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  • Sofia Greaves

Vertical Taxis. The future?

Updated: Jun 6

This article has been published in an amended version with The Conversation, in Spanish


Cities have a vertical dimension. They have exploded upwards since the early 20th century – when New York gained its iconic skyline, and skyscrapers became material symbols of modernity idolised and copied across the West. Verticality became symbolic of ‘business’, growth and infrastructural prowess; this conquest of the sky shaped a long-lasting model for what a ‘modern city’ should look like across the globe. Cities are now acquiring a new verticality: ‘Flying Taxis’, as the Economist has described, are ‘a revolution in flying’ which will extend urban experience higher still.



This is the realisation of a long-term dream imagined about 110 years ago, when planners envisioned cities where ‘aeroplanes of the bee type would be permitted to float from terrace to terrace’. One engineer fantasised that

When this result has been achieved the aspect of our cities will be changed; for every terrace will become a stopping place for these aerial automobiles. We shall be able to alight upon terrace after terrace and take wing once more at will. (1910) [1].

He predicted that vertical flight would make ‘the cities of tomorrow’ into rich, beautiful and affluent places, stating that ‘the conquest of the air will herald the reign of universal peace and wealth’. Stephen Fitzpatrick, the CEO of Vertical Aerospace, a British manufacturer of EVTOLS, similarly argues that his ‘new products and services will enhance lives for everyone in the UK. And for the planet as a whole’. [2]


At a networking event in December I met a consultant working for Vertical and this is the case he put forwards in favour of this transport transformation.


Vertical Aerospace:

- It is a pathway towards ‘zero emission’ - Cleaner than a car - Affordable! Only £60 per person to get to Heathrow

- Quieter than a washing machine


The vertical helicopter is heralded as ‘a futuristic mode of transport that can potentially revolutionize the way we commute’, [3] making flying possible from ‘existing airports, rural locations and new inner-city bases’: short haul flights. [4] It promises to reduce road congestion, take us closer to zero emission transport AND to reduce unequal distributions of wealth across the UK. Climate change, revolution, possibility, the future: all powerful ideas which deserve further discussion.

Urban Air Mobility represents a disruptive new technology… Never before has the potential for large-scale aerial operations within our cities been so real’.[5]

This blog raises some of the social implications of the vertical helicopter which are minimised by mobility stakeholders. Vertical is opening up some possibilities, and closing others down.

Creating a solution


The prospect of soundless flight is definitely better than current noise pollution caused by cars and aeroplanes. But as many have argued (yawn) the production of electric vehicles requires primary materials like lithium which are limited. The label ‘zero emission’ is only applicable because it describes 'operating emissions' - the impact of production is displaced elsewhere, whilst still contributing to the destruction of habitats and indigenous peoples. Like a cigarette inhaled in the UK and exhaled in Bolivia, where journalist Cédric Gerbehaye has documented 'white gold fever' in his artistic installations. Meanwhile, London's sky is presented as a new clean space for travel: a smokeless world of flight.


Common Responses to this Criticism:

1. “We have to start somewhere”.

Argument: We’re trying our best. This solution is better than what we currently have. Lithium batteries are a temporary solution, a ‘stop-gap’ to hydrogen fuels: “the future of zero-carbon aviation”. What solutions can you come up with?


The argument that ‘we have to start somewhere’ is extremely powerful because it manages to trivialize the concrete and certain set of environmental problems which a technology creates in the present. These concrete problems become weak arguments in the face of the faith that technology can and will fix things in the future. Technological development is framed as a moral endeavour: it has a ‘duty’ to pursue and solve planetary problems, it offers ‘solutions’ in the face of criticism.

Hence 'climate change' is not a convincing argument against helicopters, because they have presented themselves as a solution to 'climate change' itself.

The vertical helicopter is an example of an environmental problem (climate change) translated into a technological problem (how can technology ‘fix’ it), translated into a technological change (the vertical taxi). The language is clear in Vertical Aerospace's statement.

“The decarbonisation of transport is critical for the future of our planet and is why Vertical is proud to be transforming mobility.”

