From flying taxis to autonomous vehicles, new mobile technology is taking us to a future that might be either The Jetsons or Blade Runner. The future could see frictionless solutions to congestion and carbon pollution, or it could unleash a dystopia of mobile chaos, with people living in endlessly circulating self-driving pod-cars, for example.

But even as corporations, engineers and planners confront with the future, new mobility is re-shaping cities right now.

“Advances in mobility will change the way cities are designed, from actual transit to the way we park and operate our businesses,” says Mark Arizmendi, Executive Vice President of car-sharing firm SPLT. “Carpooling for greater density, advances in parking technology to reduce footprint and street congestion, and artificial intelligence to know when people work and deduce traffic and parking patterns will all mean greater flexibility and more humanistic urban planning.

SPLT is a commuter carpooling service owned by Bosch, whose goals are humanistic to be sure. It enters a marketplace grappling with Bird Scooters and LimeBikes, and planners bracing for autonomous vehicles.

Private Enterprise and Public Responsibilities

One such planner is Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) General Manager Seleta Reynolds.

“Technologies like autonomous vehicles and dockless bikeshare can be part of the solution, but only if we — government, the public sector, and the public — intentionally guide and nudge them toward the future that we want,” she recently told The Planning Report. “If all that ‘the future’ gets us is vehicles that are autonomous and electric, but still sit in soul-crushing traffic for more than 100 hours a year, then we won’t have achieved much. As code becomes the new concrete, we need to engage in challenging conversations about managing demand, pricing infrastructure, and delivering a system that works for everyone.”

The transportation terrain is only getting larger, and deeper. Elon Musk’s Boring Company has proposed a system of car tunnels beneath Los Angeles, with vehicles going up to 130 miles per hour. The recent demonstration of a 1.14-mile tunnel revealed obvious flaws: It depends on individual, private cars rather than longer pods that could carry more people; its construction costs are much larger than first announced; it would create congestion at surface car-tunnel elevators; and it depends on unlikely political support and environmental permits to bore under neighborhoods.

As transportation experts Streetsblog reported after the test, “A full build-out of the concept could end up being a private uncontested highway system mirroring the congested public one for use only by a very rich few.”

Cities are creating more real solutions in the realm of microtransit. Anaheim, for example, just launched FRAN – Free Rides Around (the) Neighborhood — a unique fleet of Polaris GEM electric vehicles hailed on-demand (like Lyft and Uber) via smartphone app. The service is operated by the city’s transportation agency, not by a private company. It is highly local and “place-based,” meaning it adds mobility to a specific ½-mile radius of the city enjoying a commercial and residential development boom. FRAN branded to express the character of that neighborhood, with vehicle designs rooted in Anaheim’s history and culture.

Such public services arrive as high-profile private services have failed. Chariot, an app-based shuttle service recently shut down due to profitability problems after Ford purchased it for $65 million. Successful ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft are often viewed as a threat to public transportation agencies, stealing customers and precious revenue.

Anaheim Resort Transportation Executive Director Diana Kotler believes microtransit will develop primarily as a public service.

“The private sector is struggling to fill the void,” says Kotler. “Each jurisdiction must decide whether a public agency will operate and fund microtransit in an environment so new that there are few policy guidelines.”

She notes that the various modes of the past few decades – private car, bus, rail – have operated independently, but that in the future, “microtransit will connect them all.”

The Flying Cabs Are Coming

Helping to mediate between public planners and the private companies are third-party experts such as Urban Land Institute. In 2019, for example, ULI Los Angeles will host a “mobility summit” intended to focus on the role technology can play to help “implement creative mobility solutions that reduce congestion and create less stress on the environment.”

This Mobility Summit will convene real estate developers, technology providers, transportation companies and public planners to address the new world of “enterprise carpooling, smart parking, smart streets, autonomous valet parking, first and last mile assets, and smart EV charging.”

Many of these issues were addressed at ULI Los Angeles’ recent VerdeXchange / FutureBuild convention, with sessions on street curbs, “complete streets” (including bike lanes and pedestrian vitality), and “autonomous, aerial mobility” – yes, flying robo-cabs.

This is the dramatic future that Audi, Rolls Royce and other corporations previewed at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Uber and Bell Helicopter unveiled a flying car design – one among many that could operate in a public right-of-way that will extend 1,500 feet up into the air.

This hybrid-electric aircraft, called Nexus, plans to test flying car designs by 2020 and launch a commercial service in 2023, according to The Guardian.

The enterprise is part of UberAir and its Uber Elevate program, which aims “to reduce individual car ownership and change the way people travel in urban areas with, for instance, Uber Pool ride-sharing and Uber Jump electric bikes.” UberAir intends initial launch locations for its flying taxis in Dallas and Los Angeles.

And at the November, 2018 Drone Week in Amsterdam, Audi, Airbus and Italdesign presented a flying taxi combining traits of a self-driving electric car with a passenger drone. A 1:4 scale model of the flying/driving robo-car had its first public test flight at the event, according to Japanese NDTV: “The flight module accurately placed a passenger capsule on the ground module, which then drove from the test grounds autonomously.”

All these new technologies are coming soon, or are already here. The question is whether they will compound transportation crises or become positive solutions above and below ground.

“The future will depend largely on whether we get the policies right for managing that space,” said LADOT’s Reynolds.

This article appeared in the March/April print edition of FORM Magazine. Copies available in :FORM Shop.

Jack Skelley

Author: Jack Skelley

Jack Skelley is president of JSPR, specializing in “urbanology” — architects, designers, builders and cities.
He is an award-winning writer/editor with over 25 years of experience from Harper’s magazine to The Atlantic to Form magazine to Los Angeles Times, and is former Executive Editor and Associate Publisher of Los Angeles Downtown News.
He serves on the Advisory Board of Urban Land Institute Los Angeles and is a long-time contributor to Urban Land magazine
He is also a musician, including guitarist and songwriter in the psychedelic surf band, Lawndale.