Developers of air taxis — electrically-powered aircraft that can take off and land vertically, or eVTOL — are moving quickly toward commercial operations, which could come as soon as 2025.
As this mode of transportation grows, large cities will need dozens of vertiports, many in downtown areas, to handle the anticipated air traffic. The Federal Aviation Administration recently released guidelines for eVTOL operations and encouraged states and cities to begin planning for the necessary infrastructure. But governments are far behind in policy development for this new transportation technology, according to a Mineta Transportation Institute report this spring.
Smart Cities Dive spoke with Gaël Le Bris, vice president, aviation planning and senior technical principal at the engineering and consulting firm WSP USA, about how the company is helping cities and states to navigate the complexities of urban air mobility.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
SMART CITIES DIVE: The eVTOL industry is developing rapidly, and routes have already been announced for some cities. What challenges does that bring for city officials?
GAËL LE BRIS: No one knows today who is going to do what, exactly, because it's all emerging. There is a brave new world here that we need to develop in terms of policies, zoning [and] land use. There is a whole conversation to have at the national level, state level and local level with what I would call nontraditional aviation stakeholders like city planners.
Urban air mobility is going to happen at the heart of cities. We need to have these conversations with community groups and [similar organizations] to make sure that it happens the right way, the right time, and gives opportunities to everyone. You need to coordinate with the communities, involve them in the process and gain what I like to call public desirability rather than public acceptability.
How important is it that cities begin planning for these new urban air mobility technologies?
We need to have these conversations right now. By 2030, we should have at least the first component of urban air mobility being operational at least in some dense, urban metropolitan areas like Dallas, Central Florida, Miami, Los Angeles — all of these cities that today are impacted by acute congestion.
What kind of facilities do you need to accommodate these things? What kind of policies do you need? Who is going to regulate all these [air mobility] corridors? Should it be the FAA, or should state transportation departments step in because this is not the traditional air traffic control?
How will these advanced air mobility technologies be put to use?
One use is on-demand mobility between cities or within larger metropolitan areas. Then you have freight transportation. There is also emergency medical services, law enforcement and firefighting services that could leverage these technologies for their benefit.
Also, we need to think of smaller communities. Regional air mobility can connect these smaller communities to larger transportation hubs to make them more accessible, to provide mobility and connectivity for all kinds of different services.
Will air taxis replace public transit?
I think that's completely ridiculous. That's not what we're trying to do. The goal of the industry is clearly to be around the price of traditional taxis, as far as is practicable.
[Air taxis and] mass transit are two different products. They can talk to each other, and they will, especially for the very first and last mile, because from the vertiport you need to go to your final destination.
Who will benefit from urban air mobility?
Advanced air mobility is coming. Can we turn that into an opportunity to improve certain things in the community that today are underperforming? For instance, you have a vertiport that you need to connect to mass transit and other ground transportation services for the first and last mile. So that can be part of the conversation [that could benefit users of ground transportation].
Can we make sure that we have also our fair share of small businesses in that conversation? I'm talking about operating the system: the vertiports, flight operators, selling the tickets, maintenance.
Education [could benefit] as well. That's not something that we think of immediately, but [if] we are creating a vertiport or we need a small maintenance center, that can be an opportunity to involve local community colleges around training for supplying that workforce that today doesn't exist.
Do you have any words of caution?
It's an industry that is evolving very rapidly. At the same time, we need to manage expectations and be realistic on how and what AAM can deliver to the world.
We need to continue that conversation, and we need to keep involving decision-makers, city planners, all of the people that are atypical aviation stakeholders.