Will the vertical helicopter fix our mobility problems?


The effects of the vertical helicopter on our behaviour and consumption are actually uncertain [6, 7]. The effect they will have on the environment is also uncertain. Vertical helicopters might reduce car use. Equally, vertical flight could lead to two co-existing electric mobilities (car and helicopter), and the mobilisation of ‘latent travel demand’: ‘travel which will not occur if roads are congested, but will occur if roads become less congested’. Research in Paris has shown how newly freed road space is generally filled, and ‘urban traffic congestion tends to maintain a self-limiting equilibrium’.[9] This means, as Michael Barnard has written, that ‘Vertical air take-off taxis are a solution in search of a problem’. [8, 9]


A solution for the wellbeing of all?


This technology introduces other problems and uncertainties. Technology is political, as STS researchers Ian Scoones and Andy Stirling have argued:

Such debates too often ignore more important political questions about which way, what direction and who wins and who loses, where issues of uncertainty are central [16]

Who gets to ‘redefine who they are’ with a technology? How does it redefine the lives of those who don’t have access to it? Geoff Boeing, professor of urban planning at the University of Southern California, describes vertical flight as a technology of urban segregation: “where if you can pay for it, you can skip the line” (See article, Amy Crawford [19]). And non-humans? Will cities lose the sound of birds? Will migration patterns change? [20]


Accepting the vertical helicopter therefore raises a whole other set of questions regarding rights to space. If economic growth is sustained by the continual production of new spaces to commodify, the urban air has now fallen victim to ‘detrimental appropriation’ – the monopolisation and privatisation of a common good. The sky is now a space you can pay to access. Helicopters do seem to open up the sky by creating ‘new verticalities’ (Harris, 2015). On the other hand, they enclose it.


Will it create jobs and economic growth?


Productivity and jobs have long been the ‘prizes’ and ‘benefits’ of technological development. 'Innovation’ means jobs and stimulates economic growth.

The UK has an opportunity to be at the forefront of electric flight and the clear benefits it will bring in improving connectivity, productivity and creating highly-skilled jobs whilst lowering both congestion and carbon emissions. The UK needs to act now to grasp this prize. Our white paper seeks to engage those stakeholders that can be a part of our electric air mobility future. [23]

The helicopter is here framed as a ‘productive force’. It is a 'means of labour'. [25]. As Fitzpatrick claims, ’32 billion hours in the US alone are lost to congestion...that’s more than 5 working weeks of lost productivity per working head’. [24] Humanity could be making more stuff, working more hours, being 'more efficient'. Hence, the ‘transition to net zero is both a societal imperative and also one of the greatest commercial opportunities of our time’. [26]. It does not follow that the wealth generated will be distributed equally.


Vertical would counter, as they argued to their prospective investors, that the helicopter will indeed distribute wealth. It can fix the UK's productivity 'problems' -"Devon and Cornwall are significantly out of step with the rest of the UK when it comes to productivity" [27]. The helicopter offers a 'solution' for these places which are 'lagging behind', because it shortens journey times between Cardiff and Plymouth for example (see left). "Aircraft like the VA-X4 bridge rugged terrain, expediting travel to regional urban centres." [28]

Vertical Aerospace
Devon and Cornwall are significantly out of step with the rest of the UK when it comes to productivity

Proponents of Degrowth would argue that increasing productivity is probably not the answer for human wellbeing. They call for a broader questioning of cultures of time, production and 'wellbeing'. If these values start to be rethought, different types of mobility become acceptable. Productivity in Devon might be lower than elsewhere. But for whom is that a problem? Are the people in Devon and Cornwall happy? Apparently they are the happiest in the UK.


North Devon Satisfaction
The average life satisfaction score in North Devon was 8.22 - one of the highest scores in the UK and well above the average of 7.71.





