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Let's pretend for a moment that right now, everybody on earth was given the ability of flight. What impact would this have on the modern-day transportation industry?

Physical restrictions on the ability of flight:

  • Maximum altitude is based on existing human survival limits (no more than 26,000 feet / 8,000 meters)
  • Maximum air time is determined by level of physical fitness
  • Maximum speed is around 30 mph / 48 kmh
  • Maximum distance is around 15 miles, again, can change lightly based on physical fitness
  • Roughly the same amount of physical exertion as running at a brisk pace
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"If Humans could fly we'd consider it exercise and never do it." --Ron Swanson – Jacob Hacker Mar 23 at 18:21
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Elevators would stop being a thing. – fgysin Mar 24 at 14:17
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2 words - Person strike. – Comintern Mar 24 at 23:46
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If humans could walk what would happen to the land transportation industry? – immibis Mar 25 at 2:28
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We can fly faster than we can run, using the same level of exertion? Or would we be able to run faster, too? That might actually have more impact on the transportation industry than flying. – Kyle Strand Mar 25 at 20:50

13 Answers 13

up vote 45 down vote accepted

This is looking long-term...after the initial surge of people taking to the air occurs has died down a bit.

The airline industry would be untouched...no one takes a plane for a 15 mile trip. Aircraft move much faster and fly much further than your flight-capable humans. The same applies to cross-country trains.

Bulk goods transport would be unchanged, as a truck, plane, or train can move a lot more product than a flying human could.

The automobile industry would take something of a hit as people stopped using cars for short commutes, but they would still need them to move large quantities of stuff, or to make any trip that is further than 15 miles, or that they want to reach in less time. (If you live out in the country, speed limits average around 55mph, letting you get to your destination in about half the time you could if you flew...allowing for the standard '5 over' travel speed) This would be a trade-off between your impatience to get there faster, versus the fact that cars cost money to operate and your new flight power does not.

The industries that would, ultimately, take the biggest hit are short-range public transit that serve distances less than the flight range of a person. This would be most apparent in urban settings. Why pay money to a taxi to sit in traffic in NYC, when you can just fly over the traffic, and probably get there faster? Why take the subway when you could just fly to work? Again, people would still need some form of ground travel for any time they needed to transport something heavier than they can comfortably lift and carry for the flight time (I'm assuming a flying person can carry with them whatever they can lift), so transit services wouldn't completely shut down.

All of that said, this assumes that people are willing to 'run' in order to travel...and a lot of people very much are not. Therefore, all of these impacts will be more marginal than if flight was effortless.

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Roads are rarely direct and have traffic Driving at 55mph could well be slower than flying at 30. – Tim B Mar 23 at 17:35
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Keep in mind that you wouldn't want to fly in bad weather, so there may be less of an impact than you think – AndreiROM Mar 23 at 17:41
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"Why take the subway when you could just fly to work?" - for the same reason why I take the subway when I could just drive myself? Because taking the subway allows me to read a book or to sleep while underway, for instance, or to meet acquaintances who share a part of my route. – O. R. Mapper Mar 23 at 19:15
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Why would you assume that taking a taxi would even still mean "sitting in traffic"? If people can fly, and some do that instead of driving, there'll be fewer cars on the road and less congestion. It'll reach an equilibrium. – Dan Henderson Mar 23 at 21:10
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" this assumes that people are willing to 'run' in order to travel...and a lot of people very much are not" -- well quite. Who are all these people that currently don't run to work, but would if they could run their commute at 30mph? Cyclists, is who they are ;-) – Steve Jessop Mar 24 at 12:44

The impact on the transportation industry would be fairly minimal.

In those parts of the world that have ready access to modern transportation, "running at a brisk pace" is something few people do regularly for any length of time unless they're doing it for sport. Read: People would be too lazy to fly themselves. Physical exertion means sweating and being out of breath, which is not socially adequate for many modern jobs with customer contact or in an office environment. There could be companies that accommodate for that by providing showers, but such companies already exist, if they want to be friendly to bike commuters, so not much would change there either.

Since everyone can fly, it would be as mundane as walking is nowadays. Essentially, this is the same question as "Humans can walk, what happens to the transportation industry?" Well, nothing, because walking and modern transportation cover different needs.

Humans would also still not be able to carry large amounts of goods, so the logistics part of the transportation industry would be affected even less than passenger transport.

