Urban mobility going airborne

Airbus intends to have a prototype of a flying urban vehicle ready by the end of 2017. In as little as ten years, they claim to be able to revolutionise urban travel for millions of people. Urban mobility going airborne could open up a completely new range of possibilities. Alas, there might be just as many concerns…

“La sortie de l’opéra en l’an 2000”, a drawing made by the french illustrator and novelist Albert Robida in 1882.

“La sortie de l’opéra en l’an 2000”, a drawing made by the french illustrator and novelist Albert Robida in 1882.

Imagine leaving the office at peak hour: roads are completely jammed while trains, buses and metros are terribly overcrowded. According to Airbus, the best you can do is having you picked up by a shared, battery powered autonomous sky taxi that flies over all modern world’s traffic misery. Apparently the company’s feasibility study resulted in a favourable conclusion.

It is hard to get a grip on the scale of ambitions of this CityAirbus. To reduce traffic, it should be massive. To avoid traffic, it will probably result in something for the happy few. Airbus describes it as a taxi, but at the same time, it requires very specific infrastructure that is not widely available. Providing such infrastructure is not simply about constructing urban landing pads. Since it is very unlikely every home, school and office will have one, these pads need to be designed as hubs. They will need to provide a splendid connection with “regular” (under)ground mobility together with all other facilities that are usually found in transit terminals.

In a system designed from an operator’s perspective, air traffic would be bundled in few but keenly designed large hubs – at a high risk of creating new bottlenecks. On the contrary, a user-centred design would spread out many smaller hubs in a cloud over the city. Such a decentralised system should relieve main nodes in the existing traffic network. Using it would allow a lot more flexibility, bearing a better resemblance to human behaviour. In addition, technology came to a point on which it can actually control dispersed mobility.

Availability of helipads in LA: downtown vs. 2 miles more west.

Let us take a closer look at Los Angeles for example: the metropolis crowned as North America’s most traffic congested city. At first sight, it has quite some potential for Airbus's plans. Due to a law dating back to 1958, all high-rise buildings are provided with a helipad on the roof, resulting in a downtown district littered with potential hubs. However, the major part of the city – being the place where most citizens reside – begins at not even a mile from central downtown and consists out of two or three storey high buildings in an endless grid structure. Fitting hubs in this kind of tissue without creating additional nuisance seems – slightly understated – a bit more challenging. The very same applies to all other cities in which helipads are a scarce commodity.

If the flying pods will operate in a corridor system as shown in Airbus's article, it will probably result in a network of skyroads. Many cities already have such basic structures for helicopters, mainly located above highways to reduce noise disturbance and minimise damage and casualties in case something goes wrong. Mirroring highways in the air does not really allow benefiting from a shortest possible skyroute. Above all will zenHOP (as the sky-taxi service is called) only be able to fulfil a door-to-door service in rare cases. This makes that the CityAirbus would only solve the middle part of a commute. The last mile problem and all affiliated side effects would make the entire system highly dependent on the use and availability of other means of transportation, with a very high chance in the US of that being the car. Travelling “through the mobility chain” thus remains the future standard.

The most easy and straightforward scenario for the implementation of skypods is probably to link airports to business districts. Even then, there will be a lot of wrangling about the location of skyroads and the use of private property for a public function, since downtown buildings are often private property. Linking Airbus's flying taxis with our very own publipods might also be an interesting road to wander.

Considering hubs on a wider scale, an interesting new architectural typology might emerge. To operate flying pods in a dense urban environment, we will probably need bi-hubs that unfold in a sky pole and a ground pole, connected by a vertical street in-between. This high-volume vertical circulation remains the tricky part: escalators are extremely slow while elevators are highly inefficient. If Airbus would really succeed in making their aircrafts “zen” (meaning “zero emission and noise”), perhaps it could be easier to unite both poles on ground level. Unfortunately doing so would require a new urban layout, going hand in hand with massive infrastructural works and huge investments.

Taking off the urban roof, opening the city up to a sky of endless possibilities: it certainly fuels dreams. Let's see how Airbus takes it further from here!

(Wouter Haspeslagh)

Addendum (March 6th, 2017):

MMKM recently received an article by Allison Crady as a reaction on this post. According to her, our discourse is a bit too sceptical. Being written from within the American context, Allison's text might add some different shades to the story. Her full article can be read here.