There is no evidence that economic growth can be decoupled from climate impact in absolute terms. Decoupling has firmly been 'debunked'. [30]. Which takes us full circle: the wider impact of the helicopter may negate the benefits it brings through ‘zero [operating] emission’. The helicopter is an additional form of production. Production (cars, helicopters), alongside new secondary markets and global competition - where second-hand cars and helicopters are sold to places which never had them in the first place – leading to increased consumption overall. Yes the helicopter makes jobs. But what type of jobs. And what is the wider impact of the work done.


The future of mobility?


In relation with this problem, it's extremely important to consider that the helicopter will generate technological expectations at a global scale. Just like the skyscraper, the vertical helicopter will create a model for the mobilities which modern and ‘green’ cities of the future should have. In 1910 that French engineer foresaw something of this problem.

It will soon become imperative for every important community to erect landmarks in the form of lofty towers or soaring steeples of unmistakable character; and these at night would have to be furnished at their summit with beacon lights. [11]

Fitzpatrick knows it too: ‘The lessons learned and successes in Britain will become the roadmap for similar ecosystems around the world’. [12]. Mobility stakeholders are creating a very limited idea of technological development and 'the future' in itself. They fight over the construction of the future, making it what David Graeber terms ‘an alternative dimension, a dream-time, a technological Elsewhere’ [15]. Compare electric cars. Actor Regé-Jean Page drives around in the Audi Q4 e-tron. He tells us how, ‘for me one of the best things about life is that we keep moving forwards. We progress everyday’. He defines progress as the ‘discovery’ of ‘exciting new technologies’ which enable us to ‘redefine who we are’ and ‘how we want to live our lives’. Yes - technologies can shape your future. But 'the future' is not necessarily the Audi. Audi would like to think so. Page finishes, ‘we choose what we want our future to look like…What’s yours going to be?’. He drives off in the Audi.


Some, like Fitzpatrick, envision 'the future' as a place filled with electric helicopters. Fine. Others argue that this is just one possible version of the future; we need, as Scoones and Stirling write, ‘multiple modernities’ and plural definitions of ‘progress’. The ramifications of having one influential model are already clear. We know that Western industrialisation and the technologies made possible by colonisation have created the false notion that the Global North is ‘developed’ in contrast to the ‘backwards’ Global South, those 'lagging behind'. The narrative of ‘development’ has instated a system of ideas so influential that they are termed a ‘globalising modernity’ [13]. Governments feel required to ‘catch up’ by adopting certain ways of life, but were never required to ‘develop’ this way in the first place.


Why is this bad? In some cases this leads to the adoption of 'solutions' in places where it makes no environmental sense (see Dubai). Santiago de Compostela, Spain, is a medieval city and you can walk to most places. But the Xunta de Galicia is financing a vertical taxi initiative, so that the city can be 'the first' to try out this system' . [14] The same is true in the British context. Vertical appeals for government investment by referencing the cultural memory of the 'Battle of Britain' and its wartime superiority - this tech will ‘help level-up Britain’, [21] it will ‘reclaim its position’, and that ‘the VA-X4 is helping to revive the legendary British aerospace industry’. [22]

Vertical Aerospace.
Proposal for investors. p. 23.


This kind of technological race diverts investment from alternative investment pathways. Will the UK be more interested in developing its helicopters than improving public transport, in the same way that the US financed drone development at the expense of automation to compete with the Soviet Union? What mega projects will governments have to build and at what cost?


So how do we get around?


Mobility is a huge challenge for proponents of Degrowth, because connectivity is linked to notions of individualism, liberty and independence. Mobility largely requires government backing and investment; governments influence the types of technological development we have in our cities. They will have to decide whether to direct funding and effort towards public infrastructure - which might generate less economic 'growth' - or whether to finance private companies. It's essential to discuss options and flag up other possibilities.


Modes of organisation which reduce road traffic and carbon emissions whilst improving wellbeing exist. They are being applied in major capitals. Paris and Pontevedra have restricted road-space, built bus lanes, bike tracks and broadened pavements. Mayor Anne Hidalgo is making a '15 minute city', in which you are able to access all your needs by foot, 'to build a city intended for people, not cars.' [10] Other possibilities simply don't exist because we haven't directed funding in that direction.

