New 'way: Vehicle raises eyebrows
"Hey, wait a second! What is that thing?"
That's the cry as John Carden zips past on his brand new "toy," Charlottesville's first Segway Human Transporter, and Carden says he's enjoying the attention.
"It really loosens people's inhibitions," he laughs.
Carden first saw the $4,000 electric vehicle while visiting a Brookstone store in Florida about a month ago. He says he wanted one right off the bat.
"You're just gliding," he beams. "It feels like flying."
Following a friend's advice, Carden held off for a month, but on Friday, March 26, still jonesin' for the two-wheeled, 83-pound contraption, he went ahead and ordered it. It arrived less than a week later, on Wednesday, March 31.
Sure it's fun, but is it legal to ride on Charlottesville's pedestrian-only areas?
"I don't know," shrugs Carden, who says he was stopped by a "very nice" policewoman on the Downtown Mall. "She wasn't sure," he says, "but thought that since it's a vehicle, I shouldn't be riding it on the Mall."
That officer isn't the only one in the dark about the Segway.
"I guess that would require me to do research with the City attorney," says Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo, who had not yet seen or heard about Carden's Segway.
Mayor Maurice Cox, a vocal proponent of alternative transportation, says he believes the Segway should be allowed in pedestrian areas– at least until it becomes a problem.
"Whether it's the rickshaw, Vespa [scooter], yellow bikes," says Cox, "the idea is to give people as many alternatives to the automobile as possible."
And since the Segway is designed as a pedestrian alternative that can be used indoors, Cox believes it may have "a legitimate claim to be used in a pedestrian-only environment."
Both Cox and fellow city councilor Kevin Lynch say that while one Segway almost certainly is not problematic, if the trend catches on, new laws might have to be considered.
"We try to regulate as little as possible," says Lynch. "It's only when something becomes a problem that we step in and act."
The key, Lynch says, is how well one is able to control the Segway.
Not a problem, says Carden, thanks to the unusual and futuristic technology the machine employs.
The Segway was designed by inventor Dean Kamen, and prior to its unveiling in December, 2001, was referred to as "Ginger" to increase the machine's mystique. Using multiple gyroscopes to emulate human balance, two independent electric motors, and wheels that allow a turn-radius no-wider than the vehicle's footprint, the Segway– which looks more like a push mower than a scooter– is unlike any other form of locomotion currently available.
It's not Kamen's first unusual invention. He's won awards for his body of work, which in addition to the Segway includes the IBOT, a robotic wheelchair that can go up and down stairs and allows the user to ride at eye level with nondisabled individuals.
The accessibility and ease of use of his inventions is part of Kamen's success, though there have been some bumps in the road, so to speak. George Bush famously fell off the Segway while out for a roll with his family. Carden says the malfunction that sent Bush flying has since been fixed with a warning system for low battery power, and this reporter had no such problems while testing Carden's Segway.
The Segway is turned on with one of three "thumbprint" keys pressed into a circle on the console. Each key represents a different level of use. A beginner key sets the Segway to a less-sensitive, slower level (the one used by this reporter). An intermediate key allows slightly faster sidewalk travel, and the advanced key allows users to zip along at 11 mph. A single charge, according to the company website, allows travel of between 10 and 15 miles, and costs approximately 10 cents. To drive the Segway, the rider simply leans forward or backward, and twists the handles to turn.
Simple enough, but what are the downsides?
Colin Dougherty, co-owner of the Vespa dealership on Preston Avenue, says the high price point should be considered. At $4,000 to $4,500 depending on the model, the Segway is comparable to the most expensive Vespa scooters, which can be ridden on the open road and get 40-50 miles to the gallon. Dougherty's dealership offers electric scooters which can travel on city roads at speeds up to 23 miles per hour for just $1,000, a quarter the cost of a Segway.
Segway reps did not return the Hook's calls by press time, but John Daniels, Brookstone's Richmond area manager, says the price isn't holding people back. He wouldn't reveal exact sales figures, but claims "They're doing well– interest seems to be high." In addition to Brookstone stores, Segways can be purchased through Amazon.com or the Segway website.
Though he thinks "they're cool," Lee Marracini, owner of Angelo jewelry store on the Downtown Mall, says price isn't the only problem with the Segway.
"I thought I might be the first one on the Downtown Mall to have one," he says, until he put a little more thought into it.
"What our country needs more than anything else," he says, "is to walk more."
Carden says he considered that, but decided he'll still get plenty of exercise: He runs regularly, and when not in a rush, walks to work from his downtown home. The Segway, he says, simply allows faster pedestrianism– without the sweat– for those times when he doesn't want to drive but can't take the time for a standard-speed stroll.
"I might take it to Barracks Road," he says.
Whether the Segway becomes standard transportation fare in Charlottesville remains to be seen, but Carden has no regrets about his pricey purchase.
"Sometimes I feel like a complete geek," he says, but "it's fun to be excited about something again."
John Carden has a new toy, the Segway Human Transporter.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO