Segway Users: The Other Minority

segway.jpg

This is the second essay from Alex Marshall. As a journalist and author Alex has written extensively on transportation issues, he is a senior fellow at the Regional Plan Association where he edits the bi-weekly Spotlight on the Region newsletter.

A guy on a Segway rolled by me the other day on 15th street to the east side of Union Square. I can’t remember whether he was wearing a helmet, but I do remember his pursed lips and worried eyes. He seemed to fear a judgmental gaze or remark, and to be preemptively avoiding that by staring straight ahead.

Whatever the actual reason for it, his tense expression metaphorically indicated to me the somewhat beleaguered place Segways occupy on our streets and sidewalks. Although tiny in actual number, in mind-share the Segway has occupied a lot of space due to the successful publicity blow-out before the machines were introduced in late 2001.

As part of this juggernaut, its inventor Dean Kamen spent many millions getting them approved for sidewalk use in most places, but he hit a snag in New York State and in the city particularly, where he found sidewalks and streets more contested ground. Here cycling and pedestrian advocates have managed to keep it in limbo legally, neither completely denied but definitely not completely permitted. That hasn’t stopped the police from trying them out though. The Segway made news recently because the NYPD bought ten of them for officers to use in Central Park and other areas.

From a practical standpoint, the Segway’s current legal status might be okay. But as a precedent, the hostility against the Segway from the "street" community troubles me. I’m reminded that one discriminated or beleaguered minority is supposedly more likely to discriminate against another minority rather than embrace them. There’s not enough room for all of us, seems to be the view of many cycling and pedestrian advocates.

This is a pity, for it’s not the right approach to the use of streets. Rather than enshrining particular devices, there should be an attitude of "Everyone into the pool" when it comes to streets. With some exceptions at either end of the scale, generally streets within urban areas should accommodate all types of traffic. Urban designer and writer Michael Sorkin, in a class of his I spoke at CUNY, talked of the streets of Bangladesh and how they contained animals, cyclists, cars and other traffic, all moving along at about 12 mph, absent any particular rules or regulations.

A New York equivalent of this might be a good thing. The very act of encouraging everyone to use the street will slow down and tame automobile traffic, which is the primary threat to all other users. At least in streets, Segway users should mix easily.

Sidewalks however might be a different story. Sidewalks are narrower than streets, and consist now just of walkers, at least legally. Well actually, there are joggers. And conventional scooter riders. And wheelchair rollers. Can Segways be added to this list?

I speak as someone who has ridden a Segway a few times and fallen in love with them, at least a little. The technology is simply amazing. They operate as if by magic. They roll where you want with no audible noise or power source. While I don’t see them replacing bicycles or any other transportation medium, I do see them being potentially part of the urban street mix. Which is precisely where they have been most opposed.

For the moment, Segways are a specialized product. But as promoters of street and sidewalk use, cyclists and pedestrians should welcome, and not fear, such newcomers.

Photo: Kyle Jones/Flickr

  • Hilary

    “Limited mobility” is far broader than “have problems standing for long stretches of time.” Disabilities are often not visible. And they need not be proven to you or me. That’s the law.

    I suppose we could assign everyone a “best mode” according to smallest carbon footprint, least space occupied, least noise emitted, and physical ability? SUV’s would be replaced by Mini’s and bicyclists put on unicycles or pogo sticks.

  • paola

    It’s not just NY cyclists who hate segways. I read in the SF Chronicle about how segway users were intimidated from riding because of all the heckling.

    And, yes, I heckle segway users. Keep ’em in the factories and movie lots. I know the people in the Yukon XL are more worthy of heckling, but if they’re not packing, they’ll run me over in a second.

    New York is NOT Bangladesh! The streets are still a total jungle nightmare, even though they’re lined with Red Lobsters and Olive Gardens. Segways are my natural enemy.

  • Gizler

    Hilary, that does not address the point at all. Visible or not, law or not, “proven” or not, most people who have trouble walking have trouble standing for long periods of time, which means Segways most likely will not be helpful to them.

  • Hilary

    The point, Gizler, is it’s not your choice to make.

  • Sandy

    I’d wager a bet that everyone who’s commented negatively here about the Segway has never ridden one. If you did, you’d see how safe, reliable, and pedestrian friendly they are, perfectly adaptable to sidewalk use. I don’t understand how so many people can profess how unsafe they are when they really don’t know anything firsthand about ’em. Segways are wonderful technology.

