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Alex Marshall

Segway Users: The Other Minority

12:00 PM EDT on June 27, 2007


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

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