Imagine flying in a small, pilot-free aircraft between Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, or riding in an aerial gondola — like at a ski resort — to get from Tropicana Field to the St. Pete Pier.
They’re not concepts lifted from a comic book or sci-fi movie, but real-life proposals being considered by Tampa Bay transit officials. They fit into the latest vision for local transportation — innovative, creative and futuristic.
Transit leaders are moving beyond buses and ferries to think of ground-breaking ways to move people around an area that grows more congested.
The state Legislature gave the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority $1 million to study three emerging technologies — air taxis, aerial gondolas and Hyperloop, capsules designed to zip through tubes at 700 mph.
The technologies already are in use around the world. Urban gondolas help people get around in Bolivia, Colombia and Hong Kong. Earlier this month, German-based Lilium announced plans to open an air taxi hub near Orlando by 2025.
The ideas are gaining traction locally, most recently during the unveiling last week of St. Petersburg’s driverless shuttle AVA.
“I guarantee you, in five years, wait till you see what’s going to come out of these types of projects,” said David Gwynn, local secretary for the Florida Department of Transportation. “I think five years from now you’re going to see things you won’t even think about today.”
By then, quipped Brad Miller, executive director of Pinellas County’s transit authority, Tampa Bay may be hosting an event for flying taxis. His comment drew chuckles from the crowd. But Pinellas Commissioner Janet Long was quick to share her support.
“It’s not going to take five years to bring the air taxis here. We’re already working on that,” she told the crowd. “Get ready, Mr. Secretary, we’re coming right behind this with another project.”
Long sits on the Regional Transit Authority board, which has heard half a dozen presentations on projects like these. Two air taxi companies — Lilium and Wisk — shared their business models with the board during the past few months.
Each involves using small, electric aircraft to transport two to four passengers. Lilium’s aircraft can travel 185 miles on a single charge, making most trips within Florida possible. Wisk works on a smaller scale, with trips focused in the 25- to 50-mile range, making it more of a regional option.
Passengers would use an app to plan their ride. Lilium projects a ride on its air taxi from St. Petersburg to Tampa would cost $60 to $90, or about double an Uber or Lyft. But unlike driving or rideshares, the trip would take an estimated eight minutes, Lilium team member Marie Masson told the Regional Transit Authority board.
”While this is really fantastic from a convenience perspective, it’s also an incredible enabler for economic growth as the region gets increasingly more connected,” Masson said.
The company’s Lake Nona location would serve several cities in its 186-mile radius, including Tampa. It hasn’t announced any other locations at this time, but hopes to open several others by 2025.
Lilium expects the costs of trips to decrease with time, especially when the vehicles can be flown autonomously without a pilot inside.
Wisk Vice President Dan Dalton told the Regional Transit Authority board last month that the company plans to operate without pilots in its aircraft from the beginning.
“We now have the technologies that we’ve always dreamt of or seen on television or in movies. We now have those technologies at our disposal,” Dalton said.
One key factor in determining what market to enter is congestion and vehicle traffic on the ground, Wisk spokesman Chris Brown said. Tampa Bay’s workforce spends 1.2 million hours per day commuting, a 30-percent increase from 10 years before.
Unlike traditional forms of transportation like cars, taxis and trains, air taxis will not require roads, highways or tracks. All that’s needed to get passengers from A to B are two landing pads, said Remo Gerber, Chief Operating Officer at Lilium. Lilium is working on a lean, modular design for its vertioports that Gerber said will help make the customer experience seamless.
While air taxis are gaining traction, project manager Brian Pessaro with the Regional Transit Authority said aerial gondolas are more likely to reach Tampa Bay first.
“The technology has been around for centuries,” Pessaro said. Federal regulators already recognize gondolas as a form of transit that qualifies for grant money.
For years, gondolas have been discussed as a way to help cut down on traffic around Clearwater’s beaches. But more recent discussions also include using gondolas to connect Tropicana Field and the Pier, or downtown St. Pete to the Gateway area.
Long touted the benefits of gondolas at Pinellas transit board meeting Wednesday, including the minimal space requirements, low capital investment and operating costs, continuous service and the fact that the system could be built in less than a year.
Mayor Rick Kriseman wrote a letter in 2019 asking Forward Pinellas, a transportation planning organization for the county, to study such a project.
“We believe it may have reasonable merit as a viable premium transit option in St. Pete where existing constraints have made it a challenge to consider other premium transit services,” the letter said.
Whit Blanton, Forward Pinellas executive director, received a similar letter from Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos a month later. Cretekos asked the agency to look specifically at the Memorial Causeway and Clearwater Beach for routes.
Depending on the specific technology, gondolas can travel an average of 15 mph and as fast as the high 20s, Pessaro said.
“It’s something we’re open to,” St. Petersburg transportation director Evan Mory said. “I think it’s definitely worth taking a hard look at it.”