Flying taxis and digital twin cities

Interview
October 25, 2021

IN BRIEF

  • Flying taxis will be in the U.S. by 2028. Asia and Europe are far along on this; the UK is currently building its first “verti port” (vertical port) and Germany is going to roll one out next year. The U.S. isn't far behind.
  • There are some big tech companies developing “digital twin” technology, and the conventional wisdom is that by 2025, lots of communities will be working with digital twins.
  • The hope is that planning would lead to more equitable cities in 2030 and beyond.

Petra Hurtado is the Research Director at the American Planning Association (APA), heading APA’s research programs and foresight practice, where she’s responsible for expanding a future-focused research agenda and advancing planning practices that assist communities in navigating change. Her areas of expertise and research include urban sustainability, smart cities, emerging technologies, nature-based solutions, and environmental psychology. Hurtado sat down with VISION by Protiviti’s Editor-in-Chief Joe Kornik to discuss where she sees cities heading in 2030 and beyond.


ABOUT

Petra Hurtado
Research Director
American Planning Association

Petra Hurtado is the Research Director at the American Planning Association (APA), heading APA’s research programs and foresight practice, where she’s responsible for expanding a future-focused research agenda and advancing planning practices that assist communities in navigating change.

Kornik:  I’ve read quite bit about how the pandemic was maybe the beginning of the end of cities. Are cities in real trouble?

Hurtado: I know there’s been a lot of talk about that how this is the end of the city, because now people can just move wherever they want, and work remotely, and how cities haven’t been able to adjust quickly enough. But, you know, there’s more to cities than just work and job availability. Cities have been around for a long time, and they’ve gone through many pandemics, and many changes because of pandemics, and they’ve survived—and thrived. There’s a reason people like to live in cities: They want a sense of community; and they want to be a part of the experience of a city. Often, it’s an experience you can’t find elsewhere. So, I think cities will adjust and will be just fine post-COVID. 

Kornik: Do you view COVID as a reset? Do you think they will be vastly different places when we get back to “normal”?

Hurtado: You know, to be honest, I hope they are different. It would be stupid, frankly, if we went back to the way they used to be because we’ve became aware of deficiencies in cities because of COVID. We have an opportunity to make some big changes. COVID highlighted many of the inequalities not everyone might have been aware of—people of color, for instance, were more negatively impacted by the pandemic. Their neighborhoods are often close to heavy industry and highways where the air is already polluted, which leads to conditions like asthma. Obesity rates tend to be higher because of the lack of healthy food options; and these are all planning issues that became more in focus because of COVID. We also saw how transportation behavior changed, especially during the lockdowns. We saw that it’s possible to mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. For the longest time, there was the assumption that behavior could never change, but COVID showed us it could. That’s one bright spot from the pandemic.

Kornik: Has COVID helped open planners’ eyes or have planners known these things all along? 

Hurtado: It’s probably a mix of both. I think we’ve tried to resolve a lot of the challenges with the same tools that created them, which is never a good approach. One of the APA’s roles is to research emerging trends and try to verify them with data to make sure some aspect is not just the latest fad or just something the media is talking about, but really verifying which trends will have high impacts in the future, which will result in disruption.

Kornik: What are some of those trends and disruptors you’re seeing right now?

Hurtado: One is drone technology and what that could mean for moving things—and people—around cities. Amazon and other delivery services are already piloting drone deliveries, but now we’re also talking about passenger transportation—flying taxis. This is a topic that has been discussed since the 1960s, and there was always this momentum where we thought it was going to happen and then it didn’t. OK, with the drone technology we currently have, this time it’s going to happen, for sure. We’re confident it’ll be here by 2028. Asia and Europe are far along on this; the UK is currently building its first “verti port” (vertical port) for flying taxis and Germany is going to roll one out next year. The U.S. is also trying to figure this out. The World Economic Forum is currently working on a blueprint with the city of Los Angeles on urban air mobility, and they have created the first set of policy recommendations, where things like safety, costs, noise pollution and verti port locations are being assessed. Planners need to be ahead of the policy. We need to embrace that disruption—use it to our advantage even. The emergence of Uber and Lyft disrupted cities to some extent and that’s not even a big innovation. Well, how much will air taxis disrupt cities? Probably a great deal. And speaking of Uber and Lyft, they are both in this air taxi space, as well.

