Written by Marta Schwarz and Edited by Carla Posch
European Student Think Tank
Environmental Working Group
Keywords: Urban Air Mobility, Smart Cities, Sustainable Urban Mobility Planning
Considering that 23% of transport-related pollution derives from cities, the urban environment is central to achieving carbon neutrality in the transport sector (Abdullah & Robles, 2021). While urban transport creates many negative externalities, ranging from noise to air pollution (European Commission, n.d.), it is also an important determinant of human well-being (De Queiroz et al., 2021). In fact, not only does urban transportation allow individuals to integrate into society, it also contributes around 5% to the GDP of the European Union (EU), and employs more than 10 million people in Europe (European Union, 2020). Striking a balance between achieving connectivity while striving for carbon neutrality is one of the main challenges currently facing the transport sector.
A possible answer to the need for decongestion and alleviation of the overburdened urban mobility sector is urban air mobility (UAM), a transportation system that utilises electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft to provide efficient and sustainable aerial transportation within urban areas (Pavel, 2022). As the technology and regulation to enable this transition are being developed, it is crucial to discuss the potential of urban air mobility and how to develop it best, in order to ensure that it can lead the EU to achieve climate justice, tackling both sustainability and social inclusivity.
Air Mobility In The Urban Context
Urban Air Mobility
One of the central aims of the Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport (DG MOVE) is to make the EU carbon neutral by 2050, as set forth in the European Green Deal (European Commission, 2020). As European cities make up 70% of their transport-related carbon emissions, much attention has been dedicated to developing sustainable mobility plans that are specific to the urban setting (European Environment Agency, 2020). Among recent developments in this field, urban air mobility has been explored by European institutions for its potential in tackling issues related to increased urban congestion (Gillis et al., 2021). Simply put, UAM is an “air transportation system for passengers and cargo in and around urban environments” (EASA, 2021). This transportation system is conducted either by unmanned or manned vehicles utilising vertical take-off landing. Due to the distinct features of UAM vehicles, this could prove to be a cheap and efficient way to roam through cities, utilising more urban space to decongest roads (Bauranov & Rakas, 2021).
As UAM is seen as a promising addition to the urban mobility landscape, the EU has established several initiatives to support the development of this sector (Kramar et al., 2021). The European Commission has, for example, launched the Urban Air Mobility Initiative which aims to promote the safe and sustainable integration of urban air mobility in the EU’s transport system. Additionally, the Commission has set up a dedicated Urban Air Mobility Unit within DG MOVE to oversee the development of this sector (European Commission, n.d.).
To further promote UAM, the EU has started to develop guidelines and regulations to govern this phenomenon, including a regulatory framework for the certification and creation of urban air mobility vehicles and infrastructure. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is responsible for ensuring the safety and security of urban air mobility operations, and the Commission’s Innovative Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities (EIP-SCC) has been set up to promote the development of urban air mobility projects (European Commission, 2021).
While there are still a few technological advances that must be achieved to introduce such services in urban areas, some examples of urban air mobility can already be spotted. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the potential of UAM became more apparent as a possible delivery method for pharmaceuticals (Flemons et al., 2022). In another instance, the American transportation conglomerate Uber started offering a helicopter service that flies customers from downtown Manhattan to JFK Airport (Uber, 2022). These two instances highlight that there are risks and opportunities with the rollout of UAM in urban realities. By exploring the risks of UAM, this brief aims to then propose urban planning lenses that can offset the negative externalities of this phenomenon.
Risks of Urban Air Mobility
The feasibility of UAM has already been questioned by many scholars, as they mention the strain it would put on air traffic control. In addition, many difficulties arise when planning the urban space to accommodate take-off and landing infrastructure (De Neufville & Odoni, 2013). While these technical issues constitute legitimate difficulties for the sector, it is also crucial to focus on the climate justice perspective (Biehle, 2022). As new regulations surrounding this phenomenon are developed, it is important that sustainable and just path dependencies are developed, ensuring that regulations address the environmental and societal issues that might arise from the introduction of UAM in urban settings.
In fact, while UAM provides a compelling alternative to modes of transportation, it still causes varying negative externalities, such as air pollution, noise, and degradation of the living environment (Al Haddad et al., 2020). These factors already affect disadvantaged segments of the population in a disproportionate manner, due to heightened exposure through their work or the neighbourhoods they live in (Mohai et al., 2020). The possibility of displacement and gentrification of low-income communities to accommodate the construction of UAM infrastructure contributes to the potential negative externalities caused by UAM.
Aside from an unjust distribution of negative externalities, scholars postulate that early market UAM infrastructure may cater to only a limited number of citizens, focusing on those with enough spending power to make use of this service (Biehle, 2022). In other words, both the negative and positive aspects of UAM would be unfairly distributed, exacerbating socio-economic disparities.
