Public Acceptance or Public Tolerance? Industry Experts Talk AAM Community Integration

As communities discuss how to prepare for urban air mobility, it’s unclear whether the FAA will have authority over most vertiports. (The Beck Group/Uber Elevate)

Electric air taxis are speeding towards their certification and commercial debuts. While there has been lots of attention on the design and capabilities of these aircraft themself, there has been less attention to how the industry plans to actually integrate these aircraft into communities. 

“We can all collectively figure out the safety aspects of AAM [advanced air mobility], and that work is well underway,  however, if we don’t integrate this new form of aviation smartly into existing cities and existing regions, then we may not have accomplished very much,” Scott Gore, program manager for strategic engagement in the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) unmanned aircraft systems integration office, said during a panel discussion at the Vertical Flight Society’s Electric Aircraft Symposium on July 20. 

Industry experts on the panel explained how the air taxi industry should be thinking about integrating these new aircraft into communities and provided information on how they can effectively gain public acceptance. 

Adam Cohen, a mobility futures researcher and consultant at the University of California at Berkeley, said there are three layers to public acceptance: the institution and public sector perspective, the non-user perspective, and the user perspective. The institutional and public sector impact relates to how organizations prepare for AAM and what community impacts may exist. The non-user perspective is how people in the community who are not using this new technology are impacted and the user perspective is about what benefits these vehicles can provide end users over other mobility alternatives. 

Cohen said all of these perspectives should take into account equity. 

“I think it’s really important to mention that the role of equity really kind of has the ability to kind of impact the adoption of the services and perceptions from each one of these different perspectives,” Cohen said. “We know that AAM has a variety of potential opportunities, such as bridging really important gaps in the transportation network, whether it be spatial, topographical, or even the build environment. It could potentially reduce the mismatch between jobs and housing.” 

The integration of AAM into communities should start with city planning, Adrienne Lindgren, Hyundai Air Mobility lead for state and local partnerships, said. Lindgren said planning is a political process that involves integrating stakeholders into the growth and development of a town or city. 

“I think it has a lot of direct relevance to us as sort of advocates for the AAM industry,” Lindgren said. “It is a huge barrier beyond certification, it is not necessarily even a part of that planning process. Aviation in general tends to have a slightly more distinct planning process…..Additionally, city planning is in many ways the gatekeeper to city operations, where the public has the most amount of influence they take the planners, take their constituents very seriously, and the public takes their ability to participate in the planning process quite seriously.” 

City planning will not only be necessary for integration into communities but also for public acceptance, Lindgren said.  

“Part of the other reason that we want to engage with planning processes is because I believe it is deeply linked to public acceptance,” Lindgren said. “So unlike other transportation technologies of the last 10 years, where we went from a dock-less model, UAM will require fixed location infrastructure and location-based decision making. Part of what that does is it triggers the public process. The planning process is generally wrapped around the public, and all those stakeholders are wrapped around it in some form or fashion.” 

In order to integrate AAM into communities, stakeholders need to hold demonstrations and evaluations to gauge public and institutional readiness, Cohen said. 

“A lot more work is really needed to be done to integrate AAM into local and regional transportation planning,” Cohen said. “In particular, we need to very quickly deploy demonstrations and evaluations to prepare the public for readiness or institutional readiness as well to assist the public sector in evaluating requirements and policies that either support or impede the development of AAM to understand the impacts and validate the technical institutional and policy feasibility of various deployment use cases.” 

However, before stakeholders can start building infrastructure for these aircraft, the FAA will have to provide guidance for vertiports. Gore said this information should be released within the next year. 

“We do have existing guidance for heliports, although, given the unique aspects of AAM aircraft, vertiports are going to be somewhat different than traditional heliports. Such things as electric charging and electrical storage systems, for example. So we have a lot of research ongoing. We hope to publish interim guidance within the next 12 months.” 

Lindgren said it is also important to think about public acceptance as building support instead of tolerance. 

“I think we have to stop looking at public acceptance as sort of an exercise that we have to go through to get people to tolerate the industry and think about how we build support,” Lindgren said. “I think the overall planning process and implementation of land will be much more successful if we can reposition that conversation around how do we best reach the people that we aspire to serve and the communities that we aspire to serve and start reframing that as communities, versus a sort of a headache that we have to get through.” 

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