I know there’s been a lot of talk about that how this is the end of the city, because now people can just move wherever they want, and work remotely, and how cities haven’t been able to adjust quickly enough.

image of flying taxi
Unmanned passenger drone, 3D rendering

Kornik: That’s interesting. And it gets me thinking about urban mobility in general. When you look out to 2030 and beyond, will new technologies be able to serve mobility needs or will we still be relying on the same subway systems we’ve used for 115 years in New York City, for instance?

Hurtado: That’s a good question, and there’s a lot of uncertainty right now. Obviously, public transportation was hit really hard in this pandemic. A lot of that is really a question of political will, which obviously with the new administration in the U.S. there’s hope that public transit will be at the top of the infrastructure priority list. We also shouldn’t assume that when new technologies roll out that everything else goes away. In 2030, we definitely will still have many of the same trains, buses and subways. And people will still have their personal cars. The integration of these new technologies into everyday life is a process and is going to take a while. Another question is around cost and affordability. What about the people who can’t afford to use an autonomous vehicle or a flying taxi? My hope is that some of these new technologies will be able to close some gaps that we have in our transportation system. I think cities missed out on that opportunity with Uber and Lyft, which didn’t really help close the gap for neighborhoods without access to public transit. But most of these new technologies are being developed by the private sector so there’s not a lot that’s “public” about them. My guess is there will just be more options in the transportation system.

Kornik: How does AI (Artificial Intelligence) and all this newly available data factor in? Can it be used effectively by planners?

Hurtado: Yes, Big Data is here and there’s lots of real-time data available and that obviously can help to make the planning profession more agile, which it needs right now. Cities, in general, have not been very nimble—until COVID. Cities were able to adjust quickly. Shared streets, pop-up bike lanes and the restaurant seating on the street was all possible because of the emergency orders in the cities. Through the regular planning processes that would have probably taken years. That tells us something about planning and the lack of agility in planning. So, access to real-time data that can be processed with artificial intelligence can make planning more agile in a changing world. However, we need to be aware that there are going to be data gaps. We need to figure out how can we close these data gaps and how can we plan for the individuals in our communities who may not be represented in that data for several reasons. Yes, most people have smartphones nowadays, but some people still don’t, and some don’t have credit cards. These people can’t call an Uber and can’t use a shared bike. Many elderly people, for instance, don’t have—or don’t know how to use—a smartphone. So, we need to mind the gaps, I’d say. That’s incredibly crucial as we move forward with all this data. The technology can’t get too far ahead of the people.

In 2030, we definitely will still have many of the same trains, buses and subways. And people will still have their personal cars. The integration of these new technologies into everyday life is a process and is going to take a while.

image of servers
Data center

Kornik: What are some other ways planners can use big data?

Hurtado: We can measure how people move around cities, for example. That data is being used to make decisions about urban planning. There’s this whole idea around what we call “digital twin” cities. Planners can work with real-time data, create a twin of a city and then use that to experiment and try things out before it would ever get implemented. There are some big tech companies developing this technology and the conventional wisdom is that by 2025, lots of communities will be working with digital twins. Creating a digital version of Chicago with all the relevant data, for instance, would give planners access to information and the ability to experiment on the impacts of policy changes. If we build this road, how will that impact our greenhouse gas emissions. That level of experimentation hasn’t been available to planners before now and it will drastically alter the way city planning is done, and cities themselves, over the next several years.

Kornik: Will cities be better places to live in 2030 and beyond?

Hurtado: All the developments we’ve just talked about becoming a reality are going to disrupt cities tremendously… things like autonomous vehicles and flying taxis and digital twins, you name it. But I also think there are so many dynamic things happening right now that you don’t even have to go that far out to envision the changes coming. Look at all the discussions we’re having around people and equity right now; well, urban planning contributed to these inequalities that we’re seeing today in cities. It would be great if we learned from some of those mistakes. So, if I could make one wish it would be that planning would lead to more equitable cities in 2030 and beyond.

There’s this whole idea around what we call “digital twin” cities. Planners can work with real-time data, create a twin of a city and then use that to experiment and try things out before it would ever get implemented.

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