Published on Monday, October 13, 2003 by the Seattle
The Segway is Just Another Lard-making Device
by Neal Peirce
Faced with an embarrassing factory recall of all the
6,000 high-tech scooters it has sold so far, the
Manchester, N.H., manufacturer Segway LLC may face a
slowdown in its lobbying blitz aimed at legalizing its
"human trans-porters" on all the sidewalks of all
America's states and communities.
The recall alert notes the danger of riders falling
off scooters when they try to speed up abruptly when
the unit's batteries are mostly depleted.
There's no doubt inventor Dean Kamen produced a modern
wonder with the "dynamic stabilization" technology
that lets the Segway move forward or halt, using five
gyroscopes and two tilt sensors to gauge a rider's
center of gravity measured about 100 times a second.
Take a mental leap and imagine specially reserved
lanes criss-crossing our cities that permit not just
Segway riders but also bicyclists to zip along quietly
at up to 12 miles per hour, bypassing stalled auto
traffic, reducing pollution and congestion.
Sadly, Kamen's firm had no idea of waiting for special
lanes for its invention, and certainly no inclination
to collaborate with bicycling groups. It wanted clear
access to a nation of sidewalks, immediately. So it
launched a high-intensity blitz aimed at the 50 state
legislatures, hiring influential lobbyists and wowing
legislators with demonstrations of its zippy new
The effort, begun less than two years ago, has been
phenomenally successful — permissive laws in 41
states. Most of these statutes say nothing about
minimum age of operators, tests, safety helmets or
other precautions. Some do allow localities to take
exception: San Francisco, banning Segways from
sidewalks last January, was the first. Officials,
especially in older cities with narrower sidewalks,
are leery about collisions between Segways and
As well they might be. Legislatures may be mesmerized
into revoking the normal laws that bar motorized
vehicles from sidewalks, notes a leading safety
critic, Gary Smith, director of the Center for Injury
Research and Policy at Children's Hospital in
But what legislators can't do, Smith notes, is "repeal
the laws of Newtonian physics." The Segway involves a
rider standing on a platform, with a high center of
gravity, not seated, no restraint system, clipping
along fairly rapidly. In rough terms, it is the SUV of
the sidewalks. Give it a major bump or swerve, says
Smith, and physical law dictates the driver will stay
in motion — and may impact anything in his path.
Segway's manufacturer, charges Smith, has released
zero data on the stopping distance or dynamic
stability of its scooters.
"The Segway," he continues, "is a motorized vehicle,
no matter whether it stops by friction brakes or
reverse torque, or whether it accelerates by use of a
throttle or tilt sensors." It's similar, he insists,
to motorized bikes, prohibited from sidewalks almost
everywhere. A child darting where he or she is not
expected, or a senior citizen unable to get out of the
way, could be severely injured. Why should the $5,000
Segway be allowed to impair common people's safety on
sidewalks that are designed for pedestrians to move,
talk, stand and enjoy their communities?
In rebuttal, Segways have potentially significant uses
— to move about in large warehouses and factories, for
example, or by local police or the military. They
could put public transit stops within reach of more
people, and provide alternatives to autos for short
Yet for most people, bikes could do the same. Which
raises the Segway's other inherent problem: more
motorization in a nation already overly motorized. The
gut problem, writes the San Francisco Weekly: "Lard.
Buckets of lard. Fat, rosy cheeks. Ample alabaster
bellies. Arms that flap, legs that waddle, bodies by
the millions shaking like bowls of jelly." Why, the
paper asks, introduce "a high-technology lard-making
device just at the moment when America is suffocating
That's pretty harsh — and so far only a few thousand
Segways, way below company hopes and expectations,
have been sold anyway. But it does remind me of my
favorite slogan, discovered on the sign for the Onion
River Sports shop in Montpelier, Vt. The three words
"Muscles Not Motors."
For elderly folk, there is a terrific substitute when
unaided walking becomes too onerous. It's the
30-year-old, Swedish-made "rollator," a compact
four-rubber-tired contraption to push (and lean on as
required). It has some grocery cart space and a
built-in bench. There is no motor. Tests prove that
use of the rollator prolongs mobility, independence
and agility and cuts down on hip fractures and other
bone-related perils of old age.
For able-bodied people, combined bike and Segway paths
make eminent sense because paths that work for one
will work for the other. Instead of claiming
miraculous invention and romancing politicos for
sidewalk access, the Segway folks would do well to sit
down with advocates of the humble bicycle for talks on
expanding the special city and rural pathways so
abundant in Europe but so sorely lacking here.
Copyright © 2003 Seattle Times Company
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