Uber’s vision of a futuristic era of flying drones that ferry Dallasites over and above clogged streets is still a ways away. But last week, the ride sharing company took a few more steps towards realizing their transportation dream by announcing a new partnership with NASA to test a handful of air shuttle service pilot programs, including one program in Dallas. Uber first announced the partnership to build a Frisco “ventriport” with helicopter adventurer Ross Perot Jr.’s Hillwood Company back in April.
But should we buy the Silicon Valley-based company’s argument that adding air service will usher-in a better and brighter future? Or, just as the promise of automobile travel created an economy based on inefficient sprawl that we are still trying to legislate and build our way out of, will it only worsen existing problems with transportation inequality?
That’s the argument made in this article over on CityLab, which looks at how the ride-share air service might exacerbate existing issues with inequality and eroding public services. In a city like Los Angeles, which is well ahead of Dallas in terms of its efforts to reverse the negative impacts of automobile-driven sprawl, UberAir could undo that momentum:
Ride-hailing companies already seem to be undermining those goals; UberAir would do so even more explicitly. Setting aside the the many practical questions yet to be answered (the electro-choppers don’t quite exist yet, for one), the fundamental model here—a network of private, high-rise launchpads—does not a walkable city make. Nor an equitable one: Even if UberAir somehow overcomes the safety, technology, and regulatory challenges and delivers on super-low fares, consider that adoption of UberX has been highly uneven across income and education brackets. Poorer Americans aren’t riding Ubers and Lyfts like they’re riding transit. Meanwhile, bus routes are getting shortened and slashed. Ride-hailing, even when it’s shared, is creating a new class of transportation. UberCopters would give rise to an even loftier one.
We’ve been here before. At the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, the public was wowed by the Futurama exhibition, which depicted a magical vision of a new world in which all Americans whisked around in personal cars carried above neighborhoods and homes on new elevated concrete highways.
If we have learned anything from the era of the automobile, it is that the promise of technology is not, in and of itself, a social good. Just because capacities exist for changing the way we move around cities, that doesn’t mean that they should be embraced wholeheartedly before all of the potential impacts and implications are studied and weighed.