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How Los Angeles could become a flying-car utopia (or nightmare) by 2023

By Michael Juliano. Brought to you by Microsoft
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Angelenos, we need to take back those 102 hours we lost last year sitting in traffic. (That average comes courtesy of an INRIX scorecard, in which L.A. ranks— you guessed it—number one for worst traffic in the world.) And in this birthplace of lunar landers and Mars rovers, the means of reclaiming that time may come from above.

One of the most seemingly far-fetched modes of transit imaginable might also be one of the city’s nearest automotive alternatives: flying taxis. These aren’t the physics-defying muscle cars whizzing around Blade Runner’s dystopian vision of 2019 Los Angeles. But in most ways, they’re even more impressive: all-electric, autonomous helicopter-like crafts capable of both vertical takeoff and horizontal cruising. And the most unbelievable part? You’ll be able to hail one through your Uber app. By 2023, according to company PR spokesperson Nick Smith.  

“While Uber Air might feel like a far away dream, it’s closer than you think,” says John Badalamenti, Uber’s ​head of design for advanced programs and aviation during a keynote earlier this year. “[But] urban infrastructure has to start to evolve now to keep up.”

To do so, the ride-hailing service has partnered with five aircraft manufacturers as well as NASA to develop the vehicles and a traffic management system that could shuttle Angelenos in the air between 20 skyports around the city (in Downtown L.A., Santa Monica, Sherman Oaks and at LAX to start). The aircrafts, which will be piloted by humans when the service first launches but fully automated soon after, are slated to reach speeds up to 200mph, with 60 miles on a single charge. By Uber’s initial estimations, trip pricing will be in line with current UberX rides.

Photograph: Courtesy Uber/Embraer

“It’s really about what the commuter’s willing to pay to make a trip, says Kome Ajise, planning director of the Southern California Association of Governments. "At what point does that price make sense for a regular commute option?”  He points out that L.A.’s many helipads and helicopters show that the city’s infrastructure can already support short-distance air travel, and that more means of transit present a positive. “I would not discount any proposal at this point,” he says. “But the devil’s in the details.” 

That’s where things take a slight turn toward Blade Runner. Though their all-electric nature means the vehicles will be considerably quieter than helicopters, it’s not hard to see Uber Air’s swarm of vehicles raising the ire of view-conscious Angelenos when it begins demonstration service in 2020. And then there are some other serious challenges: cost, efficiency and reliability, most of which Uber posits can be solved by the massive scale of its tech rollout. Meanwhile, small commuter and on-demand planes have twice the fatality rate of privately operated cars—but Uber believes its vehicles will be twice as safe as driving, according to their website.

Flying taxis aren’t magic; you may be able to sail above car traffic on a skyport-to-skyport flight, but what about getting everywhere else (and the inevitable traffic jam arriving at each skyport)? That’s a particular challenge in L.A., where a third of all jobs are spread out among the county’s 23 regional centers and only a single-digit percentage of employees work in the closest thing the city has to a center, Downtown L.A. Flying taxis alone might not cut it.

“We have to think about how we get around in a variety of ways,” says Ajise. “But we also have to think about transit capacity and having transit get you to the right places.”

Photograph: Courtesy Metro

Maybe—hopefully—this is where improvements to our current-day options will fill in the future’s gaps. To prepare L.A.’s transit infrastructure for the city’s turn at hosting the 2028 Olympics, Mayor Eric Garcetti has drafted the 28 by ‘28 initiative to speed up 28 subway, light rail, bus, bike path and highway projects over the next decade. In the private sector, the past year alone has seen proposals for a gondola to the Hollywood Sign, as well as both an aerial tram and a high-speed tunnel to Dodger Stadium. Add onto that Angelenos’ reliance on ride-hailing and rideshare apps, plus the seemingly inevitable coming of self-driving cars, and you start to get a full picture of the future of transit.

There’s one low-tech transit option we shouldn’t discount, either: walking. The number of trips Californians take with their own two feet has nearly doubled since 2001. If cities and developers take dramatic steps to make L.A.’s built environment more pedestrian-friendly, it’s easy to see walking continue to climb for short-distance trips—at least until the inevitable moment when we tire of flying taxis and pine for personal jetpacks.   

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