Just as ride-sharing services transformed our transportation behaviors, advanced aerial mobility and urban air mobility (UAM) have the potential to reshape the future of our cities and the way we move through them. While helicopters have been in full-scale production since the 1940s, their widespread adoption as a scaled form of transportation has been limited by noise, cost, safety, and security considerations. Significant investment in new vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft technology to reduce noise and enhance safety and automation could result in UAM infrastructure moving people and goods at scale through our urban and regional environments within the next several years.

As new aircraft solutions are developed; quieter, electric-powered vehicles come into service; and operators and developers start laying the foundation for a network of vertiports, cities must start defining their role and relationship to this new transportation modality before it’s too late. 

We brought together Arup’s transportation, urban planning, aviation, and acoustics experts to discuss how cities can prepare for a future UAM system that’s not only functional, but also flexible, equitable, and socially and environmentally responsible. 

Roundtable participants:

  • Ryan Biziorek | Associate Principal, Acoustic, Audiovisual, and Theatre Consulting Leader in Chicago
  • Nina Harvey | Former Senior Transportation and Urban Planner in Los Angeles
  • Paul Moore | Principal, Consulting Practice Leader in Los Angeles
  • Byron Thurber | Associate Principal, Aviation Leader in San Francisco
  • Elizabeth Valmont | Associate Principal, Acoustic, Audiovisual, and Theatre Consulting Leader in Los Angeles

What pitfalls are we facing if we don’t get ahead of UAM in terms of planning?

Paul Moore: There are several pitfalls that need to be accounted for: noise effects, safety, congestion, community impact near vertiports, the carbon footprint of the current technology, and social equity issues around who has access to this form of transportation.

Nina Harvey: Another key issue stems from flight paths. Existing helicopter flight paths, for instance, are often in line with freeways. That means all the communities already burdened by noise and air pollution might be faced with further impacts unless we create policies designed with equity and accessibility in mind now. 

What are the opportunities?

Byron Thurber: One obvious benefit is that urban air travel could be a much faster way to get across the city. While I don’t think the volume of UAM flights would be enough to make a dent in chronic road congestion, it will be a fun, quick way to get across town if you’re willing to pay a bit more. Economies of scale with three or four riders per trip should make the pricing not too unreasonable.

Ryan Biziorek: Beyond transportation, we could also see increased access in terms of goods and services. In the United States, there are over 5,000 general aviation airports that serve as economic drivers for their communities. In locations where you may have limited express delivery options, the infrastructure to support advanced aerial mobility services is already in place. In urban environments, vertiports and drone ports can serve a similar function to help get your package delivered in a timely manner and reduce the congestion created by commercial vehicles. I actually think these types of use cases will be the backbone of any urban air network, more so than passenger air travel.

Paul: We’re currently working with the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) to help map out an urban air mobility framework, and for LA in particular, we want to find ways where UAM doesn’t just have to be a splurge, but a mode that serves different sectors of the community, not just those who can pay. Shared-vehicle services like Uber and Lyft, if left to their own market devices, would congregate in areas that have more disposable income. To get service throughout a city, city authorities make agreements with those companies to provide service where they might not otherwise. That’s something cities are starting to think about with UAM as well. 

Thinking holistically, air mobility infrastructure could offer other benefits to the community at large. For example, if you’re building a new vertiport, you could include scooter stations or make upgrades to the transit facilities in the area — things that benefit the community whether they’re using the vertiport itself or not. A lot of these ideas are incumbent upon cities getting out ahead of the private sector to make sure everything is considered systematically. 

What are some of the key considerations for Los Angeles’s urban air mobility framework?

Elizabeth Valmont: At a high level, Los Angeles is looking to get ahead of what they know is coming so that they can respond to these issues of safety, security, equity, and liability. On top of that, we were able to give them an “aha” moment for how urban air mobility in the city will sound. Through our SoundLab, we’re able to auralize scenarios for our stakeholders, which gives them more context and a more immersive understanding of how we can design for our future.

Byron: The ownership structure is another consideration. What role does Los Angeles, or any city, want to play in urban air mobility? For instance, if the private sector builds, owns, and operates vertiports, the city will need a policy for where they can and can’t be sited and their minimum proximity. If, on the other hand, the city develops vertiport infrastructure, it would follow along the lines of airports: a civic-owned piece of infrastructure that rents space and time to various airlines who operate the vehicles. Or it could be a hybrid model, like Amtrak or Greyhound, where a private company is partially subsidized by government as part of its transportation infrastructure. 

Paul: Another issue is that every city and every state has its own environmental permitting regulations and its own state guidance around current air mobility technologies. It’s crucial to get a grasp of any given regulatory frameworks to (a) take advantage of thinking that's already been done and (b) ensure that the city isn't getting crosswise with guidance they’re not aware of.

