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Come here often? Utopian view of scooter parking.

Scoot Force
By William Kanapaux

Is 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?

Next 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 City.

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 local levels.

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 to pedestrians.

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 absolutely necessary.

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.


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