  • JF

    It’s not so much about riding them as it is sharing a sidewalk with them, right? They weigh 65-100 pounds, and it’s too easy to go fast. I don’t want them on my sidewalk, just like I don’t want bicycles, roller skates, skateboards or scooters on the sidewalk.

    I think they belong on the streets, and if Segway users don’t feel the streets are safe enough for them, well, now they know how cyclists and street skaters feel, and I hope they’ll join us instead of using Kamen’s power to carve their own loopholes in the traffic laws.

  • Gizler

    JF, exactly, good response to Sandy the Segway salesman.

    And Hilary, I’m not making a choice for disabled people, I’m speculating that your argument about how much Segways will benefit them has a big logical hole in it that you seem unable to patch.

  • As a Segway owner who rides it daily to work (12.8 mile roundtrip) in Phoenix, I cannot comment as to the NYC sidewalk situation.

    I can say that as a rider in Phoenix AZ and Tempe AZ, I have had not major problems riding on the sidewalks. It’s legal here to ride on the sidewalks.

    Segways can easily mingle in with moderate-sized sidewalk congestion.

    When it’s butt-to-belly button like NYC sidewalks, however, I’m not sure Segways would fit so well into the flow of foot traffic.

  • Sproule Love

    I have to admit that I share some of the disdain expressed here for Segway owners. Yes, I ride bikes, and no, I don’t hate dorks. I wouldn’t put too much stock into what the “young, athletic, male Brooklyn biker crowd” thinks, Hilary, since this group strikes a shining example of natural selection as they speed their moustaches and brakeless fixed gears into oblivion.

    What’s the difference between a $5,000 Segway and a $5,000 trophy bike? At least you have to put some effort into the bike to go anywhere. I doubt many Segway owners have “limited mobility,” but that’s just my biased assumption. Let’s face it, these are a novelty purchase for people who have a lot of (and I use this phrase as literally as possible) disposable income and they are not going to become a significant group of street users.

    I am deeply disturbed that the NYPD is spending our tax dollars on these toys. Commissioner Kelly would better serve us and the health and well-being of his staff by putting them on $500 NYPD bicycles instead.

    All that said, one simply cannot argue with the reasoning that a Segway is far better than a car. So, begrudgingly, I have to welcome Segway owners into our motley alternative transportation coalition. As far as where they belong, I’m with JF…Segways are for streets.

    Well, Mr. Marshall is nothing if not controversial and it doesn’t take much chum to roil these waters. I hope for his kids’ sake that by now he’s bought them modern bike helmets.

  • yeah, they look ridiculous. and yes, the perfectly healthy person that bought the contraption spent an arm and a leg for it and looks foolish, but so what. why do you care so much about this incredibly stupid subject? seriously. is your life that pathetic that you have to muster up such anger for these people? save it for the automobiles and their owners. let these people ride in the bike lanes for crying out loud and don’t hate.

    this is a perfect example of why the left never wins. incessant infighting over things so utterly trivial. go beyond the semantics of signage and learn to share for the first time in your life, idiots.

  • Sproule Love

    “incredibly stupid subject”
    “is your life that pathetic”
    “idiots”

    Who’s doing the hating, cochon? Have anything intelligent to add the conversation? You took the time to read all these posts..how about contributing something worthwhile.

  • Neven Rakoni?

    If you think segway is that great, why don’t you use electric wheelchair for transport. I mean that way you don’t have to stand.

    This is of course reffering to all the healthy people using segways.

  • ruathinker

    New personal mobility devices are being developed by an innovative and entrepreneurial marketplace. Accomodating these new transportation options within the public right-of-way requires users to keep an open mind about solutions. If there is a concern about excessive speeds, then establish speed limits. If there is a concern about space conflicts, then increase the width of the travel way for these new modes by narrowing the width of the road lanes. New mobility technologies will not go away. As a result, successful adaptation require us all to remain open to new ways of designing and managing our public spaces.

  • john

    I think Segways in the bikelane are fine – even though they’re motorized, they can’t really keep up with car traffic, so they probably don’t belong in there, but in the bikelane they should be fine. I would not want them on the sidewalk – when a person is in a hurry you can’t count on them to maintain a safe speed.

