Skyports unveiled for Uber’s flying cars

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Uber has “disrupted” taxi cabs, e-scooters and bikes. Now the company’s airborne division, Uber Elevate, wants to add a ride-hailing service in the sky, called Uber Air.

“Two years ago, the Elevate team was hardly a handful of people and most people in the world had only dreamt of flying cars. Now, today, the ever-elusive flying car future we have all envisioned, is one step closer, said Nikhil Goel, head of product at Uber Elevate, at their summit last week.

Uber Elevate claims Uber Air will be ready for lift off in 2023. And it’s thinking about where these app-based, flying taxis will take off and land.

To that end they tapped eight design teams to come up with concepts for what they call Skyports, to be located in Los Angeles, Dallas and Melbourne.

DnA talks to architects Craig Hodgetts of Mithun/Hodgetts + Fung, Gensler’s Terence Young, and Seleta Reynolds, head of LA’s Department of Transportation, about the viability of the technology, what a “Skyport” might look like and how flying cars might impact people on the ground.

An Uber Air vehicle is not an airplane. It is an eVTOL (electric vertical takeoff and landing) aircraft or air taxi. And that means, says Young, “it acts like a helicopter upon arrival and departure and it acts like an airplane in flight. It's engineered for multiple passengers; it’s engineered for electric power, which is the key to keeping costs down and creating greater sustainability; and also keeping noise down.”

Young and Hodgetts both attended the Uber Elevate summit and Hodgetts says he drank the Uber Air Kool Aid: “First and foremost, it's a transformative idea. It's an idea which Uber has been pursuing, much to my amazement, to kind of harness all forms of mobility and orchestrate them to maximize their utilization, [including] scooters, bikes, trains, buses, transit vehicles, aircraft and driverless cars.”

The concept is that these air taxis would race around the Southland, at a height of up to 400 feet, and they would follow transit channels, like freeways, so they would not be buzzing around indiscriminately. They would be part of a complete transit network interconnecting ground and air mobility at termini they call Skyports. The challenge to the designers was to situate these Skyports -- two football fields in size, says Hodgetts -- and figure out what role they would play in the urban fabric.

“It's situated in the middle of the city, as opposed to an airport which tends to want to be as far away from urban populations as possible,” explains Young. “So airspace is geared towards managing larger aircraft, whereas this is geared toward managing craft that are the size of cars.”

Gensler placed theirs by the freeway, right by the transit channel but intended to deliver urban amenities: “underneath the canopy of the flight deck you can have gyms, fresh markets, you could have health care, you could have an urgent care, you could have all of these things that people are kind of missing in a place like Los Angeles because our neighborhoods are kind of split up.”

Mithun | Hodgetts + Fung’s concept, explained Craig Hodgetts, is to turn the Skyport into “a community asset” with an elevated, transparent landing field above a public park. “So looking up you would see the aircraft landing, the sun would penetrate it, cast shadows down below and create a very, we think, sublime park-like atmosphere below the parking and landing area.”

Now the viability of the urban air taxi will be fully tested when the rubber hits the road, as in, when the devices work safely and when they face the approval process with the many stakeholders, like aviation officials, community groups, lawmakers and transportation planners.

Seleta Reynolds heads LA’s Department of Transportation and says the design concepts for Uber Air Skyports are impressive, “but most of them, from my perspective, still have a little bit of work to do in showing something that really integrates into the fabric of a city.”

Reynolds says LA DOT’s role is to “correcting racial and socioeconomic inequities” in the transportation system. “I just want to make sure that if you live in a lower-income neighborhood or you live in a neighborhood that maybe isn't as organized or doesn't have as much influence over these kinds of things, that you don't end up becoming the takeoff and landing pad… and then your streets become more clogged with UberX or Uber Black cars pulling up to pick up and drop off customers who are getting on these air taxis.”