Wait. Hold on. Stop the presses, or the WordPresses, or whatever churns out #content these days. Everyone put down their pencils, turn down the radio, and switch off the YouTubes. Something happened yesterday that I really don’t think anyone has really taken the broadband-brain width to fully comprehend and appreciate yet. So place your hands on your lap and take a deep breath. I’ll retype the headline:
“Uber Picks DFW as First Region in the U.S. to Test Flying Vehicles”
Did you catch that?
Or maybe this:
Or even this:
Regardless of the particulars, this may all soon look more like the world that we live in. And so, as far as I’m concerned, it’s official: we live in the future. It’s here. We are Future People (even if Future Man beat us too it). And if you’re like me, you probably spent half the night lying in bed listening to that magnificent thunderstorm and wondering what on earth it means to live in the future.
We’ve had a version of this conversation before. The other big, world-shattering, complete-reinvention-of-reality transportation invention on the horizon is the self-driving car. There are competing visions of how driver-less cars may play out. One is an urban dream of limited congestion and enhanced connectivity, a dream in which hip, swinging, sophisticated urbanites living in our densifying urban cores step from tall buildings into a fleet driver-less vehicles that circulate endlessly around the city like a fluid and continuously moving and modifying personalized subway system — allowing for intra-city travel with greater efficiency and economy than we have ever imagined.
I tend to expect a different situation will play out. The invention of the automobile allowed for individuals to double-down on our appetite for self-determination and follow that inertia towards the dream of life within a pseudo-Utopian approximation of the pastoral English estate — the security, solitude, and status of being a endowed member of the landed gentry. That ended up creating an amalgamation of generic, dissociating, cookie-cutter suburban subdivisions that have swallowed up vast swaths of the American landscape. Why wouldn’t the driver-less car allow this sprawl to persist endlessly and exponentially? Why not take a job in Frisco and live in rural Kansas if your morning commute consists simply of sleeping, breakfast, and start-the-day work calls in a car you don’t drive but which coordinates with all the other cars on the road to ensure that there is no traffic or delays?
But then there is the flying car, which I find all the more fascinating if only because it is a key feature in the drawings of every child who has dared to reach deep into the nascent power of their burgeoning imagination and render the possibilities and what-ifs of yet-to-be realities in crayon. The flying car is as fundamental to our yearning to transcends the clumsy limitations of bipedalism as the concept of God is to our fear of death. This brief history of the flying car dates its origin back to 1904 and Jules Verne’s publication of Master of the World. But I would date it back further still, perhaps even as far back as the scribbling on the ceilings of the caves at Lascaux — to that basic, fundamental instinct in humanity to see things that move on land and imagine them in the sky. Perhaps the first flying car was a souped-up of version of the first form of advanced transportation — the daring vision of a horse with wings. Perhaps the first flying car was called the Pegasus.
And so, what a poetic twist to have Dallas now serve as the host of this grand human experiment. The city which embraces the metaphoric meaning of its icon and mascot more ardently than any other city — save, perhaps, Berlin and its beloved bear — now has a chance to lead the world into a new era of airborne commuting.
What will that brave new world look like?
I think that, like the driver-less car, there are competing visions for what kind of future the flying car will usher in. There is the hopeful and sensible vision that people like Ross Perot Jr. — the head of Hillwood, the company partnering with Uber in the flying car prototype roll-out, and the first man to fly a helicopter around the world — hope for. Expanded access to limited-distance air travel could create infinite new efficiencies and advantages in the way we move, interact, conduct business, and socialize, all the while enriching our enjoyment of life. What is not enticing about the idea of spending more of life experiencing life like a bird? An Uber of the sky could allow those who can afford the service to leap over traffic congestion like automotive gazelles, jumping from Uptown to the Ballpark in Arlington, South Dallas to the job meccas of Frisco and Plano. In a region that can feel stretched by the sheer size of its physical footprint, flying cars could suture together disconnected edges.
But there is another possibility, one that is not as rosy a vision, but which I find oddly more satisfying, if only from a metaphoric perspective. The addition of airborne commuter traffic to our cities will be no easy task. For one, flyways will be limited by restrictions already in place: the heights of buildings, the approach zones of airports, above ground infrastructure, and security and safety restrictions. Let’s imagine for a moment, though, that safety, existing regulation, energy, the economy, and the environment play no role in the pursuit of a flying car future. In order to implement this technology into our cities, we will have to create some legal infrastructure that establishes where and how high cars can fly. The result will be invisible zones of passage that function like grand superhighways in the sky. In other words, flying cars will allow us to establish a whole new transportation infrastructure that doesn’t exist today and won’t really exist in the future, but will exist only as an agreed upon construct of law and policy.
Now let’s imagine further into the future. One thing we know about highways is that whenever they are built, sooner or later they fill up with traffic. When they become too congested, there is the call for widening, the addition of more lanes, or in some instances, tunneling or double decking. The incessant pressure of congestion has driven a logic of transportation policy in this country for more than a half-century that seeks to solve for the presence of more cars with the addition of more road. The restrictions to this infrastructure inertia are money, space, and political will — building highways is expensive; many run through pre-built environments; and there are social, environmental, and engineering reasons to resist to the idea of ever-expanding highways.
But with regards to a superhighway in the sky, there are no costs to expand, no built environment to contend with, and no residents or businesses to displace. A highway that exists only as a set of conceptual parameters in the wide-openness of the uncluttered air would have no barriers for expansion.
What would that look like?
If our skies became increasingly cluttered with flying cars, would the municipal planning organizations of the world push for ever-more expansion of the airborne superhighways? How wide could it expand? The width of two I-35s? The width of 48-highway lanes? The width of the entire city?
Would it eventually grow into something that resembles a dream that perhaps only the Michael Morris’s of the world sketched out in crayon on the kindergarten floor: an endless highway that exists merely, if resiliently as a limitless conceptual construct, unshackled by the mundane necessities of brick and mortar, free to widen forever, expanding infinitely, swelling like a plume of gas, onward and outwards, until the entirety of our urban world takes new shape underneath the continuous cloud-cover of the never-ending flow of a universe of traffic?
And we will look up to the starless sky from the abandoned earth and marvel at the fleets of mechanized Pegasuses that clutter the canvas of our ancient ancestors’ dreams.