here often? Utopian view of scooter parking.
By William Kanapaux
the new era of alternative transportation here, or will the
enviro-friendly Segway Human Transporter fail to find its
niche in the car-dominated urban landscape?
month, gadget-happy technophiles around the country will begin
receiving their very own Segway Human Transporters, a feat
of engineering whose creator has promised will revolutionize
the way urban dwellers think of transportation.
First introduced more than a year ago in the midst of tremendous
media hype, the Segway HT looks like a scooter pilfered from
The Jetsons. The 80-pound device, which cost more than
$100 million to develop, has no engine, brakes or steering
wheel. A combination of gyroscopes, electronic sensors, microprocessors
and electric motors maintain balance and respond to subtle
shifts in the userís center of gravity. Lean forward and it
goes forward. Think of stopping and it stops.
Despite the gee-whiz, earthy-friendly nature of this new technology,
critics have not been hard to find. In November, San Francisco
became the first city in the country to ban the HT from public
sidewalks. Surprisingly, opposition came from groups one might
think would support its useóWalk San Francisco, the Bicycle
Coalition and a group called Transportation for a Livable
The setback might seem minor if not for the fact that the
Segway company had spent millions of dollars lobbying city
officials to allow the device on their sidewalks. This lobbying
effort has occurred across the country, on both state and
Reluctance to embrace the HT is directly linked to Segwayís
strategy of pushing the device as a sidewalk-based mode of
transportation rather than a road vehicle. Senior citizens
and people with disabilities argue that the nearly silent
machine, which can travel 12.5 mph, poses a significant danger
The company feared that consumers would balk at buying a road-based
transporter, and understandably so. Few people are likely
to relish the idea of competing against SUVs the size of armored
tanks for road space. How many cyclists do you see on a given
day darting in and out of rush-hour traffic?
Still, the decision to tout the HT as a sidewalk machine seems
to fly in the face of inventor Dean Kamenís prediction that
his device would change the way cities are organized. A city
needs cars like a fish needs a bicycle, he said. The HT will
make cars undesirable and unnecessary. The urban landscape
will change accordingly.
No doubt, his prediction resonates with many city residents.
Cars bring noise, pollution, traffic jams and parking problems.
If something were to appear that would magically change that,
who wouldnít embrace it?
Well apparently, quite a few people.
Thereís no denying that we live in an automotive culture.
The automobile shapes our lives in every imaginable way, from
where we shop and live to how we dream. The cars we drive
have become such an integral part of our identity and our
notions of freedom that to suggest we give them up or severely
restrict their use is considered by many to be downright un-American.
But eventually, we are going to have to give them up. Global
oil production will peak by 2010, with steep declines to follow.
Skyrocketing gasoline prices will result, as well as the need
to revert to cruder, dirtier forms of fossil fuel, such as
coal, tar sand and heavy oil.
The auto industry touts nonpolluting hydrogen fuel cells as
the transportation technology of the future. But such vehicles
arenít likely to be available to the public at large until
2020 at the earliest. And thatís taking into account President
Bushís pledge last month to fund the so-called Freedom Fuel
Initiative to the tune of $1.2 billion.
Hybrid and electric cars offer a promising alternative as
well, but donít hold your breath. The auto industry will probably
continue to drag its feet on developing any technology that
significantly brings down gasoline consumption until it is
This leaves a 17-year transition from our current practices
to alternative forms of transportation. Thatís not much time
for a country that has an oil habit of 18 million barrels
per day to change its ways. But itís one hell of a long time
to endure an oil crisis.
The current debate over whether the HT belongs on the sidewalk
is misguided. Too much of the discussion has ceded the streets
to automobiles and accepted as a given that cars will continue
to have the right of way. Eventually, that will have to change.
Clearly, the kind of urban landscape envisioned by Kamen would
require some major reconfiguring. Practical concerns both
large and small would need to be addressed. A quick look out
the window suggests that we are a long way from restricting
the use of automobiles.
Whether or not the Segway HT will catch on with consumers
and lead the way toward alternative modes of transportation
remains to be seen. But the specs suggest that the HT deserves
serious consideration. The device can carry a passenger weighing
as much as 250 pounds, plus an additional 75 pounds of cargo.
It tackles hills with ease, turns on a dime and can be fitted
with snow tires. Its batteries easily recharge overnight and
are good for 10 to 15 miles per charge.
Of course cost is an issue. The HT, which is only available
through amazon.com, sells for $4,950. Segway hasnít disclosed
how many orders have been placed but does say it has a customer
in every state.
Between the price tag and the critics, the Segway Human Transporter
could very well be a shoe-in for the Technological Flop Hall
of Fame. But itís also possible that it may be the first of
many innovations designed to challenge the way that 21st centurions
view their relationship to the cities they inhabit.
Already, postal workers, meter readers and police officers
in cities such as Boston and Seattle have adopted the HT on
a trial basis. And beginning this month, Segway is launching
a yearlong study in Celebration, Fla., that will track how
people use their HTs to commute and travel. Segway chose the
Orlando suburb, a planned community created by the Walt Disney
Co., based on its infrastructure of sidewalks and trails and
its record of embracing zero-emission transportation alternatives.
Only time will tell whether the HT makes a permanent mark
on urban living. But even if itís consigned to the margins
of transportation history as a mere curiosity, one can hope
that its presence will at least advance the notion that sooner
or later weíre going to need some serious alternatives to
the automobile and the infrastructure that supports it.
For more information, visit www.segway.com.