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The similarity in flying commuter/cycling will probably go beyond just needing similar office support. I'd expect a lot of cyclists to start flying to work instead; giving the bike industry a substantial hit. – Dan Neely Mar 23 at 21:10
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@DanNeely - I'm a regular bike commuter, and though my commute is short enough that I could run my commute at a brisk pace (the same level of exertion as flying) and only make my commute take a bit longer, I don't. I don't bike at nearly that exertion level - my biking pace is close to a walking level of exertion - maybe a bit higher, but not nearly a running pace. So I think plenty of people would still bike even if flying was an option. I can bike to work in my work clothes (and carry a laptop + rain gear + my lunch)... I suspect I'd have to change clothes at work after I cool down. – Johnny Mar 25 at 2:01

I'm going to change your premise slightly

You changed the maximum airtime to be related to physical health, so I assume the same happens to maximum distance.

Using this chart to determine run speeds for a 5k (since those take a bit over a half hour and you seem to want a 30 minute max), I did a comparison of the average male and female times based on age. Then I took the average speed and used that as an equivalent to 30 mph flying time.

enter image description here

Multiply it by a factor of 5.072 and you get flight speeds averaging at the 30 mph you want.

This means you get people like Usain Bolt who can fly at 142 mph for short bursts of 10 seconds (based on his 100m time), and people who can fly at 60mph for a good 2 hours (based on some top marathon times). And these would be the maximum effect of flying.

Note that this does hinge on a 30 minutes being the average person's limit for running, although that seems fairly accurate from my personal experience.

A short interpretation

Average people in general will be able to fly somewhere around 22+ mph up to age 50 for up to a half hour. But with recovery time (which for some people can be a whole day), it doesn't seem like they'd be using it for more than short or slow trips. This keeps the maximum distance around 15 miles as well, probably per day. Even if the ability to fly causes people to WANT to exercise more (which I doubt due to human nature), I wouldn't expect the numbers to increase much more than this standard. You can also adjust as needed to ensure flying isn't TOO beneficial.

So how does this affect the transportation industry?

Other than putting short distance uber's and taxi's out of business, it probably doesn't. If you assume you get 15 miles of free flight a day at the cost of nearly all your energy, I'm probably only using it to fly to a friends house. Also, there are a lot of limitations. You'll be burdened by what you're carrying, you need to watch out for weather, you'll use a lot more energy than taking a car, and you'll get all tired and sweaty and no-one likes that.

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I like the twist here... It takes it and allows a wider variety of what can be done while still holding with most of the original intent. – Sam Weaver Mar 24 at 1:45
    
"you need to watch out for weather" - no one would want to fly in or even close to storms because of the risk of lightning. – levininja Mar 25 at 20:44
    
@levininja this isn't limited just to sever weather storms. On my daily commute to work, it's not uncommon to have winds blowing quite hard. Hard enough that my own car gets hit by gusts and can drift very slightly, and that's with a low-to-the-ground sturdy structure. Apply that to people flying and you have a collision catastrophe. Even if I could fly, I would drive to work everyday just because of this weather. There's no rain or lightning, just a 'more than breezy' day. – ChronoD Mar 25 at 20:47

I'm going to make the following assumption: humans gain this ability suddenly. Maybe through a wave of strange cosmic radiation, or a dramatic change in earth's gravity, or some bacterial benefactor. (If this isn't the case, and humans have always had this ability, the industry wouldn't so much be changed as simply different.)

The auto industry takes an early hit, as people experiment with this new ability. The taxi industry withers quickly. The airline industry is largely unaffected (though for the first few weeks, checkpoint-based airport security is a nightmare). Eventually auto sales will climb back to their original levels, though increased importance will be placed on how vehicles perform on highways (since it's a bigger share of what people now buy them for). The taxi industry is forever reduced, but not gone. A greater portion of road vehicles are semis and other goods transport.

However, one thing to note (that nobody seems to have addressed yet) is that in addition to parts of the industry that have been reduced, others would open up. Suddenly, there's a market for all sorts of things that would've been useless before-- rocket boots and similar gear that, while unable to allow flight by themselves, can increase propulsion for now-flight-capable humans; masks and air tanks that allow for higher altitude flight; safety equipment for softer landings.