Nina: Building on that, any framework for urban air mobility that we develop now has to be flexible. The technology is changing rapidly, and we can’t be sure what it’s going to look like. So, any policy starting point has to be adaptable, whether in terms of noise impacts, vertiport uses, or flights paths. As aircrafts get quieter and more efficient, the vertiport safety radius might change or the design may be more streamlined. Public entities will need the flexibility to make those changes as the technology develops. 

What auralizations were we able to demo in the SoundLab?

Elizabeth: For Los Angeles, we captured the sound and visuals of both an urban area and a suburban setting in the San Fernando Valley. Then we overlaid both scenarios with three simulated aircraft flyovers: a helicopter, which everyone is familiar with; a multicopter, or a passenger urban air vehicle, which we simulated as best we could; and then a small delivery drone. It’s incredibly helpful for us and our clients and partners to be able to connect the sounds to what we’re seeing. It sounds simple, but for something that doesn’t yet exist, it’s powerful to be able to demonstrate what the future of urban air will sound like. 

Byron: For me, I found I didn’t hear the vehicles as much as I thought I would. As a street-level observer, hearing something 150 to 200 feet up in the air blends in with the background noise of a busy LA street. The SoundLab demos have shown us that, yes, you will hear these vehicles, but you’ll get used to it as part of the urban soundscape.

Nina: I noticed that the quality of the sound or the tone is very different from what a helicopter, airplane, or car sounds like. In places where there isn’t a lot of background, you will notice it more. But auralizing the sound in different settings can show more residents what the technology will sound like to them. 

What are the main planning and policy considerations that each city or space needs to think about?

Nina: There’s a long list that, I think, starts with safety. How will the vehicles take off and land? What does the area around a vertiport look like, and what types of activities can be there? What paths must be clear to avoid any incidents? How tall can structures around vertiports be? 

Paul: Capacity and congestion are also key. In the early part of the last century, when people started buying cars, it didn't occur to anyone that there'd be so many cars that the system would just break down. I think, particularly as drone technology advances and the cost of labor to operate these vehicles goes down, there's going to be a really low barrier for people to put delivery drones up in the air and start filling up the airspace. So as a city, you need to think about how you intend to allocate that airspace between delivery, medical, and passenger movement. 

Ryan: In terms of the noise considerations, the Federal Aviation Administration recently released the Neighborhood Environmental Survey. The study evaluated the level of annoyance related to aircraft noise, and its findings suggest that our annoyance threshold is very different now than it was 20 or 30 years ago. So, we can’t rely on practices that have been used for the past 20 or 30 years. Looking ahead, understanding those thresholds and using additional noise metrics will be an important component for planning and policy. 

Elizabeth: For Los Angeles’s policy framework, we offered some research on disturbance and noise classifications. And as Ryan says, some of the existing community noise metrics may need to be reconsidered. Our suggestions accounted for a different future classification that speaks more to the physics of sound from the flight paths and the source, as well as the disturbance impacts on human behavior. 

What excites or interests you about continuing to work in the urban air mobility space?

Paul: I'm personally always concerned about technology that may only be accessible to the wealthy and whose impacts fall on people who aren't benefiting from the system. Working with LADOT has been an exciting opportunity to examine the equity issues at play and find a way to make this technology part of a bigger, holistically functioning system that could benefit the many. 

Elizabeth: I agree with Paul. We have an opportunity to shape the technology, the buildings, our cities, and people’s lives by examining the impact at every layer. For LA specifically, there’s a lot ahead from the Olympics to the Super Bowl to the World Cup. With traffic and congestion already a concern, developers and designers are already thinking about how we can integrate this new system and new mobility modality.

If well designed and well considered, what is the blue-sky potential of urban air mobility down the road?

Byron: To me, it all leads back to the user experience. Who are we designing for? How will urban air mobility improve their lives? For many people, being able to get across town to an airport or sporting event from a nearby heliport is a huge benefit, though it costs more than a cab ride. If an urban air mobility system is successful and you can fit four people in a vehicle, then the cost comes down. And the more people use it, the lower the cost, due to economies of scale. Plus, if the vehicles are electric, that lowers our carbon footprint, assuming the electric power is sustainably sourced.

Paul: I also see blue-sky potential through the lens of COVID. With autonomous delivery, there have been some pilot programs delivering personal protective equipment or prescriptions to senior communities in Florida to minimize face-to-face contact. If we think that, going forward, there will be other pandemics and other instances where face-to-face contact is a threat, autonomous urban air tech could be hugely beneficial.

Nina: When I think about the use cases, I can't stop thinking about all of the ambulances that I've seen stuck in traffic in New York City. There's no space to go. No one's getting out of your way. How many people are impacted on a daily basis because there’s no other way to quickly get to and from a hospital around the city? An urban air solution could be pretty amazing.

Ryan: In the long term, I think that UAM could enhance equity in many ways. The cost of infrastructure for ground transportation is significant. If we can responsibly design the UAM ecosystem to mitigate noise, enhance safety, and provide equitable access with partnerships between public and private sector, imagine how budgets could be rebalanced to improve other elements of the communities we live in.