Greg Lindsay's Blog

February 25, 2020  |  permalink

Supersonic Flight, Drones4All, and Other Bad Ideas

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The New York Times’ aviation writer Christine Negroni was kind enough to quote me as skeptical about a number of trends in aviation – most notably the potential return of supersonic flight and the advent of “urban aerial vehicles,” i.e. helicopter-sized drones for all.

I’m fond of saying that air travel is the closest thing to having the power of a god – the ability to bestride the world in a single day. But some god-like powers come at a higher cost than others, including the extreme carbon footprint of supersonic flight:

Reviving these planes during a time of rising discontent with the unbridled growth of air travel has already prompted pushback.

“Bringing back supersonic transport made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up,” said Greg Lindsay, director of applied research at the urban-focused nonprofit NewCities and a co-author of “Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.”

“It’s a distillation of the promise of air travel that we can be like gods and travel the earth and be everywhere at once. But why do you need to straddle the earth in a single day?”

I am equally skeptical about the reality of UAVs, which promise to scale up the urban inequality of a city like Sao Paulo – home to the larges private helicopter fleet in the world – without solving any of cities’ transport issues on the ground. In fact, companies like Uber Elevate are actively contributing to those problems:

Eric Allison, head of Uber Elevate, said his company was committed to working with communities on the selection of sky ports, though the sites would still have to make logistical sense.

“To get off the ground we have to be intelligent and deliberate about how we pick the sky ports,” Mr. Allison said, “connecting buses and public transit and cars to make more mobility and give people options.”

Critics say it’s ironic that Uber is promoting the benefits of air transport over traffic-jammed streets considering the role that ride-hailing services have played in creating terrestrial congestion. The San Francisco County Transportation Authority says shared rides were responsible for a 50 percent increase in traffic between 2010 and 2016.

Mr. Lindsay of NewCities said that escaping to the sky could mean problems on the ground are ignored. He pointed to São Paulo, Brazil, where hundreds of helicopters ferry those who can afford it over highway gridlock.

“That’s not about public transportation, that’s about the very wealthy exiting [to] the sky from the traffic problems on the ground,” Mr. Lindsay said.

Read the whole story here.

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Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is the director of applied research at NewCities and director of strategy at its mobility offshoot CoMotion.  He is also a partner at FutureMap, a geo-strategic advisory firm based in Singapore, a non-resident senior fellow of The Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative, and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.

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