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It shocks me that this is the only answer that even hints at new transportation opportunities. Air safety is improved since everyone now effectively has their own built in parachute. Yes, we're still lazy americans but damnit it would be un-american not to combine pumpkin chuckin with wingsuit technology and take all the work out of flying. Just need to get them to bury the power lines. – CandiedOrange Mar 24 at 0:20
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@CandiedOrange bury them ... or make them suitable for human perching. – Jan Dvorak Mar 24 at 9:15
    
Rockets are impractical: rockets are for burning money to solve otherwise impossible solutions, and the tyranny of the rocket equation means they are large. Propellers/jets beat the rocket equation. Jet boots have intake problems. Ultra light aircraft that exploit the ability for people to jump out might work? Or use the nearly free boyency of the human somehow? We can look at (large) drones for how practical they'd be. – Yakk Mar 25 at 22:28
    
Jetpacks would be the way to add a little boost. Hang gliders might be another option for increasing flight duration. – Graham Kemp Apr 16 at 15:41

This looks roughly as good as riding a bike.

In some parts of the world, a reasonably large percentage of the population ride bikes. These areas differ in density, climate and infrastructure compared to areas that do not.

Possibly flying will require less infrastructure than biking. Which leaves climate and culture and population density to get penetration rates similar to biking.

At first glance, vertical housing looks tempting. But the energy budget required to climb is a serous one, and without external energy input it isn't ever going to be as easy as a "brisk walk". If hovering is easy and falling a non-issue, then "lift loops" that pull you vertically might be used to replace elevators.

Leaving high apartments/office buildings via the windows becomes efficient -- the height can probably be converted into horizontal speed, thus giving you a "free run".

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I love this idea of a getting free run. I think this could actually completely replace any other medium distance transportation method. So in metropolitan areas you'd have a grid (e.g. every ~6 blocks) of high towers that function as glorified elevators that lift people to a height of perhaps 300m (like the Eiffel tower) and allow them to jump off and glide, either directly to their destination, or to another tower (repeating the process). This kind of gliding should be much easier for people. And these towers could either require payment, or finance themselves through shops. – yoniLavi Mar 24 at 18:43
    
I think this answer and the comment by @yoniLavi comprise one of the best answers here, because it focuses on how this method of human flight is a form of pedestrian transportation, and how it would be represented most prolifically in changes to human-scale infrastructure (think: sidewalks and bike-lanes) more than any form of mechanized transport. I think a second-pass revision, with this notion highlighted as your thesis, would be a conclusive improvement. – Eikre Mar 24 at 22:56
    
Crossing roads becomes safer. Just stay above the traffic lanes. On the other hand, fences would become somewhat obsolete; reduced to property markers rather than security or privacy measures. – Graham Kemp Apr 16 at 15:48

Especially if humans were endowed with this ability suddenly, rather than gradually, then there would be some negative ramifications other than on the transport industry.

Firstly, there would be a crime issue as lots of prisoners would simply fly out of the prison (if they were lucky enough to be outside and realised they could fly before the guards did something about it).

Also, all the migrants in the camp at calais would simply fly the 20 miles over the channel into the UK.

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We will see a resurgence of blimps following regular routes, used to tow flyers. People fly up to the blimp and grab a hook. They hitch a ride until they are near their destination, then fly down.

Floating platforms will be great places to hold parties, mobile rock concerts, etc.

Imaging a performer surrounded by a flying sphere of an audience. No need to build arenas and many more people can get a "seat"!

Water quality will improve. People in areas with polluted drinking water can fly up to a cloud with a refrigerated jug and condense some water before flying down. (The amount of water gathered equals surface area of cold item times velocity of flight times time. The water is purified using graphene filters. Graphene is a nanometer scale, hexagonal grid, carbon mesh requiring ten times less energy to purify water than previous technologies.)

EDIT:

As pointed out, the concert idea needs more development. Considering how mosh pits and dance crazes develop, I believe that participatory synchronized flying will become a huge industry. A spin class today can accommodate a few score of people at most, so not worth the while of a celebrity to lead them. But in the sky with 3-dimensions, a celeb could lead a class of thousands and rake in big bucks. Thus you will need 3-d trained bodyguards. That will be another growth industry.

As for gathering water from the clouds, the world will develop a large scale, floating infrastructure to act as waypoints for the flyers. Floating shopping malls, restaurants, etc. These semi-permanent places will handle the messy business of harvesting the water for us.

Edit 2:

People can walk, but use bicycles to go faster and farther. People can swim, but use flippers. Thus a new industry of flight-enhancing technologies will spring up. Jetpacks, glider wings or parafoils, small prop engines, the works. This will extend the range of flight, permit resting before resuming flight, etc.

Aeoroponics will flourish, to supply food for the lofty crowd close to where they need it.

