Flying taxis, hyperloops and driverless cars: Is it too early to start planning for future mobility?
November 19, 2021
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  • In 1982, Walt Disney World officials officially opened Epcot Center, inspired by Walt Disney’s plan for a utopia that would “never be completed, but will always be introducing, and testing, and demonstrating new materials and new systems.” Although the Florida attraction was not necessarily a utopian city, the park’s Future World pavilion — marked by an iconic geodesic dome — was meant to show off new technology and visions of the future.

    Today in nearby Orlando, Mayor Buddy Dyer wants his city to take a similar forward-looking perspective, to become what he calls “America’s premier future-ready city.” In September, the city moved toward that vision in announcing the early steps of a plan to bring flying cars to Orlando skies — a technology that not even Disney could bring to Epcot.

    “We know this technology is going to come, and we want to have the best framework in place when it does,” said Jacques Coulon, transportation planning projects coordinator for the city of Orlando. “We know that simply expanding roads and highways isn’t going to get us to the quality of life we want, so we have to think about new opportunities.”

    Through a forthcoming Advanced Air Mobility Transportation Plan, Orlando officials will partner with engineering firm VHB and NASA to consider how air taxis could fit into the city’s future. Orlando is also one of five entities — and the only city — partnering with NASA on a series of air mobility workshops.

    Flying cars, air taxis or aircraft with electrical vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOLs) are still, even by optimistic estimates, years away from ferrying riders. But Orlando’s forward-looking approach reflects a reality for smart cities: Departments used to dealing with roads and trains might soon have to think about mobility solutions that seem like they’re out of The Jetsons.

    While transportation departments have always worked on long-range plans to adequately prepare for multi-year construction projects, some governments are thinking even further ahead.

    Miami’s 2045 Long Range Transportation Plan, first released in 2019, includes language on connected and autonomous vehicles, maglev trains, hyperloops and delivery drones. The Texas Transportation Plan 2050, adopted last year, recognizes that “technology is being adopted at a faster pace than ever before” and weighs a variety of future scenarios with different levels of technology, stating that “as Texans embrace new technologies, behavioral patterns for transportation use will likely change.” Pittsburgh even released a plan this year that looks out to 2070.

    Cities prepare to get in on the action

    The world of transportation has changed dramatically even in just the last decade. Considering the ride-hailing revolution powered by Uber and Lyft, or the fleets of scooters and e-bikes dropped on city sidewalks, urban transportation departments have had to adapt quickly. Kersten Heineke, head of the McKinsey Center for Future Mobility in Europe, said cities should be evaluating recent developments in mobility offerings in technology and think about becoming a pilot city to help shape the application of technology.

    In an email, Heineke said there are “two main risks” for cities not preparing for new tools. “With previous technologies and services, cities who did not proactively co-shape with players had to ‘overcorrect’ by issuing … bans for certain services or vehicles,” Heineke wrote. He added that unprepared cities will be the last to reap the full benefits of the new technology.

    For Orlando, that means preparing for urban air mobility by envisioning a network of landing pads for eVTOL vehicles. Those vehicles may be closer to launching than many people think: California’s Joby Aviation says it has completed more than 1,000 test flights of an eVTOL vehicle, including a 154-mile flight it says is the longest for any eVTOL, and it has started the process to gain approval from the Federal Aviation Administration with an eye on beginning commercial operations in 2024. Uber and Boeing are developing flying vehicles as well.

    A report this year from Deloitte and the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) found that urban air mobility could be worth $115 billion by 2035.

    Several cities are hoping to capture a share of that market and take advantage of the opportunity to move people around downtown corridors without adding any congestion on existing roads. Los Angeles announced in 2020 its Urban Air Mobility Partnership to educate and engage residents and policymakers in the technology. Houston has been a hub for Uber’s flying taxi testing. In Miami, the newly constructed Paramount Miami World Center, which developers call “America’s City-within-the-City of the Future,” has a takeoff and landing port, and other new construction will include similar “SkyPorts.”

    Orlando’s Coulon said that early work can ensure that any new technology meets the city’s goals of sustainability and equity, rather than just chasing something new. Rather than dump money into an initiative that may just serve a niche market, Coulon said Orlando is thinking about “making this a way to get around that provides opportunities and growth.”

