There’s nothing new about the concept of avoiding traffic by travelling overhead, but flying taxis could take this to another level

What impact will air taxis have?

Congestion: here is an issue to unite everyone from the extreme petrol heads through to the greenest environmentalist.

Nobody benefits from this, not the motorists sitting alone in their far too large SUVs, nor the passengers on a bus boxed in by cars and vans going nowhere. And certainly not the economy. Data published by the Inrix Global Traffic Scorecard showed that congestion cost the UK economy £8bn in 2021, equivalent to an average of £595 per driver.

The traditional approach to this problem from government has been to build more roads, and wider roads, even if this has meant demolishing town centres or slicing through beautiful countryside. It is in fact still a favoured approach from the present administration, even though as long ago as 1994, a seminal report from the snappily named Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment (SACTRA) proved beyond doubt that providing more road space simply generates more vehicle movements. You can’t build your way out of congestion. At best, you just move it.

Then along came the idea of modal shift, which as a concept has gone in and out of fashion like the tide for almost 30 years. Getting people onto public transport (and some buses can take up to 90 passengers) or cycling or walking, or nowadays using Zoom or Teams to avoid travelling at all – here are the green ways to cut congestion. The idea is currently out of fashion with the present government and their divisive and self-defeating, so-called Plan for Drivers, seeking to limit bus lanes and the like, will only make congestion worse for drivers.

The latest idea is to bypass the roads altogether and use the air.

Using the space above the road is of course not new, demonstrated by the numerous rail lines which do so on viaducts, embankments or stilts. Even the ‘Underground’ has long sections which do this, such as those on the lines from Earl’s Court to Wimbledon, or Paddington to Hammersmith.

Last month I visited perhaps the most dramatic example of this, namely the monorail, or Schwebebahn, in Wuppertal, Germany. This is the world’s oldest operating suspension monorail, where the vehicle is connected with wheels to a fixed track above, as opposed to using a cable.

The initial idea in fact came from Britain, pioneer of so much in terms of railway. The British engineer Henry Robinson Palmer filed a patent application for a horse-drawn suspended single-rail system in 1821, and constructed a demonstration at Woolwich Arsenal soon after.

The Wuppertal system is over eight miles long and carries 20 million passengers a year. Much of it is built over a river, making it a creative transport corridor.

It was inaugurated with a test run in 1900 by Kaiser Wilhelm II and was an immediate success. The surprise is that it was not widely replicated across Germany. For a long time the only other such system in the country was in Dresden, opened in 1901, subsequently added to by the H Bahn in Dortmund in 1984 and, close to Wuppertal, the Sky Train at Dusseldorf airport in 2002. Perhaps the huge amount of ironwork required acted as a deterrent.

Moreover, the concept has not really set the world alight. There are today outside Germany just six operating suspension monorails across the world. These can be found in Russia, Japan and China.

The Wuppertal ride itself is smooth though the vehicle does tilt going round curves, which reminded me of the tilting Advanced Passenger Train which British Rail developed in the 1970s and introduced in 1981. That of course led to various jokes such as “Waiter, have you seen my sausage roll?”. The train, which operated on the curve-heavy West Coast Main Line, had a short life, though today’s Pendolinos on that line also tilt.

At first glance, I did wonder how safe the system was, with vehicles and passengers being held from above by seemingly not very much. Yet there have really only been two incidents since the line opened. In 1950, someone had the bright idea of carrying an elephant, Tuffi, on board for advertising purposes. The animal duly panicked and crashed through the side of the carriage and plunged into the river below. Fortunately, all she suffered was a bruise.
Tuffi by name and nature.

Aviation stands on the cusp of its next, potentially biggest, revolution since the jet engine

More seriously, on April 12, 1999, the first train of the day struck a steel component that had been left attached to the line by workmen. The impact tore the first bogie and the vehicle fell into the river about 30 feet below. Five people died and 47 were injured.

The latest use of air, however, will not be relying on structures to support it. Under the Department for Transport’s recently released Future of Flight Action Plan, flying taxis could be taking to the skies as early as 2026, with driverless taxis commonplace by the end of the decade.

If this sounds like something out of Flash Gordon, be assured that reality has caught up with science fiction.

The first certified passenger-carrying automated driverless flying car has been given the go-ahead in China and will begin service shortly. It can carry two passengers or 270kg of cargo. Battery powered, it can reach speeds of 80mph with a range of 18 miles. A central command centre controls the flight path, altitude and speed. Passengers select their destination by using a touch screen inside the pod. It uses vertical take-off and landing so does not require expensive ground-based infrastructure.

Successful pilotless test flights have also taken place in Slovakia and Japan. In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration has issued a timeline for certification. The UK, through the Civil Aviation Authority, has a similar authorisation process underway.

This is no quirky sideline but likely to be mainstream business. The investment banking outfit Morgan Stanley reckons that the global air mobility market will be worth one trillion dollars by 2040, and nine trillion by 2050.

There are obvious questions to answer, notably how safe these vehicles will be, not least because of the expanding use of drones and the potential for collisions.

The really pertinent question is how widespread the use of these taxis will be. Are they going to be expensive trips, available only for the very rich and those who love helicopters, like the prime minister? Or as battery technology in particular advances, are they going to draw people away from private cars, buses, trams and even trains? Are they going to be used just for short hops or for longer journeys as well?

Morgan Stanley reckons that the global air mobility market will be worth one trillion dollars by 2040

The CAA’s head of innovation, Sophie O’Sullivan, says: “Aviation stands on the cusp of its next, potentially biggest, revolution since the invention of the jet engine.”

The aviation minister, Anthony Browne, also uses the word revolution, and predicts that the adoption of new technology could boost the country’s economy by £4bn in just this decade – a huge figure. He also talks about how this development can “reinvigorate smaller aerodromes” by using them as vertiports for electric aircraft.

Someone at the DfT needs to do some serious mapping as to what this new kid on the block will mean for transport choices, and therefore in turn for transport investment. If it is to be a rich person’s plaything, then the impact on other modes will be minimal. But if, for example, it is going to be possible for large numbers to fly at reasonable cost between Brighton and Eastbourne, does the country really need to spend over £1bn as is mooted on an environmentally destructive dual carriageway between those places, on the A27 between Lewes and Polegate? (Does it anyway, in fact, given there is a really good railway service between Brighton and Eastbourne via Lewes and Polegate).

It seems clear the flying taxi is coming, for better or for worse. The challenge now is to make sure it is safe, environmentally friendly, and plays a positive rather than disruptive role in our transport mix.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Norman Baker served as transport minister from May 2010 until October 2013. He was Lib Dem MP for Lewes between 1997 and 2015.

This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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