on the technology, but on its potential for near-term adoption. They are of course not alone as other mobility experts, including some I admire greatly and are advisors to my mobility project, IoMob, are also optimistic on the future of urban air mobility.

But when I was asked in Toulouse to reflect on my own perception of urban air mobility, I was the pessimist. Not because I am a technology pessimist. Far from it, I have been teaching disruptive innovation and design thinking in business schools for more than a decade.

The tech is ready or almost ready and could certainly scale, and perhaps will in some cities. But the big question is why do we need urban air mobility and when I posed this question and answered it with “because we have so massively screwed up the ground level in cities that we decided the only way to solve congestion is to avoid it in the air.” While I caught my panelists by surprise it seemed the argument resonated with many of the participants. It feels to me a bit like those who say climate change and environmental degradation are so bad on earth that we need to accelerate our search for alternative habitable planets.

We have built too many cities to be dependent on cars. We have offered massive subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. We have severely underfunded public transit and we have failed to solve the first mile last mile problem. But should we just pack it in and assume our cities are doomed to congestion and at least allow the well-off access to the urban skies to avoid all those poor people stuck in soul-sucking traffic jams?

Source: CityLab

We need to focus on fixing our cities from the ground-up. We need to embrace the inverted pyramid whereby people, not vehicles get priority. Where bikes and shared and mass transit receive sufficient investment and space, where neighborhoods are mixed-use, walkable and interconnected. At IoMob we believe part of the solution to our congestion problems in cities is to facilitate and enable more seamless access to the full range of public and private mobility solutions established and emerging in cities, leveraging blockchain technology.

Source: Bicycle Innovation Lab

Cities can solve the congestion problem without going to the skies. Here, for example, is a list of 13 cities seeking to ban private car use in the city center including Oslo’s ambitious goal to permanently ban cars in the city by 2019. Not all cities will go to such measures, but the writing is on the wall. Cities need to embrace emerging forms of shared mobility (scooters, bikes, carsharing, carpooling) and find ways to seamlessly connect them to public transit, while improving urban planning to facilitate more walkable neighborhoods and transit-oriented development (TOD).

I am not one to argue against innovation and there could be use cases for urban air solutions (such as in times of emergency, or power outages or natural disasters that wipe out land infrastructure, etc.) but as a general rule, experience has proven that adding more lanes of highway won’t reduce congestion (generating induced demand as my urbanist friend Brent Toderian notes) and I suspect eventually we will just clog our urban airways with more noise-polluting, killing nature(think birds) and our views to the skies while maintaining our flawed ground-level urban infrastructure. Let’s fix our cities and consider urban air solutions as complementary solutions when appropriate as opposed to a band-aid solution to our self-induced congestion problems.