As big cities face a mobility crisis, tech companies are selling wealthy urbanites on the fantasy of escaping it

By Angie Schmitt

Even before Uber announced its helicopter service from Manhattan to John F. Kennedy International Airport for $200 to $225 a ride, transportation in major U.S. cities already reflected the growing inequality within them. Buses creep through streets choked with cars. Major subway systems are in disrepair. Meanwhile, Silicon Valley companies are selling the idea of escape to those who can afford it—often at the direct expense of those who can’t. Big cities are suffering from a mobility crisis. The delusion that the wealthiest American urbanites can buy their way past that crisis helps explain why it isn’t being fixed.

Uber Copter, which launched in July for select customers, opened last week to everyone. Perhaps it’s all a big stunt. The announcement generated a lot of publicity—something Uber has been deft about translating into investment, if not actual profits. But if Uber Copter catches on, it threatens to worsen the growing divide between the way the rich and poor get around major cities—a divide that Uber itself has helped fuel.

Since the app-based taxi service arrived in cities about a decade ago, it and its rival, Lyft, have changed the way city dwellers travel, both reflecting and reinforcing their financial status. The transportation analyst Bruce Schallerestimates that those making more than $200,000 a year take Uber and Lyft about nine times as often as those making less than $15,000.

Well-off people, it turns out, make a lot of trips. The volume of cars these two companies have added in the nine major cities where they primarily operate is stunning. According to one estimate, ridership on Uber and Lyft dwarfs that of taxicabs; taken together, cars for hire carried more passenger trips than the U.S.’s entire city-bus fleet. In San Francisco, Uber and Lyft now represent one in five car trips and half of all new congestion since 2010.

The influx of circling for-hire vehicles has strained the road systems in these cities. And it has been devastating for public transit—which, in most metro areas, depends heavily on buses that run on the same streets as Uber and Lyft cars.

Even the best-funded bus and rail systems have struggled to compete with door-to-door chauffeur services, which have been subsidized by billions of dollars from venture capitalists more concerned about expanding market share than profits. In greater Seattle, despite massive local investment in transit, Uber and Lyft now carry more trips a day than the 22-mile Link light-rail system. One study found that, after entering the San Francisco market in 2010, Uber and Lyft have reduced bus use by 13 percent.

Not only do Uber and Lyft pull wealthier riders off transit, but they also make transit worse for those who can’t afford to bail out. The two ride-hailing companies alone add an estimated 6,000 vehicles to the streets every rush hour in San Francisco, helping to mire city buses in gridlock. Declines in transit ridership often lead to service cuts that, by making routes less frequent and convenient for everyone, lead to further declines in ridership.

But with the introduction of Uber Copter, we may be entering a new, more wildly unequal frontier, where 1 percenters literally soar above the masses in major cities, with serious environmental and health costs to ordinary city dwellers. Uber maintains that the journey from downtown Manhattan to JFK by helicopter takes about 30 minutes, compared with 82 minutes by transit.

In many ways, the new venture for Uber is fitting. New York City streets are overwhelmed with more and more cars, many of them operated by Uber and Lyft—and people are seeking escape. Now the company can capitalize on the problem it helped create.

In its Twitter announcement, the company said, “The pilot is designed to generate learnings for a future all-electric Uber Air ride-sharing network.” Yet any hypothetical benefits from those “learnings” are a far-off dream at best, and the nonexistent all-electric network is a convenient way to wave off environmental complaints. The potential environmental harms, of course, are evident now. Helicopters are gas guzzlers. When CityLab’s Laura Bliss tried the service last week, the pilot told her that her half-hour flight consumed 10 gallons of gas—and that this was “‘efficient’ for a helicopter.” A 2006 study in the Netherlands also found that helicopters produce about three to five times the pollution of a diesel car.

But as pressing as they are, the climate impacts of a massive new fleet of private planes and helicopters might not even be the biggest social concern related to Uber Copter. The service will fly over some of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the United States. Long-term exposure to very loud noise is not just annoying. In 2011, the World Health Organization studied the impacts of noise pollution over time. Researchers found that city noise levels—such as traffic noise (which is generally in the 60- to 80-decibel range)—heightens all sorts of common health problems, from stress and insomnia to cardiovascular disease. Adding helicopters to the mix will only aggravate the damage.

Everyone acknowledges that getting to the New York City airports from Manhattan is a pain. Transit access has never been easy. But this is primarily a political, not technological, problem. Uber’s aim to indulge a lucky few in relief could sap political will for the more drastic structural changes that are needed.

Even the advertised time savings appear to be something of an illusion anyway. Much like Elon Musk’s still mostly hypothetical Hyperloop—which promises 28-minute trips from Cleveland to Chicago—the sales pitch relies on ignoring the time it takes to travel to the launch point and to board. New York only has three commercial heliports. A Reuters journalist attempted the journey and reported that it took 70 minutes once you factor in the ride to the heliport—just 12 minutes faster than Uber says it takes by transit, and about the same as a taxi. When the New York Post sent two reporters to JFK from Midtown, one of them by Uber car and Uber Copter and the other by subway, the latter arrived three minutes earlier and spent a tiny fraction of what the former did.

Taking a helicopter to the airport, like driving in the streets, is easy and fast when not many other people are doing it; but if it catches on, everybody suffers. Recently, New York City demonstrated how a more scalable solution might look. It wasn’t flashy.

The city painted two lanes on 14th Street red, limiting them for use only by city buses. Clearing cars out of the way of buses full of people improved speeds so much that some bus drivers had to stop and wait to stay on schedule. The writer Aaron Gordon called it “a miracle.” It was, in many ways, the exact inverse of a high-flying airport service: an affordable solution with cascading public benefits—starting with reductions in noise and pollution. It promises to make no small group rich, but confers small benefits widely.

Traffic congestion in crowded cities is a tragedy of the commons. What seems most convenient for the individual in the moment—whether it’s driving alone, hopping in an Uber or a Lyft, or soaring over a gridlocked highway in a helicopter—is often the worst for everyone in the aggregate. Ultimately, the kind of freedom of movement that a service like Uber Copter promises can really only be offered at large scale by collective planning and government action.

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