Where You Live Matters as Demand for eVTOL Rides Projected to Center in Three Major Metro Areas
By Anne Wainscott-Sargent
Georgia Tech research finds that how cities are structured will drive demand for Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) services in the coming decade, whether in urban or regional population centers.
The study, conducted by researchers at Georgia Tech’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Transport and Mobility Laboratory at École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, and published in the journal, Transportation Research Part C, found that air taxi demand for commuters for the 40 most populous cities in the U.S. is concentrated in a handful of urban areas.
“As we look toward future funding investments in AAM, where you live matters,” says Laurie Garrow, Ph.D., co-director of the Center for Urban and Regional Air Mobility (CURAM) at Georgia Tech and an expert in aviation, travel behavior, data analytics and discrete choice modeling.
The research found that the metro areas of New York City, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.-Baltimore, generate over a third of overall air taxi demand.
“UAM taking off in different cities is going to be a function of the existing infrastructure and underlying commute patterns or the spatial and temporal distribution of where people live and work,” explains Garrow, who defined space as where people live and work and temporal as the time of day that they do these activities.
The researchers used cell phone data, census data, and a mode choice model calibrated from a stated preference survey to identify potential air taxi commuter routes in 40 U.S. cities. The study found that air taxi commuter demand varies across the cities and is sensitive to the location of existing vertiports, current commute patterns, existing ground infrastructure, and other factors.
A key driver of the air mobility market is to alleviate the high congestion many U.S. commuters face. The 2021 Global Traffic Scorecard finds the average commute time in the U.S. was 36 hours in 2020. Lost productivity due to traffic congestion totaled more than $87B in 2019, according to mobility analytics leader INRIX, Inc. That number is expected to double by 2030, finds the Center for Economics and Business Research. For these reasons, much of the initial work on assessing the potential of using air taxis to travel in cities has focused on the commute issue.
According to Garrow, different UAM operators are targeting different markets, but the research shows that the service may be viable in certain cities. Chicago, for instance, lacks infrastructure to support underlying commute patterns for a UAM service to thrive. But, several Ohio cities, including Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus, are laid out to take advantage of the emerging air taxi market.
“Cleveland has a vertiport downtown and commute paths along the lake,” says Garrow.
Garrow expresses surprise by the concentration of demand in a handful of cities, calling it “particularly concerning because that’s going to pose some very challenging problems for the federal government if they want to invest in infrastructure.”
Locations with the best attributes for UAM adoption are concentrated in a few, mostly blue states, which could raise the question of how to equitably distribute federal resources to help support AAM, Garrow says.
When looking at the overall market demand for UAM, Garrow provides a mixed forecast. “Using UAM for commuting is going to be focused in a handful of cities and may not be a broad solution,” she says.
Garrow adds that the commuter use case “may be a difficult proposition because of the impacts after COVID, where we have much more people working from home or working hybrid schedules. The time savings that you gain on the flight portion is not going to offset the extra time that comes from waiting or transfer times.”
One promising use case involves airport shuttles, as commercial airlines invest millions in Electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing vehicle (eVTOL) companies to provide air taxies to get people to their check-in and departure gates faster. Delta is teaming with Joby to add eVTOLs to the Delta network. United will introduce electric air taxi operations in 2025, inking deals with both Archer Aviation and Eve.
“As the industry evolves, we start thinking about how to integrate this in cities, but the movement seems to be going towards more airport trips and regional applications,” says Garrow.
While acknowledging the potential of air taxis serving airports, the researcher warns that such services won’t get traction if the public perceives that the service reliability isn’t there.
“There’s a very high penalty if you’re taking an air taxi and there’s a delay because of weather and you miss your larger commercial flight,” says Garrow, pointing out that cities with more mild weather like LA stand to have higher reliability service compared with northern cities such as Chicago in the winter.
As the aerospace industry remains focused on eVTOL aircraft designs, they are not as focused on assessing demand for these services. For this reason, Garrow urges operators and vehicle designers to balance the product innovation efforts with taking time to study demand trends and public preferences for AAM services.
“You can’t just build it and people will come. You have to understand people’s willingness to use the aircraft,” she concludes.