What types of transport and technologies do we want in our society? What is 'progress' and 'the future' for us? Is it a vertical taxi? Is it a city connected to its surroundings by trains - greener than cars - and a system of bike lanes with magic carpets which generate electricity to power the lights, the shops, and filter water? This stuff exists - it might seem far fetched - but no more so than the fantasy in 1910 that 'the cities of tomorrow will attract these giant birds from every point of the horizon'. We can think up enjoyable alternatives and futures. Perhaps technological development might even go there. Then we might have different types of jobs, different experiences, cultures of time, and wellbeing. For now, the biggest challenge Vertical faces is legislation and public acceptance: 'The British public must be brought along' [32]. Apparently most people are worried about noise, safety and security - but there is a bigger picture.


Notes

[1] Eugène Henard, ‘Cities of the Future’, The Town Planning Conference, R.I.B.A., London, 10-15 October 1910. p. 364. Available online: http://urbanplanning.library.cornell.edu/DOCS/henard.htm


[2] Stephen Fitzpatrick (2021, October). “The Future of Advanced Aerial Mobility.” Vertical Aerospace White Paper, p. 3. https://vertical-aerospace.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/The-Future-of-Advanced-Aerial-Mobility.pdf [3] M. Z. Akhter, M. Raza, S. H. Iftikhar and M. Raza, "Temporal and Economic Benefits of Vertical Take-Off and Landing Vehicles in Urban Transport," 2020 Advances in Science and Engineering Technology International Conferences (ASET), 2020, pp. 1-6, doi: 10.1109/ASET48392.2020.9118256. [4] Executive Summary (2021, October). Vertical Aerospace White Paper, p. 3. https://vertical-aerospace.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/The-Future-of-Advanced-Aerial-Mobility.pdf


[5] Laurie A. Garrow, Brian J. German, Caroline E. Leonard. (2021). Urban air mobility: A comprehensive review and comparative analysis with autonomous and electric ground transportation for informing future research. Transportation Research Part C: Emerging Technologies, 132 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trc.2021.103377.


[6] This the politics of ‘scientific uncertainty’. As scientist Dale Jamieson summarises, ‘scientific uncertainty’ is ‘constructed both by science and by society in order to serve certain purposes’. Scientific uncertainty can be constructed as follows: We are not certain of how to solve battery problems in the future, but we are certain that we want less carbon now. We are therefore certain that the vertical helicopter is a good solution. This gives technological developers a moral purpose.


Jamieson, D. (1996). Scientific Uncertainty and the Political Process. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 545(1), 35–43. https://doi.org/10.1177/0002716296545001004


[7] "Investor Relations". Vertical Aerospace. https://investor.vertical-aerospace.com/overview/default.aspx


[8] Michael Barnard (November 16, 2021). “ Vertical Take-Off Air Taxis Are A Solution In Search Of A Problem (Part 2)”. Clean Technica. https://cleantechnica.com/2021/11/16/vertical-take-off-air-taxis-are-a-solution-in-search-of-a-problem-part-2/


[9] European Commission (2013). “Paris Policy to Reduce Car Traffic”. European Commission DG ENV. Addressing the Rebound Effect. p.96. https://op.europa.eu/es/publication-detail/-/publication/416089fa-1a08-4772-97fc-c9258d2349c5


[10] M. Martinez Euklidiadas (May 18, 2020). "Paris wants to become a 15-Minute City". Tomorrow City. https://tomorrow.city/a/paris-15-minute-city


[11] Henard, ‘Cities of the Future’, 364.


[12] Stephen Fitzpatrick (2021, October). “The Future of Advanced Aerial Mobility.” Vertical Aerospace, p. 7. https://vertical-aerospace.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/The-Future-of-Advanced-Aerial-Mobility.pdf


[13] Ahuja, R. (2009). Pathways of Empire: Circulation,‘Public Works’and Social Space in Colonial Orissa, c. 1780 1914 (New Perspectives in South Asian History), Hyderabad: Orient Black Swan


[14] N. A. (January 21, 2021). “ITG trae a Galicia una demostración pionera de taxi aéreo no tripulado en Europa: AMU-LED.” Instituto Tecnológico de Galicia. https://itg.es/taxi-aereo-no-tripulado-galicia-2022-amuled-h2020


[15] Graeber, D. (2012). Of Flying Cars and Declining Rate of Profit. The Baffler, 19(2012), 68.


