Urban transportation panacea or mobility-oriented snake oil? The Segway Human Transporter is either, depending upon whom you ask. The device either will change the way we get around in cities, or it will be the pedestrian-version of the Edsel. No matter, we should gird ourselves for statewide debates during coming months regarding regulation of the Segway HT (or simply "the Segway").
For those who missed the heavily orchestrated publicity events — most recently a video press release including the device's inventor Dean Kamen and Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos — the Segway is a personal transportation device that looks like a pogo stick with Frisbee-sized wheels. With the aid of gyroscopes and other technology, the device can purportedly stop and turn on a dime. The invention travels up to 12 miles per hour. That speed is faster than many people ride a bicycle and four times faster than the average pedestrian's pace. Segway retails on Amazon.com (the exclusive distributor) for $5,000.
Segway entrepreneurs have claimed that it will revolutionize urban mobility by extending the range of "walking trips," thus getting more people out of cars. The specific selling point seems to be the device's usefulness in highly urban settings, which should draw interest from urban planners dealing with transportation, recreation, or the land-use and transportation connection.
New Hampshire-based Segway has captured the imagination of many a high-tech devotee, and the company has cleverly worked 32 state legislatures into rewriting vehicle codes to accommodate the Segway. In addition to gee-whiz lobbying in which lawmakers got to ride on the provocative device, Segway has been busy with loaner and limited sales programs to government and industry to gain broader acceptance — notably with law enforcement agencies.
Though the blitzkrieg lobbying has met with resounding success before the public has had a chance to understand what the Segway is, concerns are already surfacing. Within weeks of an April launch of a loan and limited-sale program in Atlanta, a downtown safety officer was injured using the device on a driveway.
The lobbying activity reached California earlier this year, and Gov. Davis signed SB 1918 in September. Carried by East Bay Democratic Sen. Tom Torlakson, the law actually classifies a user of the 84-pound mechanized transporter as a pedestrian. This means that use on sidewalks is granted statewide unless otherwise prohibited by a local agency. According to the law, Segway riders are not allowed in places where pedestrians are not permitted, such as streets and bike lanes. It is up to local government to disagree formally through prohibition ordinances. The law takes effect in March 2003.
Not so fast, say the state's most organized pedestrian advocacy groups. Despite the Legislature and governor's stamp of approval, cities and counties own and maintain most of the state's sidewalks. Walk San Francisco, and the Senior Action Network stand firmly opposed to Segway use on sidewalks. With the help of San Francisco Supervisor Chris Daly, they successfully lobbied for passage of the first Segway ban in the country in San Francisco in late November.
"We are not against the Segway," said Michael Smith, President of Walk San Francisco. "But since 1940, San Francisco has prohibited vehicles on public walkways. The Segway is a vehicle. We see it as a pedestrian SUV. Its riders will be able to muscle over walkers. Segways belong in the street with other wheeled vehicles, like bicycles. To allow Segway's promoters to elbow onto pedestrian walkways is to invite major safety problems."
Smith said a host of other Northern California cities, including Berkeley, San Jose, and Santa Cruz, are currently looking at San Francisco's ordinance banning the Segway.
Other alternative transportation groups are equally skeptical. "The Segway invention is an exciting thing," said Christy Kimball, Northern California campaign manager for the Surface Transportation Policy Project. "It holds an incredible potential to replace short car trips. However, we need to be realistic about where it belongs on our streets. The widespread use of Segway will require a new type of street design that better accommodates slow vehicles. Rather than restricting Segways to sidewalks, as the state law does, it would make a lot more sense to allow Segways to use bikeways or slow streets or shoulders of all streets. The transportation opportunities and constraints have not been properly thought through."
Torlakson's bill essentially shifted the debate to the local level. The grass-roots protest and subsequent ordinance in San Francisco are likely precursors to discussions in council chambers and supervisor hearing rooms across the state. And the dearth of data on market acceptance, pedestrian safety, sidewalk capacity, and potential Segway/automobile/pedestrian conflicts, promises to make for a debate that will be short on information and long on speculation.
If Kamen's invention does not end up really changing the way we move through cities, it will certainly raise the level of discussion about how we ought to move through them. And it provides a startling lesson in how a quirky invention coupled with a slick lobbying campaign can sway politicians desperate to be a part of the next trend – whether well thought out or not.
Stephen Svete, AICP, is president of Rincon Consultants, Inc., a Ventura-based consulting firm.