Furthermore, policy advisors underline that the development of the UAM sector could have an adverse impact on the labour market in the transport sector. This sector provides many jobs in Europe, especially when it comes to the automobile industry (European Commission, n.d.). While there are plenty of workers in Europe specialised in specific transport industries, they often do not match the skills required to work in UAM (Schwanen, 2021). If EU policies do not provide suitable training opportunities to answer to the change that UAM could bring in this labour sector, there could be an increase in unemployment, particularly among the low-income workforce in this environment.
The negative aspects of UAM are not only predicted by researchers and policy advisors; they have also been voiced by citizens when prompted on this subject. Varying surveys conducted on the marketability and public opinion on the introduction of UAM propose that issues related to privacy and safety are important factors inhibiting the public acceptance of this innovation (Goyal et. al, 2018; Yedavalli & Mooberry, 2019). Nevertheless, surveys conducted by EASA (2021) also indicated that European citizens view UAM as a powerful tool to decongest cities and extend connectivity in urban spheres, provided that this is utilised for the benefit of the community rather than becoming a mode of transport only for those who can afford it. An example for this would be the use of UAM to facilitate the mobility for individuals with physical impairments. The same surveys additionally highlighted that both practitioners and the civil society feel directly affected by the rollout of UAM and therefore urge European institutions to involve them in the implementation of this new reality. These findings reflect the efforts of procedural justice and participatory democracy in contemporary European policy-making, which must also be applied in the field of UAM, as is discussed in the next section.
The insights collected in this policy review observe the merits and downfalls of urban air mobility (UAM). As mentioned above, there are many aspects to address when discussing the development of UAM. The following policy recommendations focus less on the technical aspects, but rather on how policy approaches can address social and environmental issues in this realm. As UAM is a field that is still in development, this section will focus mainly on three types of planning methodologies that must be considered from the regional up to the supranational level, in order to ensure that the rollout of UAM can be socially inclusive and sustainable. The three types of planning are based on the principles of eco-neighbourhoods, just transition, and participatory democracy. These approaches collectively address the imperative of balancing environmental sustainability, social equity, and community engagement in the nascent UAM industry. They offer a comprehensive framework to ensure that UAM implementation benefits all members of society while minimising its ecological footprint (Kenworthy, 2006).
So-called ’eco-neighbourhood planning’ tries to reconcile our need to expand and innovate in urban settings, while still keeping environmental well-being as a central focus of these efforts (Holden and Molina, 2015). While the UAM rollout marks an innovative shift in urban mobility, it is clear that it causes significant negative externalities (Al Haddad et al., 2020), potentially damaging the quality of life of individuals as well as damaging the environment. When planning UAM, it is therefore crucial to maintain standards to limit these negative externalities. To do so, it is recommended to rely on already existing standards regarding noise pollution or air pollution, as well as create ad hoc standards that encompass the externalities caused by UAM, such as privacy. It is also important to make sure that mobility resulting from UAM services does not exacerbate current unsustainable patterns of consumption and production within this sector, which could lead to further environmental degradation as well as increasing social inequalities. It is therefore important to make sure that European initiatives on public transportation and active mobility are not neglected during the rollout of UAM, ensuring the development of efficient yet eco-friendly urban mobility schemes.
Just Transition Planning
The introduction of UAM entails a significant transformation in varying sectors, affecting transportation infrastructure as well as the labour market. As mentioned above, this can affect individuals from different socioeconomic backgrounds in unequal ways; applying a just transition lens would allow change management to be conducted by focusing on a strong social dialogue. It is crucial to ensure the deployment of specific resources to anticipate and manage the changes within the workforce, providing training to traditional mobility sector workers to ensure low degrees of social disruption. By providing these insights and tools, just transition would empower individuals working in the transportation sector to adapt and integrate themselves in the UAM job market. In this way, negative and positive externalities of this shift are felt equally by the population. Policies should guide these efforts by mapping the employment consequences of a shift toward UAM in competing transportation industries. Active efforts of change management and knowledge transfer within the workforces could further allow workers to find their place in the UAM sector.
Participatory Democracy Planning
The two above-mentioned methodologies showcase what European institutions can do to ensure systematic change to move towards more equitable mobility. Alternatively, the participative democracy approach focuses more on what individuals living in Europe can do and how their contributions can shape the realm of UAM. This can be achieved through participatory democracy, ensuring the integration of citizens in planning processes. In fact, individuals possess specific local knowledge of the potentials and limitations of their urban environments. The observations provided by meaningful and systematic engagement of local populations can aid in developing sustainable and durable UAM infrastructure.