[16] Stirling, A., and Scoones, I. (2020). Uncertainty and the Politics of Transformation. In I. Scoones and A. Stirling, (Eds.), The Politics of Uncertainty. Routledge. p. 1.


[17] William Yardley (June 6, 2008). “In Juneau, Firm Resistance to Road out of Isolation”. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/06/us/06road.html

[18] Stephen Fitzpatrick (2021, October). “The Future of Advanced Aerial Mobility.” Vertical Aerospace, p. 8. https://vertical-aerospace.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/The-Future-of-Advanced-Aerial-Mobility.pdf


[19] Amy Crawford (October 25, 2021). "Could Flying Electric Air Taxis Help Fix Urban Transportation?" The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/oct/25/could-flying-electric-air-taxis-help-fix-urban-transportation

[20] Michael Masson (April 19, 2021). “Bird Strike”. European Union Aviation Safety Agency. https://www.easa.europa.eu/community/topics/rotorcraft-birdstrikes

[21] Levelling up refers to Boris Johnson’s policy to ‘reduce the imbalances, primarily economic, between areas and social groups in the United Kingdom.’ See Stephen Fitzpatrick (2021, October). “The Future of Advanced Aerial Mobility.” Vertical Aerospace, p. 5. https://vertical-aerospace.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/The-Future-of-Advanced-Aerial-Mobility.pdf

[22] Stephen Fitzpatrick (2021, October). “The Future of Advanced Aerial Mobility.” Vertical Aerospace, p. 3. https://vertical-aerospace.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/The-Future-of-Advanced-Aerial-Mobility.pdf


[23]. Stephen Fitzpatrick, in Chris Stonor (October 28, 2021). "Vertical, Heathrow Airport to partner “for vibrant UAM future”. Urban Air Mobility News. https://www.urbanairmobilitynews.com/air-taxis/vertical-heathrow-airport-to-partner-for-vibrant-uam-future/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=vertical-heathrow-airport-to-partner-for-vibrant-uam-future


[24] Vertical Aerospace (July 22, 2021). ‘Vertical. Pioneers in Electric Aviation. Analyst Day.’ https://s29.q4cdn.com/421996561/files/doc_presentation/9/22/Vertical-Analyst-Day-22-09-2021.pdf


[25] See "Productive forces". https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Productive_forces


[26] Vertical Aerospace (July 22, 2021). ‘Vertical. Pioneers in Electric Aviation. Analyst Day.’ p. 5. https://s29.q4cdn.com/421996561/files/doc_presentation/9/22/Vertical-Analyst-Day-22-09-2021.pdf


[27] Vertical Aerospace White Paper, p. 14. https://vertical-aerospace.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/The-Future-of-Advanced-Aerial-Mobility.pdf


[28] Vertical Aerospace White Paper, p. 14. https://vertical-aerospace.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/The-Future-of-Advanced-Aerial-Mobility.pdf


[29] André Gorz (1980). "The Poverty of Affluence". In Ecology as Politics. Editions Galilee. p. 74.


[30] "The validity of the green growth discourse relies on the assumption of an absolute, permanent, global, large and fast enough decoupling of economic growth from all critical environmental pressures. The literature reviewed clearly shows that there is no empirical evidence for such a decoupling currently happening." Tim Parrique, Barth J., Briens F., C. Kerschner, Kraus-Polk A., Kuokkanen A., Spangenberg J.H. (2019, July). Decoupling Debunked. European Environmental Bureau. https://eeb.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Decoupling-Debunked.pdf


[31] Stirling and Scoones, Uncertainty and the Politics of Transformation, 2.


[32] Vertical Aerospace White Paper, p. 7. https://vertical-aerospace.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/The-Future-of-Advanced-Aerial-Mobility.pdf

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