Uber’s $200 Helicopter Ride is a Preview of its Pricey Flying Cars

New airport service shows short flights are not equitable

Paris Marx
· 4 min read
Source: Uber

Why bother paying $7.25 to take transit to the airport when you could instead pay $200 to maybe cut your trip time in half?

If that sounds reasonable to you, please share the wealth, but for most people the idea of paying a couple hundred dollars to get to airport — that’s not including the flight to their final destination — is pretty ridiculous. But, if you’re in that first category, Uber has a fancy new service just for you.

Passengers needing to transit between Manhattan and JFK Airport will now be able to request an Uber Copter for between $200 to $225 a trip. The helicopter part will take about eight minutes, but the whole trip will be closer to thirty once the time to get to the chopper is factored in compared to about an hour on transit or by driving.

Uber Copter isn’t just about giving rich people an easier way to get to the airport; it also provides an indication of what we can expect from Uber Elevate, the “flying car” service Uber has promised for 2023. A $200, eight-minute ride is a far cry from the narrative Uber’s been spinning on flying cars.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Justin Erlich, then Head of Policy of Autonomous Vehicles and Urban Aviation at Uber, said that autonomous technology would allow it to make prices so low that its flying cars, which are really just a modified helicopter, will make cities more wheelchair accessible and serve areas that are underserved by transit.

Uber’s “flying car.” Source: Uber/YouTube

But that vision is a lie. Uber Elevate was always going to be a service for rich people, and Uber Copter proves it by charging $200 for an eight-minute trip. The idea that its flying-car project will significantly bring down those prices is not just misleading, it’s fantasy.

Uber Elevate was always going to be a service for rich people, and Uber Copter proves it by charging $200 for an eight-minute trip

First, there’s broad recognition that autonomous-driving technology isn’t as far along as we were led to believe. Certainly, there are fewer obstacles in the sky than on city streets, but if Silicon Valley’s dream of helicopter services and delivery drones comes true, there’s going to be a lot more traffic up there in the coming years. Do we even want our skies filled with this stuff? And are people really going to trust a driverless helicopter? I find that hard to believe.

Second, the invocation of people with disabilities is incredibly insulting. Uber and Lyft’s wheelchair-accessible services are basically non-existent, even in the biggest cities. Uber flagrantly violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and “claims it is not responsible for providing accessible transportation because it is a software developer.” Lyft is no better.

Third, there’s mounting evidence that Uber and Lyft have had profoundly negative impacts on transit services across the United States by sapping riders and leeching revenue by offering unsustainably subsidized rides that cause it to lose billions of dollars a year. In its public filing, Uber even admitted that transit was its competition, not a complementary service.

The solution for equitable, efficient transportation isn’t to put people into the skies or to build tens or hundreds of layers of tunnels for cars

The only reason that the prospect of helicopter rides around cities seems attractive is that services on the ground have become so slow — a problem that the mass influx of ride-hailing vehicles has played a significant role in worsening.

The solution for equitable, efficient transportation isn’t to put people into the skies or to build tens or hundreds of layers of tunnels for cars. Tech leaders are obsessed with bold ideas that feed their egos, but what we really need is much simpler: significant investment in transit, infrastructure to make cycling easier, and cities designed so that they’re easy to navigate without a car.

Last year, after Uber’s claims that its flying cars would be equitable, I wrote that the service would actually “be one for people who don’t mind spending a couple hundred dollars to get the airport.” And if they ever actually make it to fruition, that’s exactly what they’ll be.

Radical Urbanist

Cities have more power than ever to shape the future. In Radical Urbanist, @parismarx explores their approaches to transportation, climate change, and monopolistic tech companies to see if they’re doing enough.

Paris Marx

Written by

Socialist, traveller, urbanist. MA Geog, McGill. I write critically about tech and cities, and curate the Radical Urbanist newsletter: http://bit.ly/radurb

Radical Urbanist

Cities have more power than ever to shape the future. In Radical Urbanist, @parismarx explores their approaches to transportation, climate change, and monopolistic tech companies to see if they’re doing enough.

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