Returning home on a bridge at dusk, my eyeballs reminded me that from afar, or from the air, nyc is pretty cool. Even though it can be boring at street level. Our future selves who do at least some commuting in personal VTOL will experience this constantly. I can’t imagine they’ll ever go back to walking.

One of the themes of this blog is the knock-on effects of technological change. I’ve been reading and talking a lot of about real estate this year, as covid has both changed the game (nobody can go to work) and revealed existing trends (technology has been good enough for remote work for a while, in certain jobs).

Like remote work, urban flight has a transformative effect on land use and property values, but I think it’s the opposite effect – where remote work empties downtowns by letting yuppies escape to the burbs, flight tames density by adding dimensions of travel, and reinvigorates the city.

Art deco now

High-density personal VTOL will turn cities inside out: every window will be a front door. Ground lobbies may become freight-focused. A lot of people will still travel by foot (and by foot it’s a slow climb), but ‘elite = air’ gives lobbies an excuse to be what they increasingly are as e-commerce dominates: logistics centers.

I think the reason my brain has ready-to-go images for air-accessible cities is that people in the 20s and 30s assumed, from the technology they already had, that this would be the future. They lived in a world that was post-blimp but pre-jet.

(Yes, I also have this image from the fifth element, the Luc Besson / Moebius movie which is the closest thing we have to a bigscreen Incal).

The Empire State Building opened with a dirigible mast. It was only used once – turns out walking the plank on the 103rd story is not the desired ending of a fancy-dress party in the clouds. That said, high-story receiving balconies are pure sci-fi made flesh, and status-seekers will pay whatever they cost.

Blimps aren’t just a symbol of luxury. The Hindenburg is the worst transportation disaster to befall a form of luxury travel. Air taxis will be safe-ish before we allow them in cities, but they’ll have their own accidents and some will be gruesome. Everything is on camera now. Our fear of falling will make the cabin videos from these accidents go viral and occupy a Hindenburg-shaped space in our racial memory.

There will be positive safety effects too. Air-ambulances won’t have to wait in traffic, or even wait for an elevator. We’ll have defibrillator drones first; you can pack a lot of ER equipment into a small aircraft if you only need to serve one patient, especially if you know their symptoms before you launch. You can park them on the roof of every hospital.

Traffic management + congestion

Urban VTOL, despite being more challenging tech, may lead driverless cars in deployment to dense cities because they won’t have to share space with human-operated cars + bikes.

Collision avoidance and traffic control technology will have to be way better than what we have on the ground, for a few reasons:

First, with spinning blades, higher speeds, and no ability to ‘just pull over’, the odds of a collision turning deadly are much higher than in a fender-bender on the ground. Second, more degrees of freedom. Air taxis will likely have a more complex traffic pattern than airplanes around an airport. And third, limited battery / fuel capacity means congestion can be as deadly as a collision. Stop-and-go traffic would guarantee emergency landings, if not worse consequences.

Once these problems are solved, air taxis as proof of concept will practically force us to adopt sophisticated traffic management tech on the ground. And humans won’t be able to react to the management signals without significant training and attention; every vehicle on the road will need to have some degree of automation and connectivity to the management system(s).

‘Congestion is deadly’ may also trickle down to the ground-dwellers. We tolerate stop-and-go traffic with honking horns and other negatives in our cities now because we don’t want to invest in the management tools that would prevent this, or we don’t think drivers or city managers are competent to manage a more sophisticated system. Proving we can prevent congestion in the air will change how we approach it on the ground.

This is definitely happening

If you believe battery density will 4x in the next decade, you have to believe that many forms of passenger-optional urban flight are coming. Also remember, these vehicles may never touch the ground. It doesn’t take much power to hop from rooftop to rooftop in a dense city, but completely changes the city’s connectivity.

Google owns three buildings in Chelsea which are connected to the ground by very shitty elevators. Tell me you think they aren’t going to try linking their campus with drones, with or without city permits, in the next 24 months.

Electric cars are transformational for manufacturing and energy supply chains. Self-driving is transformational if you drive for a living (or, like uber / trucking, employ many drivers). But neither one will instantly rewite the DNA of our cities, especially because they’ll have to coexist with legacy tech for a while.

Urban VTOL, on the other hand, will instantly transform city planning, the symbols of wealth, and our relationship with technology and safety. It doesn’t have to share space with cars or pedestrians so there will be nothing to stop its rollout, other than fear (wisely). Because it shares space with our densest population centers, it will have a greater impact than flight in the early 1900s1. Because of the elite appeal, policymakers will have a hard time stopping it. This is coming.

Notes

  1. If you’re interested in the experience of early flight, read Beryl Markham’s West with the Night. It’s her autobiography; she was an early military or postal pilot in Kenya. It’s one of my favorite books. Hemingway claimed to be jealous of it. Markham stole Isak Dinesen’s boyfriend.