    As a cyclist, I don’t hate Segways, and I do appreciate the technology. I’ve never ridden one, but I’m sure they’re fun. The thing is, I can only be so impressed by something that can’t go as fast as my bike, has a shorter range, must be recharged, offers no direct health benefit to the user, can’t be fixed with simple tools, and costs 10 times what a decent bicycle costs. It’s new technology that, for the most part, doesn’t beat the old technology.

    Regarding conflicts between Segways and bikes – some people are just jerks. But also, I would guess that most Segway riders are used to driving. They’re not used to being unprotected in traffic, and are a little scared by how crowded it can be, how close the cars and bikes get, and how aggressively most people behave during their commute.

  • gecko

    Being human scale providing transport that is distributed and on-demand — they can even be stored in apartments in buildings with elevators and make great coat racks -– with the possibility of serving as a precursor for advanced transit architectures, Segways are definitely a step in the right direction and should be embraced; the market should be able to decide, but the playing field is not fair.

    The focus should be to eliminate the unfair and destructive, wasteful local monopolies that cars, trucks, buses, and maybe even subway trains have in this city which is currently not only encouraged by local legal, resource allocation, and legislation, but much more aggressively by the high level of brute-force danger and real threat automobiles cause.

  • darth

    Many of the negative Segway comments seem to contain some reference to the price…IE: $5,000 for a toy…or personal attacks like too lazy to walk or ride.

    How many people posting comments here have ever used a Segway? People can tend to mock what they don’t understand.

    Could there be an epidemic of Segway envy lurking out there with the posters on this blog?

  • Well, it seems if nothing there are two sides to every story! I not only use but enjoy my Segway everyday. I use the side walk like any other Human Transport would. Yes that is what a Segway is classified as. The same as a Wheel Chair. So if the issue is Speed then hey let me “sup-up” a few wheel chairs, and then will the complaint be wheel chairs go to fast or weigh to much?

    It sounds more like the first opposition is cost of $5000. Sorry new technology does cost money! Should we all ditch our HD TV’s also because they cost $3000? Second is Speed a Segway can be controlled to travel walking speed 3.5 miles an hour or commuter speed at 12 miles an hour. Third is access why is everyone entitled to their own space? So in that case we need a walking lane, a jogging, lane, a standing lane, a segway lane, a wheel chair lane, a cane walking lane, a speed walking lane, a bike lane, a scooter lane. What the true face is we had to provide a road for cars, a track for the train, a lane for bikes come on? The sidewalk is for Humans traveling.

    The funniest thing is I was traveling along Surface Road on the sidewalk the other day at 12 miles an hour and a guy on a bike blew by me like I was standing still.

    I use the my Segway for both leisure and commuting into Boston, and yes I use the Train, and the T. I travel in from Tewksbury Ma.

    So I guess in closing I’ll continue segwaying, and everyone else can just complain or rather complain about complaining! Since neither this Blog or anything in it will change Legislation.

    Oh looking back I forgot to mention, I happy, healthy, and enjoying commuting unlike you complaining, walking, driving or angry people! Just move on and take up world peace or something, anything find a hobby! I’m not really mad at anyone or upset that they want to voice their opinion just try not to show so much hate!

    The toughest thing in America is to stand idle by while one person rips down or apart the one thing you have advocated your entire life. Free Speech is a freedom no one can take lightly. The difference is we all should have responsible access to public ways.

  • gecko

    It would be wild to see lots of people using Segways with city government encouraging their use like bicycles such as a large number available from downtown Brooklyn to Red Hook and Carroll Gardens by way of Court Street and Van Brunt.

    It wasn’t a dream when I saw three cops (with capes!) on Segways racing down the bike path in Prospect Park and, blowing past on my inlines yelled that they looked like the three Musketeers; and, the big smiles on their faces!

    They are definitely scaled right to moving lots of people around this city quickly and efficiently and it seems to have been announced that a new hands-free one is coming kind of like surfing or skate boarding but a lot easier and lighter than the original uprights.

    A large presence on the street would encourage and accelerate a very resilient diversity of accepted and effective ways to travel this town.

  • gecko

    You have to realize if the city buys these things in bulk at $3000 each then 150 of them would be less than the cost of a city bus.

    Fifteen (15) of them would be comparable to a bus drivers annual salary.

    Of course, there’d have to be Segway rustlers to make sure the machines are distributed to where they’re needed.

