Los Angeles Wants a Flying-Taxi Division. What Could Go Wrong?

Liftoff imminent. Or not? Photo: @UrbanMvmtLab/Twitter

Just minutes after Pete Buttigieg finished a speech accepting Joe Biden’s nomination as Transportation secretary, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, who was once considered a front-runner for the job, gave a speech on the opposite side of the country that may have, at one point, been planned specifically to bolster his own transportation cred for a national audience. On a webinar, Garcetti announced the formation of the U.S.’s first urban air mobility partnership, which would have “low-noise, electric aircrafts flying in our local airspace by 2023.” Almost no one seemed to know what this meant, but the immediate reaction was that it was probably something bad.

Urban air mobility is a fancy way to say flying taxis, and can be used to describe a whole range of airborne vehicles that are shared, electric, autonomous, and tooled to take off and land vertically. Think of them as extra-quiet helicopters or extra-large drones. They could, eventually, be used to ferry humans from one place to another. But if you’ve actually read one of hundreds of stories that run every year proclaiming “flying taxis are here,” you’ll realize they actually aren’t quite, and are very likely still many years away. (Although Dubai, in an extremely on-brand move, is trying to become the pioneer and has already tested out one model.) This is not to say that some types of airborne vehicles aren’t already useful in an urban setting — ambulances, say — and they’re also being used more and more often in commercial applications like drone deliveries. From a technology standpoint, conventional helicopters are so dangerous, expensive, loud, polluting, and generally annoying that almost any innovation is welcome. For a city, planning ahead to potentially regulate against the adverse impacts of, say, swarms of thousands of Amazon drones depositing holiday purchases on people’s fire escapes is certainly wise.

This seems like what L.A. is trying to do, according to the mayor’s announcement. The newly formed partnership, which is operated out of the city’s newish public-private transportation think tank, the Urban Movement Labs, will “map out challenges identified by local, diverse stakeholders surrounding public airspace and property rights” and design a “vertiport,” billed as a “new piece of L.A.’s transportation network where people can go to fly on an urban air mobility aircraft” (which, as I mentioned before, is basically just a helicopter for now). The city will also work closely with Hyundai — which has its own urban air mobility division — to craft a “public engagement strategy,” which sounds like they need to sell Angelenos on the idea of having even more stuff whizzing overhead.

It isn’t even the first time that L.A. officials have talked earnestly about urban air mobility. In 2018 — just a few weeks after its autonomous driving program killed a pedestrian — Uber partnered with the city on a splashy conference, tapping a dozen high-profile architecture firms to design hypothetical L.A. skyports for a fleet of hypothetical flying taxis that would, hypothetically, be buzzing through the sky as soon as 2023. (That must be the magic year.) Uber planned to use L.A. as one of its three pilot cities — L.A. is a popular place for such visions because, until recently, fire codes required all buildings to put helipads on top — but just like autonomous on-the-ground cars (Uber sold its self-driving division last month) this future is perpetually “three years away.”

But this is not really about Uber, or Hyundai, or even the prospect of midair collisions. The reason that Angelenos are openly disdainful about this whole thing is that city leaders are, once again, distracted by (the extremely uncertain prospect of) a shiny, whirring object while ignoring the most basic, everyday transportation needs of regular Angelenos, 99 percent of whom will never ride in a flying taxi. You’d think the city would want to address these basics, because without those everyday needs fulfilled, no “solutions” layered upon them can truly be successful. For example, since it launched last year, one of L.A.’s Urban Movement Labs projects has been testing contactless deliveries using autonomous robots that look like little rolling ice-chest coolers. But those delivery robots can only travel in a very limited area because so many of L.A.’s sidewalks — some estimates say nearly half — are not navigable by small-wheeled devices, despite a 2015 ADA compliance agreement to fix them brought on by the largest class-action suit in U.S. history. (Maybe we can get some federal help for that; on the webinar, Garcetti did say he was looking forward to working with Secretary-in-waiting Buttigieg in his new Cabinet position.) Without fixing what’s truly broken, block-by-block, L.A.’s urban air mobility pilot will just be building freeways in the sky, replicating all the problems we still haven’t managed to solve on the ground.

L.A. Wants a Flying-Taxi Division. What Could Go Wrong?