12/9/2019 | 2 MINUTE READ

Making a Case for Air Taxis

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Vertical takeoff and landing aircraft promise to cut commute times. 

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The average person is willing to commute an hour per day to work and back. Anything more time consuming will prompt either a job change or a new residence. This phenomenon, which has been relatively unchanged for at least the last century, is called Marchetti’s Constant after Italian physicist Cesare Marchetti and his 1994 research paper Anthropological Invariants in Travel Behavior.

His point: It’s a matter of commute time, not evolving travel technologies, changing living conditions or other factors.

The theory is that people tend be homebodies who like to spend as much time as possible close to friends and family, enjoying leisure activities or simply relaxing on comfy couches. Gainful employment may be a necessary means to achieve such downtime, but long commutes aren’t.

Commuting Takes Flight    

Cars, trains and planes have allowed people to take dream jobs (or at least better paying ones) farther and farther away from where they live. But increasing urban congestion threatens such progress. One option: vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft.

Known as air taxis or passenger drones, these helicopter-like small transporters (no runway required!) are capable of carrying about four passengers. They offer to literally rise above the problem, zipping busy suburban commuters to and from their downtown moneymakers.

Dozens of companies, ranging from Airbus, Boeing and Terrarfugia to Audi, Daimler, Toyota, Uber and several tech startups, are pursuing the fledgling technology. Uber aims to begin pilot programs next year in three cities and launch commercial service by 2023.

Time-Saving Benefits

“Long-term VTOL will redefine what constitutes a metropolitan area by dramatically reducing travel times between communities in a region,” according to a new report by Inrix, a traffic-mapping and connected-car service supplier. The authors estimate air taxis traveling as fast as 150 mph would allow workers to live 60 miles away from their jobs without overstepping the 1-hour daily commute threshold, compared with a 25-mile maximum for commuters who drive.

The change could have a massive impact on commuting and development patterns, Inrix says. Early adopters likely will be wealthy suburbanites commuting to downtown cores. Based on an analysis of trillions of data points from hundreds of millions of connected devices, Inrix says the greatest near-term potential for air taxis in the U.S. is in the Atlanta, Austin, Boston and San Francisco metropolitan areas. A two-way commute via VTOL from one Atlanta suburb could save about 82 minutes per day, according to the report.

As infrastructures improve and economies of scale take hold, air taxis are expected to eventually expand to small- and medium-sized cities. In fact, Inrix believes that a VTOL facility in a small town will be “far more economical” than investments in rail or road infrastructure.

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