  • gecko

    . . . wranglers (not rustlers)

  • GlideGurl

    I think darth (#66) is on to something with “Segway envy.” Here’s an analogy based on early reactions to the iPhone and early adapters.

    People who were very interested in (read: envied) the iPhone but could not have one (contractual obligations, etc.) berated the phone for its lack of features, network carrier, early bugs, limited memory (although it had more memory than any other cell phone) and PRICE. “What idiot pays $600 for a phone??!!” They considered early adapters blind followers. Fast forward to 2008. The iPhone’s price dropped, and lines to get one lasted for weeks! Those who still ‘hate on’ the iPhone probably have a copycat of it.

    In that context, imagine the price of the Segway dropping dramatically, putting it in REACH for more people. Think about it.

    More people would try this stupid thing. “Let me seee. Hmm, wow. I could use this to x,y and z!”

    I can only speak for myself to defend Segway gliding in NYC. I favor riding in the street, on sidewalks and bike lanes. I glide extremely slow on sidewalks, and only when the street becomes dangerous.

    To common angst:

    1. WALK: I do. I have walked as a resident of NYC since 1995.

    2. EXERCISE: I do that too. 5X a week – you?

    3. BIKE: Sold it. The super fast bikers and traffic zooming by scared me, and I didn’t have much control on my bike. I am short, so I can easily get run over in the street on a small bike. On my Segway, I am further above ground, easily visible.

    4: $5,000 Toy: No, a $5,000 mode of transportation that doesn’t require gas, vehicle maintenance, nor $200/month garage parking. It saves on cab fare also. There’s nothing like jumping into a cab only to turn the corner and run right into stopped traffic, then spending 2x the fare to get to your destination.

    THINK

    Has anyone considered the sweat factor? I like to work out, just not on the way to work.

    Summary: Those who complain with more venom than reason cannot see themselves on it, so therefore Segways and their owners, like early iPhones and early adapters, are “stupid, lazy, [fill in the blanks].” They tout their superiority as bikers, yet they complain as if they have inferiority complexes, complaining mainly about the price as if that’s a problem for them so it should be for everyone.

    How abot working together?

    My Suggestions:

    A: Segway regulation in NYC – compromise

    B: Mandatory training which results in a license or certificate

    C: Mandatory insurance (protects pedestrians)

    D: Segway-free zones as seen fit (debate and decide)

    E: Zones FOR Segway use as seen fit (debate and decide)

    F: Regulated speeds for different areas like hwy/st speeds for vehicles

    Otherwise, I will continue as will others gliding as WE see fit.

    In this battle, compromise works better than 100% resistance.

  • GlideGurl

    Another thing…

    I own/have owned…

    Rollerblades

    Landrollers

    Xootr scooters (kick and electric)

    Bike

    Segway


    Rollerblades/Landrollers
    Ease: Difficult to balance, stop and turn.
    Danger to pedestrians: Moderate bec

  • I see this conversation is still going strong!
    I was just featured in the NY daily news

    http://www.nydailynews.com/ny_local/2009/08/18/2009-08-18_segway_driver_keeps_motoring.html

    And absolutely agree with GlideGurl, I have no problem being
    regulated, trained, certified, insured.

    Name one Biker who is insured or even accountable for their actions.

    I hope one day, people will just view the segway as another means of
    transport, and that we all can.. just.. Get along

    🙂

    jonathan

  • John

    You know a lot of the comments anger me. I am 59 years old with extremely bad knees. I will be getting knee replacements but will never be able to walk any great distances or enjoy just getting outside to enjoy museums, craft fairs and other venues. This would be a God send to me. I would be much more independent. I have seen them operate and I KNOW they arent dangerous operated carefully around pedestrians. I’ve seen pedestrians run into each other. I’ve also seen bicyclists run people off sidewalks. This machine will go as slow as grandma walking or quite fast when the coast is clear. Most of you are making lots of assumptions about the people who might be riding these things as well as the reasons they will be riding them.

  • pbr90

    New York, New York could instantly cure its inner city transport problem by banning cars from its center, and allowing taxicabs only, heavily regulated, and controlled by design, to certain areas of slow speeds, using the perimeters for auto activity, and allowing inner sanctum for shopping, pedestrian transport, and perhaps segway and bicycle lanes, and the occasional pickup/delivery truck.

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