The current development of UAM provides us with an unprecedented possibility to roll out new technology that has been regulated at its conception rather than as an afterthought. Insights into the environmental and social impact of UAM can, in fact, determine the barrier of entry of UAM vehicles in urban environments, provided that policymakers impose these standards on the urban planning practices as well as on UAM manufacturing practices. The European Union has already started to work in the realms of participatory democracy and just transition, developing constructive tools for sustainable development. These tools have been introduced in the mobility sector recently, and have been used as a way to respond to the environmental and social shortcomings of the mobility frameworks that we currently have. The development of UAM provides us with the unique opportunity to embed these notions even before it becomes a reality. If this is conducted sensibly, we have the chance to navigate the risks and opportunities of UAM in a more controlled manner, bringing us closer to sustainable and just innovations.
List of References
Abdullah, H., & Robles, E. S. (2021). Urban Mobility after COVID-19. Long-Term Strategies for the Sustainable Mobility Transition in European Cities.
Al Haddad, C., Chaniotakis, E., Straubinger, A., Plötner, K., & Antoniou, C. (2020). Factors affecting the adoption and use of urban air mobility. Transportation research part A: Policy and practice, 132, 696-712.
Bauranov, A., & Rakas, J. (2021). Designing airspace for urban air mobility: A review of concepts and approaches. Progress in Aerospace Sciences, 125.
Biehle, T. (2022). Social sustainable urban air mobility in Europe. Sustainability, 14(15), 9312.
De Queiroz, A. P. F., Júnior, D. S. G., Nascimento, A. M., & de Melo, F. J. C. (2021). Overview of Urban Mobility in Smart Cities. Research, Society and Development, 10(9), e18210917830-e18210917830.
EASA. (2021). Study on the societal acceptance of Urban Air Mobility in Europe. In https://www.easa.europa.eu/sites/default/files/dfu/uam-full-report.pdf. Retrieved September 6, 2023, from https://www.easa.europa.eu/sites/default/files/dfu/uam-full-report.pdf
European Commission. (n.d.). Urban mobility. European Commission.
European Commission. (n.d.). Urban mobility and accessibility. European Commission. https://ec.europa.eu/info/eu-regional-and-urban-development/topics/cities-and-urban-dev elopment/priority-themes-eu-cities/urban-mobility-and-accessibility_en.
European Commission. (2020). Strategic Plan 2020-2024 for Mobility and Transport. Retrieved from
European Commission. (2021). Smart cities and communities.
European Environment Agency. (2020). Monitoring CO2 emissions from new passenger cars and vans in 2019. https://www.eea.europa.eu/highlights/co2-emissions-from-new-cars-3.
European Union. (2020).The transport and mobility strategy. European Union. https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/fs_20_2350.
Flemons, K., Baylis, B., Khan, A. Z., Kirkpatrick, A. W., Whitehead, K., Moeini, S., Schreiber, A., Lapointe, S., Ashoori, S., Arif, M., Berenger, B., Conly, C. & Hawkins, W. (2022). The use of drones for the delivery of diagnostic test kits and medical supplies to remote First Nations communities during Covid-19. American Journal of Infection Control, 50(8), 849-856.
Fu, M., Rothfeld, R., & Antoniou, C. (2019). Exploring preferences for transportation modes in an urban air mobility environment: Munich case study. Transportation Research Record, 2673(10), 427-442.
Gillis, D., Petri, M., Pratelli, A., Semanjski, I., & Semanjski, S. (2021). Urban air mobility: A state of art analysis. In Computational Science and Its Applications–ICCSA 2021: 21st International Conference, Cagliari, Italy, September 13–16, 2021, Proceedings, Part II 21 (pp. 411-425). Springer International Publishing.
Goyal, R., Reiche, C., Fernando, C., Serrao, J., Kimmel, S., Cohen, A., & Shaheen, S. (2018). Urban air mobility (UAM) market study.
Holden, M., Li, C., & Molina, A. (2015). The emergence and spread of ecourban neighbourhoods around the world. Sustainability, 7(9), 11418-11437.
Kenworthy, J. R. (2006). The eco-city: ten key transport and planning dimensions for sustainable city development. Environment and urbanization, 18(1), 67-85.
Kramar, V., Nikolakopoulos, G., Röning, J., & Tomasello, F. (2021, October). Urban Air Mobility Overview—the European Landscape. In 2021 30th Conference of Open Innovations Association FRUCT (pp. 99-106). IEEE.
Mohai, P., Pellow, D. N., & Roberts, J. T. (2020). Environmental justice. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 45, 31-64.
Pavel, M. D. (2022). Understanding the control characteristics of electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft for urban air mobility. Aerospace Science and Technology, 125, 107143.
Schwanen, T. (2021). Achieving just transitions to low-carbon urban mobility. Nature Energy, 6(7), 685-687.
Straubinger, A. S., & Rothfeld, R. R. (2018). Identification of relevant aspects for personal air transport system integration in urban mobility modelling.
Uber (2022, January 11). Introducing Uber Copter. Uber Blog.
Yedavalli, P., & Mooberry, J. (2019). An assessment of public perception of urban air mobility (UAM). Airbus UTM: Defining Future Skies, 2046738072-1580045281.