During a presentation on urban air mobility (UAM) operations hosted by the Southern California Airspace Users Working Group on June 8, Clint Harper, urban air fellow at Urban Movement Labs, gave a progress report on plans to bring eVTOL air taxi services to Los Angeles.
Urban Movement Labs is a public-private partnership with the City of Los Angeles. Harper, an Air Force veteran, has an extensive background in aircraft dispatch, airport operations, airport planning, heliport planning, and unmanned aerial vehicle operations.
While one might assume that Los Angeles would be an ideal area for UAM operations because of the mandatory rooftop emergency helipads on buildings that exceed a certain height, that is not the case, according to Harper.
“Speaking with some folks in the FAA and consultants that are doing work on this, they are not confident those facilities are going to have a role in this,” he said. The rooftop helipads are not designed for regular use and are for emergencies such as earthquakes and fires. Harper pointed out that these buildings are private property and there is no mechanism for allowing someone to land on a building then use the elevators to reach the ground. “Does the elevator now become a public corridor?” he asked. “There are just a lot of problems that we haven’t got good answers for so far.”
But Los Angeles also has a number of airports, and these could play a role in UAM infrastructure, Harper explained. “There are a lot of folks in the advanced mobility industry who see airports playing a massive role in this. I think they are primed to serve a big role.”
There is one challenge, however, that hasn’t been discussed, according to Harper, and that is how much airports rely on fuel to generate revenue. Electrically powered aircraft don’t need fuel—unless they have hybrid-electric powertrains—and it’s not certain how battery charging will generate revenue for an airport, especially if the vehicle flies from somewhere else and doesn’t need any services at the airport. Will user fees make up for lower fuel revenue? Nobody likes user fees or taxes, but this is an issue that will need to be addressed.
The larger issue for UAM operations in a crowded metropolitan area is whether the claims that these vehicles can solve congestion problems will hold true. “It’s going to take a systems approach,” Harper said. “And we’re trying to understand, how does this systems approach work?”
What he means is that simply adding a new mode of transportation won’t automatically relieve congestion. It’s similar to adding another lane to a busy highway. “The relief that you get from that is a year or maybe two years, and then you're back to the same situation that you started with. That holds true across all different modes [of transportation],” he said. “We know that we're not going to solve congestion just with the introduction to urban mobility. It's going to take a systems approach, and that's what we're trying to understand now, is how does this system approach work?”
Harper is under no illusions that UAM by itself will solve congestion problems. “We have lots of transportation problems,” he explained. “Not just within Los Angeles, but all over the world. There are problems that have been created through the hyper-focus on one single-mode, and that's the personal automobile. That's created a lot of issues that we have with our transportation system, a result of a lack of choice. Now we start to see where opportunities might exist [such as] urban mobility, electric aviation. However, you want to frame it as a choice that can be offered in a suite of solutions, a suite of transportation options.”
Urban Movement Labs' goal is to help cities like Los Angeles tackle these issues. “How do we start looking towards the future and how do we work together?” Harper asked, to create the most efficient way to move between two points.
Unfortunately, the integration of UAM to help solve these problems is not an easy process when dealing with cities and urban planners. Early community engagement is key.
For example, the concept of using parking garage roofs as vertiports will require zoning laws and land-use changes. “[These are] things the urban planners are going to have to bring before a city council in a public meeting,” he said. “If we’re not doing this correctly, we’re setting them up for failure.”
Harper ran into pushback in meetings with urban planners who had seen the UAM industry promoting its ability to solve congestion problems without much consideration of how this would actually be implemented. “My first meeting with urban planners on urban mobility was kind of a nightmare. There's all this hype from the industry about solving congestion. It was easy to poke holes in that. There was a lot of yelling, a lot of finger pointing, a lot of accusations.”
The perception among the planners was that the UAM industry was trying to undo their work on efficient land use and transportation solutions. “That was not my intent,” he said. “My intent was to to be on their side to try and figure out how we're going to make this happen effectively.”
What this means, he explained, is helping develop a “community vision” that accepts the option of adding UAM to the transportation mix.
Urban Movement Labs is trying to assess the public’s perception of UAM operations with a community stakeholder engagement survey as well as research on noise impacts and other aspects of how UAM will affect local communities.
Harper was granted a fellowship and is hosted within the Los Angeles Department of Transportation. There are four main pillars in the Partnership’s efforts: day-to-day management of the UAM Partnership; public engagement; development and demonstration of vertiport concepts; and creation of a “policy toolkit,” which allows sharing of the Los Angeles research with other localities that don’t want to duplicate those efforts.
The engagement survey is an important part of this effort, according to Harper, because peoples’ perception of UAM has more to do with the cartoon Jetsons family and their flying cars than the reality of tomorrow’s UAM operations. Another obstacle is that urban planners have told Harper that they thought UAM vehicles would be landing all over the place, not at dedicated facilities. “They haven’t enabled safe bike lanes and now they’ve got to worry about aircraft landing on them. That’s the perception that’s still out there.”
In his work to lead some of the public engagement efforts, Harper is asking those involved with UAM to work with him to learn more about the Los Angeles efforts.
“We're trying to think these things through,” he said. “My fellowship is a term of a year, and I have about nine months left on it. It's going to be wrapped up into a policy toolkit, and we're hoping that's going to be used as a template for other cities to follow within the United States.”
Several eVTOL aircraft manufacturers are looking to support Los Angeles's plans to be an early adopter of eVTOL aircraft services. Both Archer Aviation and Hyundai are involved in the city's public-private partnership.