A Cost-Efficient and Time-Saving Approach to Building Uber’s Skyports

  • Nov 21, 2019

This column is featured in Construction Executive magazine.

By Michael Kaiser, National Director of Design, and Timothy Shippey, Associate Principal

 

Since the initial excitement has subsided over the unveiling of new designs for building Uber’s proposed aerial ridesharing terminals, much of the attention is now focused on which design of the buildings, called “skyports,” are feasible for the launching and landing of aircraft planned for the company’s app-based aerial taxi service.

The next step is whether the UberAIR service, hailed as the most important event in the history of air transportation since the dawning of the jet age, will choose designs for new buildings or retrofit existing ones for the three skyports to be built in the test markets of Dallas, Los Angeles and Melbourne, Australia by 2023. In the meantime, Uber will also be testing this year a prototype of the air taxis, a lightweight electric vertical take-off and landing craft (eVTOLs), between a Dallas suburb and Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

LOOKING SKYWARD TO RELIEVE URBAN CONGESTION

Uber’s plans for urban air travel couldn’t arrive at a better time. Roads, highways and rail lines in urban areas no longer can adequately handle transporting the swelling flow of cars, buses, trucks and trains. The daily bumper-to-bumper rush-hour traffic clogging major city arteries will attest to the fact that something needs to be done sooner rather than later.

This problem will only be exacerbated by an increasing trend of urban population growth. According to a United Nations report released in 2018, nearly 70% of the global population is expected to live in urban areas by 2050, or an additional 2.5 billion, compared with 55% today.

The Uberization of air transportation, however, will allow passengers to arrive at their destinations faster, lessen vehicle congestion and accidents, reduce air pollution and other environmental hazards, and basically improve urban community connectivity and the overall quality of life in our increasingly traffic-choked cities. The skyports also are another version of transit-oriented developments–a boon for urban real estate development.

The coming launch of UberAIR represents a logical extension to the company’s pioneering and highly successful ground vehicle ride-hailing service, which has had a transformative impact on urban travel. Like the ground vehicles, Uber’s aerial taxis will be in great demand due to a societal shift toward a rent-versus-ownership economy.

Uber, widely known for disrupting traditional modes of urban transportation, has asked a handful of architectural firms to provide designs that most accurately reflect the ridesharing company’s vision of safe, fast and cost-efficient urban travel. Plans call for passengers to arrive at the Uber skyports by cars, scooters, bikes and on foot. They would then board the eVTOLs, taking them to their flights at nearby airports.

FIRMS UNVEIL DESIGNS OF THE FUTURE OF TRANSPORTATION

The company’s airborne division, Uber Elevate, held its annual summit in June, where the firms presented visually stunning and highly innovative designs of structures built or repurposed for urban mobility. Design concepts included an eclectic mix of retail and office space, areas for bikes, scooters and electric charging stations, and public park space. Some of the firms’ designs emphasized sustainability to improve the buildings’ energy efficiency.

The winning skyport design, however, must be reality-driven, one that is the most cost-effective meets the 2023 completion date and remains faithful to Uber’s vision for a transformative experience in urban travel and living.

While the idea of new construction sounds appealing, it must be weighed against whether building three massive and complex facilities from the ground up could be finished in a few short years and stay within the project’s budget.

On the other hand, redeveloping parking garages into skyports would meet all of these criteria because these buildings already exist, making constructing the skyports less costly to design and build and giving much higher odds of the project staying on schedule.

REASONS UBER SHOULD USE PARKING GARAGES FOR SKYPORTS

Like it or not, self-driving vehicles will become an integral part of the future of transportation, particularly in congested urban centers. One estimate projected 4.5 million driverless vehicles will be on U.S. roads by 2035. That means autonomous vehicles are expected to significantly add to the glut of parking spaces—currently about nine spaces for every vehicle in the country—as a result of fewer operator-operated vehicles traveling in urban areas. Parking garages also will allow driverless vehicles to easily and quickly transport and drop off passengers on parking decks, as well as places to park vehicles while being recharged.

Using the tops of parking garages as flight decks will maintain or even add value to the buildings, many of which are sitting on high-priced real estate. Parking garages also are an ideal choice because vacant parking spots can be modified for other uses at the terminals.

Most urban parking garages have the vertical clearance that meets FAA air-traffic control regulations. The eVTOLs would fly along “transit channels,” basically highways in the sky, which the FAA requires other aircraft to follow.

PREFABRICATION SEEN AS BEST APPROACH TO BUILD SKYPORTS

Based on its four-year completion schedule, the project should now be in the design phase. If these buildings are to be completed by that date, prefabrication is perhaps the best if not the only way to meet the project’s deadline. This is the design concept that The Beck Group used in its proposed design for the Uber skyport.

Using modular configurations in the repurposing of parking garages would benefit the skyport project in a number of ways. This approach would provide greater consistency and minimize errors, resulting in better and more dependable quality in the construction work. Prefabrication also provides greater efficiency when components are standardized around modular configurations, bringing improved cost control, speed up construction schedules with the transportation of the modules at the job site, less material waste, fewer on-site labor requirements, safer work conditions, and a controlled environment that is not dependent on external factors, such as weather conditions.

In the 1920s movie “Metropolis,” flying vehicles buzz around skyscrapers in the distant future. Fast forward nearly 100 years, Uber has begun to turn what was once science fiction into a reality, looking toward the skies as the milieu for the company’s ongoing revolution in transportation. Selecting a design for skyports that can be built in a timely and cost-efficient manner will only hasten Uber’s reimagination of the future of our cities.