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I'd like to see some numbers on this condense-water-from-clouds idea — both on the feasibility of collecting water in this way, and on the purity of clouds over polluted areas. – mattdm Mar 27 at 16:35
    
By the time people can fly, we should have decent graphene filters at low cost. Graphene allows water molecules through its tiny holes, but keeps out salt and other impurities. – Paul Chernoch Mar 28 at 12:34
    
Question is "people can now" fly. But I still don't think that answers the question. Clouds aren't floating lakes; how is this going to work, exactly? – mattdm Mar 28 at 13:40
    
Bring a cold surface in contact with the moisture of the cloud. This causes the vapor to condense onto the surface. Pass the collected water through a graphene filter to purify it. Drink water. Smile. (Graphene filters are still in the experimental phase. They work, but manufacturing them in large quantities for cheap is a few years off.) – Paul Chernoch Mar 28 at 13:48
    
How much "cold surface" are you bringing up into the cloud? How long are you staying there? Why not do this using balloons today? – mattdm Mar 28 at 13:57

Short answer: nothing.

As a transportation mode, it's too constraining.

  1. You'd have to look out for the weather. I don't think you'd go fly with 90kph wind, or in a thunderstorm, heavy rain or generally unpleasant weather. So you'll still need another form of transportation in these cases.

  2. You'd need appropriate gear to keep you warm. That could mean to carry a change of clothes with you. It's not a big obstacle, but it's a hassle you don't have to deal with in a car.

  3. Most likely, you'd have to shower at work everyday. Not every company has showers. Socially, it's a big requirement.

  4. Most likely again, you'd have to increase your breakfast budget. Effort requires energy, energy for humans typically come in food-form. I say breakfast in the context of flying to work every day, but that would apply to any trip.

  5. Carrying heavy stuff. For instance, and related to 4, groceries. That would require a change of habit (more frequent grocery trips for instance) and would limit you to what you can carry. But since we're close to living in a world where drones can deliver pizzas in 30 minutes or less, this may not apply.

  6. Crowded skies. I imagine what would Tokyo would look like if everybody flew around. People would probably fall out of the sky on a daily basis, and die. That's a danger for the people flying and the people down below. Also, drones if applicable.

And that's only factoring for a one-legged travel. Traveling further would most likely infer stopping to rest and refuel (aka eat).

The bottom-line is you'd need an additional transportation method for almost any situation besides just going out for a walk/run.

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Crowded skies isn't so much a problem if you're allotted the full 3D space for your flight paths, and the rest of your points could easily be addressed by a new emerging market for flight gear. – The Anathema Mar 23 at 17:56
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@TheAnathema If you had to register for a flight plan every morning, or every time you wanted to go outside, you'd probably take your car. – AmiralPatate Mar 23 at 18:41
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@AmiralPatate: Why would you have to register a flight plan? At the speeds we are talking about, there is no reason for that. – O. R. Mapper Mar 23 at 19:19
    
This reads like a list of excuses why people decide not to commute by bicycle. For some, the pros outweigh the cons - and human-powered flight has even more pros: no equipment, vertical locomotion, better views... – tubes Mar 25 at 20:25
    
It looks like a list of excuses because it basically is. Driving is expensive, ruins the atmosphere, will kill you if you aren't careful or you just have bad luck, requires your entire attention, will become irritating real quick, and that's not the end of it. 86% of Americans drive to work. 68% in UK. Why? Because it's easy. – AmiralPatate Mar 25 at 21:00

I'm aware that this might be considered a silly answer, particularly since I don't have numbers to back it up, but it's more than I could fit in a comment. My reasoning is that there are already some popular video games that provide players with the choice of either (effectively) flying, or using vehicles, and that we can examine play patterns within them.

The closest game that comes to mind is Just Cause 3 that I'm playing these days, and other recent games with similar mechanics are Batman: Arkham Knight and Saints Row: Gat out of Hell.

Let's look at Just Cause 3. After some practice, the player can use a combination of a Grappling Hook, Wingsuit and Parachute to effectively travel across land areas (crossing water is harder), without the need for a vehicle (example video). The game's physics (similar but not quite like earth's) make this method of travel very fast for going downhill, of limited maximum speed when traversing a level terrain, and significantly slower when ascending.

"Flying" in the game requires a lot more effort and is (usually) slower than driving, but still, me (and many other players I know) use this kind of "flight" for almost all of our travel needs. The ability to easily cross obstacles (e.g. go above a city, instead of through it), and the fun(!!!) inherent in it, makes this mode of transportation very appealing.

Of course this analogy is problematic, both since there is no distance or physical exertion limit in these games (but likewise no limitation on the use of vehicles), and in that by being relatively novel to me and most players, the use of flying could be said to not yet have reached an equilibrium.