    “We’re not going to repeat the mistakes of the past,” he said. “When we think about placement, we are looking at how to do this without negatively impacting one neighborhood over another, not displacing anyone, but creating the best service for as many residents as possible.”

    Today’s needs vs. tomorrow’s promise

    Pittsburgh looked a half-century into the future with the PGH 2070 Mobility Vision Plan it released in September. That document is based on historic transportation data and community input and considers a range of new modes, from waterborne transit to gondolas to high-speed trains running to Chicago and Washington, D.C. Completing this kind of long-range planning is necessary, said Kim Lucas, acting director of Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure, to “lay the foundation for the more complex and challenging things that could come.”

    Of particular importance, Lucas said, was thinking about hubs for multimodal trips, like a central station that could handle high-speed rail and hyperloop trips and connect to intracity modes. The “living document” lays out the city’s broad priorities and can adapt as new modes, public or private, emerge. But she added that Pittsburgh, which has been aggressive on smart city technology for years, was in the right position to think about 2070.

    “Pittsburgh has the secret sauce that can get us a 50-year plan before a lot of other cities,” Lucas said. “When leadership is receptive and we have a talent pool, this is a good environment for new technologies.”

    Similarly, Miami’s 2045 plan envisions a city where people zip around on high-speed trains, navigate via air taxis and rely on autonomous and connected vehicles on the roads. Eulois Cleckley, CEO of the Miami-Dade Department of Transportation and Public Works, said that reflects the “entrepreneurial and innovative nature of the city and county.”

    “We’re not looking to replace anything, it’s supplementing what we already have and using new technology to fill in the gaps,” he said. “You need both of those together, and ultimately you have the fabric of a mobility system that provides more access for more modes.”

    But certain advocates say that such a forward-looking vision can sometimes ignore the day-to-day needs of commuters. Kevin Amézaga, president of the Miami Riders Alliance, said a plethora of long-range plans for the region have led to a form of “analysis paralysis.”

    “We put things off for so long that new technologies come along that we think are going to solve everything,” Amézaga said. He pointed to the county’s plans to build a monorail between Miami and Miami Beach, despite a previous study that showed that extending the existing Metromover transit service might generate more ridership. Building a new line, he said, would require riders to potentially switch modes if they are making longer trips, tacking on to what he called a “fragmented” rail network.

    “It can seem like Miami prioritizes ribbon cuttings over moving people in an efficient way,” Amézaga said.

    Cleckley said the monorail system is part of a voter-approved planning process that dates back nearly 20 years and will “create this connection that has been needed for some time.”

    The tension between the desire to be on top of new technology and meet today’s less-sexy needs can be a struggle for some agencies, said Alisyn Malek, executive director of the Coalition for Reimagined Mobility, a project of Securing America’s Future Energy.

    “City leaders should really be thinking about the entire system,” Malek said. “That way, whether it’s aerial mobility or teleportation, they can understand what modes solve what challenges, and it becomes easier to fill in the gaps.”

    That can also prepare cities for the inevitable delays in bringing new technology to market, whether it’s setbacks in permitting, approval or consumer acceptance.

    For years, automakers and tech companies had promised that autonomous vehicles would be widespread by 2020, but self-driving taxi networks are still in trial stages. Still, cities that have worked on autonomous technology have managed to attract some pilot projects, and they say they are well set up for the proliferation of the cars. Other governments have backed away from ambitious projects; Colorado in 2019 ended a partnership with Virgin Hyperloop One that was exploring a 360-mile route for a train that could travel 600 miles per hour, saying its transportation department would instead focus on buses and light rail.

    Even the $1.1 trillion infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden signed into law on Monday dedicates $110 billion to highways, roads and bridges, a sign of the needs of the transportation system of the past even as it laid out $500 million for new smart cities technology.

    Malek said that transportation departments thinking about new technology have the opportunity to take a systems-level look that focuses on moving people in the most efficient way possible. “The thing that gets me excited is the blurring of the lines,” Malek said. “We have a chance to leverage these changes and think about how we align funding to give better transportation options to people.”