Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Take a cheap helicopter ride through a smoggier, stress-ier, and more divided L.A.
São Paulo’s traffic is horrendous. But if you’re rich enough, you can avoid it. With the world’s largest fleet of private choppers, a reported 1,300 helicopter flights lift off daily, ferrying an ultra-wealthy handful around this megacity of 12 million—the lucky few that can afford $1,000 trips across town.
Picture their aircraft gliding above traffic jams that stretch for literally more than 100 miles. Picture them sailing over the massive protests that broke out in 2013, the height of São Paulo’s ‘copter craze, when authorities tried to raise fares on the city’s sagging, ill-kept metro system.
Picture something similar unfolding in the skies above Los Angeles, if Uber gets its way.
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.
That might look sort of familiar: Back in the 1960s and 1970s, New York City boasted a relatively affordable helicopter shuttle service, as Bloomberg Businessweek recently recalled; that ended in disaster when a helicopter crashed on the helipad atop the Pan Am Building in May 1977, killing five and ending the first would-be ‘copter commuting boom. (Among the entrepreneurs who attempted to restart it: Donald Trump, whose failed Trump Shuttle airline offered a Wall-Street-to-LaGuardia helicopter service in the late 1980s.)
Still, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti has voiced support for the Uber effort. Dallas-Fort Worth and Dubai have also partnered with the company to pilot the aerial service. These cities, like São Paolo—where Uber has already helped test dramatically discounted helicopter rides—are known for their sprawling layouts and epic levels of congestion. To Uber’s leaders, who are pitching the service as a boon for long-distance commuters, that makes them perfect for vertical take-off.
“L.A. is a model city for this in that it’s highly congested from a traffic perspective, and there’s not a great mass transit relief on the horizon,” Jeff Holden, Uber’s chief product officer, told the L.A. Times.
A curious statement, since L.A. voters just celebrated the one year anniversary of Measure M, the $120 billion sales tax increase supporting the most ambitious transit expansion in the city’s modern history. It may also be a window into Uber’s priorities. At times, the world’s largest ride-hailing company has talked big game about supporting transit and reducing congestion. At times it has even explicitly come out in support of public policies that would help those noble goals.
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. As with autonomous vehicles, hyperloops, and drones, the public must weigh in. We and our elected leaders must be the ones to decide which technologies should reshape our neighborhoods, and under what terms. Cities don’t need to be even more spread-out, stressful, and smoggy. They don’t need to ever more divided by income and mobility. But steering cities towards a better future is not going to happen laissez-faire, or because the technology titans that have captured our imaginations and personal data have decided that they don’t like stewing in traffic jams. The public has to set the agenda.
“It comes down to this,” remarked the transit writer and researcher Yonah Freemark on Twitter. “Do we want our cities to be defined by transportation technology, or do we want to first shape our cities to be livable and sustainable?”
The latter may very well include ride-hailing, helicopters, and AVs, if they serve a legitimate social purpose. Lifting the rich over furious throngs of a dissenting underclass? Let’s decide on that one together.