I suggest that further research be conducted. We should set up a game (or mod an existing game) where we could tune the various "costs" of using different methods of transportation, and use that game environment to collect a large dataset and analyze the way players' transportational preferences over a long period of time.

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From my experience, in games built around the idea that you can fly, flying is always faster, always easier, always more fun and generally always better. – AmiralPatate Mar 24 at 14:32

Breaking the transportation industry down there are several sectors that would be affected very little. Long-range human transport - trains, boats, planes and automobiles - would be very little affected, as they flight ability of humans is quite limited. Freight transport would be completely unaffected of course. Short range transport, most notably ferries, would have an initial decrease but would likely recover to normal once the novelty wears off. Humans aren't generally well disposed to exercise, and the stated flight speed is probably too slow to replace quick travel.

Some niche transport industries would certainly suffer. If you could fly up a mountain to your favorite ski spot then the whole heliskiing industry would take a fairly significant hit. Ferries across short distances would have a significant drop in traffic. Hell, the recreational parachuting industry would probably disappear overnight. Ballooning would probably still be fine though... the enjoyment factor is pretty high for very little physical effort.

A positive effect would be to reduce the impact of road congestion. It would be simple to park further from your place of work and simply fly into the office, and would take a shorter time than sitting in the morning traffic snarl. The reduction of congestion could be a persistent effect once people realize how much more convenient it is.

There would be a movement to abolish all forms of powered short-range transport driven by environmental impact. Given the ability to fly at ~30mph at top speed (equivalent to running) or to loaf along at a slower 'walking' speed equivalent (if possible) this might be a reasonable concept. This could lead to a downturn in vehicle sales, driving the price of driving to work up even further and encouraging more people to fly to work.

Another positive effect, this time on aircraft travel, is that passengers would now be able to 'bail out' of an aircraft in flight in case of accident or mechanical failure. Only the infirm would be unable to do so and would require 'special' treatment and safety measures that we consider commonplace these days. Airplanes could be more cheaply produced if the requirement of protecting the passengers in the event of a forced landing was removed or significantly reduced, could be made lighter and more efficient than current models. There would be some changes to structure to allow exit ports at the rear of the plane to be well clear of the engines and such, and the inevitable placement of first class passengers closer to the emergency egress is likely.

All told the final impact to travel would be quite limited.

Of more interest to me is the changes in buildings and support structures that human flight would enable. Whether natural or artificial, human flight ability would radically alter the world. But that's not the point of the question, so I'll leave it there.

And oh, the possibilities for air sports. What a blast.

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If men get this ability overnight, it would all cause a sudden change. A change of the business and living landscape that no one could think about before.

Given an example, about traffic accident. Before, when your car crash into one another, you still have the chance of surviving. Not quite so if you are flying over 10 m high. The traffic rule need to be set for the new transportation mechanism as well, so that people won't go bumping into each other or bird or sky scrapper (I'm sure people will find a way to boost their flying speed soon, as it is the easy part).

Many places that would be impossible or hard to get in would become possible. Like your favorite Disney park (they can't setup security overnight, no?). A lot of ticket-based systems would need to be reviewed as now people can simply fly over the fence. Depending on the citizen's attitude, it could be quite a mess. Or not, if government prohibit it at first, until everyone can fly responsibly.

TL;DR: That's a breaking change, which will change the world forever.

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This is a general vamp on his setting. It does not say anything about answering his question. – JDługosz Mar 25 at 8:09

You are essentially asking if humans could move at 30mph up to 15 miles directly. Flying adds a cool factor and would affect society as far as regulation, but not so much transportation. Subtract all 30 mph 15 mile or less trips humans make, and you are left with a whole lot of other trips humans have to make. Prioritize the trips and the transportation industry goes on business as usual.

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As mentioned elsewhere, long distance and bulk goods transport would be unaffected, and while taking to the air instead might ease commuter congestion, people are still going to want covered transport in bad weather. (Even just for air-conditioning in the heat or cold.)

The major impact will be on pedestrian traffic, with people gaining to access areas they couldn't reach before. Certainly fencing would no longer provide security and even less privacy. Balcony and rooftop top pedestrian access would become a thing; once people overcome a fear of heights.

Hilly terrain no longer be a deterrent and rivers would become less of an obstacle. Though wide rivers might need flying lifeguard patrols to save people who over estimate their ability to just nip across with a load of groceries or whatever.

Coastal and river boating could become a lot safer, or maybe more dangerous; with people taking more risks "knowing" they can fly to safety. Its a tough call.

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