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No Ticket To Ride

Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s veto dashed the dreams of Segway enthusiasts, and came down on the wrong side of logic

By Chet Hardin

 

Johnathan Gleich loves his Segway.

“I love the fact that I am not trapped in a train,” says the Brooklyn native. He has been using his Segway for the past two years to traverse a 15-mile commute to work. “I love that I am out in the air. I am out in the sun.”

There are always curious people, he says, peppering him with the same questions over and over. Gleich eats it up.

“If you are shy, the Segway is not a thing for you,” Gleich continues. “It is the ultimate conversation starter.”

“I am an attention whore,” he admits. “I love attention.”

He has made the trip nearly 200 times, and every time he has broken the law.

Segway enthusiasm, though passionate in the hearts of a few, is not a widespread phenomenon. There are only 100 of the conveyances in New York City. There are probably many more than that in the entire state, but I haven’t checked the numbers. One local politician used to park one in his Troy corner office a few years ago, so that makes at least 101.

They are kinda neat, mildly exciting, but for me the “wow” factor wore off pretty quickly. The science behind them isn’t all that complicated. College kids and bored engineers have been rigging up their own DIY versions for years. Mostly these self- balancing, two-wheeled conveyances are just goofy, “futuristic” playthings of geeks and attention whores like Gleich.

So naturally there was little fanfare when Gov. Eliot Spitzer vetoed legislation that would have allowed Segways onto public streets and sidewalks. No public outcry. No media backlash. The Segway lobby proves to be not so very formidable. What was noticeable, however, and worth getting worked up about, was the sanctimonious applause that followed from the activist section of the crowd.

One primary concern put forward by transportation activists is that by allowing Segways onto sidewalks that state would be endangering pedestrians. But this argument is simply erroneous. The legislation Spitzer vetoed would have left it to individual municipalities to decide where Segways would be allowed to roll. A suburban community might have chosen to allow them on sidewalks. Cities, such as Manhattan, might have chosen otherwise.

Another concern, one that transportation activists share with health and environmental advocates, is that, by allowing another unnecessary motorized vehicle onto the streets, we will just be enabling fat, lazy American loathing of physical exercise.

“This bill is about providing people with an alternative to walking,” the American Lung Association’s Michael Seilback reportedly said.

This argument, as well, rings hollow. How does anyone know that by legalizing these vehicles people will walk less? How is this an alternative to walking? It is easy to make that claim, playing on the image of the portly computer geek riding his Segway to Burger King or to the local comic-book store, but, besides being mean spirited, it is intellectually dishonest. By assuming that the same person, not afforded a Segway, would chose to walk or ride a bike, the advocates are willfully ignoring the reality that they probably just jump in their car.

The real problem with anti-Segway crowd’s logic is that this is not a binary consideration. It is not an and-or situation. Modern life demands diverse travel; 2,000-mile business trips and two-mile Taco Bell emergencies flow together seamlessly. Our options for vehicles ought to reflect this. Driving a car from one city to another seems appropriate. All of that steel and leather atop rubber propelled by petroleum makes sense. That same machine to travel one mile to the grocery store just to pick up some instant coffee is overkill to an absurd degree. The tiny Segway, which demands $.15 worth of electricity to travel 20 miles, by comparison seems like a remarkably wise, and well-suited option.

Instead of limiting people’s choices by refusing to “make legal” a new technology, Spitzer should have recognized that a panoply of vehicles, well-regulated by individual municipalities, would have allowed modern New Yorkers the flexibility their lifestyles demand. And activists would be better served finding other ways to slim America down.

Meanwhile, Gleich figures he will continue to break the law, even though the law remains irritatingly vague.

“It is a gray area,” he says. “It is even worse than a gray area.”

He was ticketed last year for riding his Segway, an unregistered vehicle, on a public street. So he went to court and argued that of course it is unregistered, he can’t register it. In New York state, he says, the government views Segways, which weigh 80 pounds and can travel at speeds up to 12.5 miles per hour, in the same classification as motorized skateboards. This means that they are not allowed on sidewalks, but must be registered to be ridden on public streets.

“How do I register it if it is unregisterable?” he asks. “It is a catch-22. I can’t register it, but I am ticketable.”

Honestly, though, he isn’t caught in a catch-22. He could easily forgo his treasured Segway. That wouldn’t mean he would start walking the 15-mile commute, obviously. It means he would be relegated back underground, to sit on a subway train for an hour.

chardin@metroland.net


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