Flying Taxis: They May Be More Than Just Pie in the Sky

Ten years from now, we could be zipping through town by air like the Jetsons. But there are many complications to be worked out first.

Flying taxi vehicle in the air.
(Photo: Joby Aviation)
Throughout the last decade, cities gained a plethora of new mobility options — Uber and Lyft, e-scooters, dockless bikes — and scrambled to set rules for them. But the latest transport innovation — flying taxis — promises to be even more disruptive, and represents a whole new planning decision ballgame.  

This technology — known as vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) — seems to be arriving quickly, with a flood of investor capital being dumped into hundreds of companies. This winter, for example, United Airlines announced a $1 billion order from Silicon Valley-based Archer Aviation, which hopes to launch flights by 2024. Uber sold its air taxi wing to a firm called Joby, which predicts service rollout by 2023. In France, Ascendance Flight Technologies expects soon-to-deploy flights on trips under 250 miles. Other examples abound worldwide. In many of these cases, VTOL is presented as a ride-hailing service that will provide mid-to-long-distance intra-urban trips — hence the moniker “flying taxi.” 

These developments compel the attention of government. The American Planning Association (APA) says the rapid development of flying taxis “has significant implications for built environments across the rural-urban transect, particularly in land-use, right-of-way, and development patterns. Unless municipalities are game for unplanned deployment across communities...planners and policy makers need to start preparing as soon as possible.” 

To that end, Los Angeles has worked with the World Economic Forum to develop a seven-point framework for accommodating the new vehicles. The points address unintended consequences, access across demographics, integration with other transport systems, safety and data collection. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has publicly endorsed the effort, working with Archer Aviation in a public-private partnership. Some cities abroad are even further along in this conversation: Dubai is designating air space for the industry. 

In U.S. cities, there are three main issues that local governments would need to address for flying taxis.

The first is environmental. Commercial air services account for 12 percent of U.S carbon emissions. This could quickly increase if flying taxis become a popular service. However, several firms are opting for full or total electric power, including Archer. Ascendance is less bullish on an all-electric model, but plans to use hybrid power sources. 

The second is noise; FAA data finds an increase in complaints about aircraft noise in recent years. Ascendance CEO Jean-Christophe Lambert says noise from these relatively small aviation devices can be reduced so that VTOLs are no louder than the average city street. Porsche Consulting claims that electric VTOL aircraft are four times quieter than helicopters. But the promises of companies and consultants alone won’t assuage noise concerns; cities may need to develop a regulatory framework.

The third concern is establishing designated right-of-way, for both flying and landing, so that aviation vehicles don't crash into each other. The flying aspect of VTOL right-of-way will be particularly needed in dense cities with substantial air traffic, and may require a designated flight path system. A single crash in the early stages would be a significant public relations setback. As for landing, there are many options. Buildings with wide helipads could lease their space. Cities that have commercial heliports could do the same (New York City has at various times had high-priced heliport services between local airports and parts of Manhattan). And Los Angeles wants to create “vertiports” in the city that could link with public transit. Related to safety and right-of-way is having a robust private insurance system. 

Even with safety precautions, flying taxis will have their skeptics. When the American Planning Association announced support for the idea in early 2021, the organization was roundly criticized by prominent urbanists. The general critique was that planning for flying taxis distracts from more pressing transport needs such as better bus service and safer streets.  

But flying taxis may not be working against those goals. If they replace automobile trips, they will have made streets safer for pedestrians, and if they feature multimodal integration — as Los Angeles' framework calls for — they could improve public transit. 

In short, flying taxis are a nascent technology that would serve a genuine consumer desire to circumvent traffic congestion. Cities should allow them, and APA was correct in saying that cities also need to plan for them. 

This article featured additional reporting from Market Urbanism Report content staffer Ethan Finlan.


Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.

A journalist who focuses on American urban issues. He can be reached at scott@marketurbanismreport.com or on Twitter at @sbcrosscountry.
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