Segways: Toys or Useful Tools?

Segways: Toys or Useful Tools?

Segways: Toys or Useful Tools?
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
May 22 2003 2:02 PM

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Today's slide show: Images from Paris. Today's audio: Sylvain Pernin envisions a Paris transformed by Segways. Today's surround video: The Place de la Concorde grounds one end of the Champs Elysées.

Window-shopping on a rainy day.
Window-shopping on a rainy day.
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Great buckets of café au lait could not get me started this morning. It was cold and rainy for the third straight day, and I was hung-over. I had no wish to venture out and buttonhole Frenchmen about their views. My body shrank from responsibility. I was like a spacecraft that fails to achieve the proper angle of re-entry and bounces off the Earth's atmosphere into deep space.

Amanda and I went to dinner last night at one of the 10 three-star restaurants in Paris. She wore a beautiful black frock and I a jacket and tie, and we Segwayed stylishly up to the doorstep of Pierre Gagnaire and hovered, waiting. The maitre d' appeared and thrust his hands out in horror, giving us the full Heisman. After some alarmed back and forth—yes, we had a reservation; no, we need not bring the vehicles to our table—he found room for the Segways by the fire exit, and we sat down for a five-course, five-hour meal with our voluble friend Jeffrey Steingarten, the food writer for Vogue.

Meals with Jeffrey are always fascinating—we learned all about the role of the Jews under the Ottoman Empire, as well as the history and manifold virtues of spelt and neffles, two foods I had never even heard of until they surfaced on Pierre Gagnaire's menu—but can also remind one, by the shank of the evening, of being stuck with Jack Nicholson in The Shining's Overlook Lodge. Acres of food, a crazy man with an ax, and no way out.

When we finally left at 1:30 in the morning, we discovered that Segwaying is even more fun when you're a little drunk. (The author is strongly opposed to people operating machinery in the dark while drunk. I mean it. All Microsoft's many lawyers mean it. Now, back to the story.) Like dancing and sex and most excitements, Segwaying comes more easily if you don't think about it too much. I have no idea where in one's brain the "Segway handling" protocol gets lodged, but it must be near the driving and skiing regions, as it borrows from each. Sometimes you borrow from the wrong one, and instead of squatting into a snowplow-style skiing stop, you press on the Segway's foot brake. There is no foot brake.

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The Segway is not always perfectly intuitive: You can't step off the machine and walk away or it will take off and then topple; the kickstand breaks easily; it's a pain to line up the holes in the wheel well so you can thread a bike lock through them; the battery recharging light is impossible to see unless you kneel and crane your head sideways; and, as there are no shock absorbers, your calf muscles quiver after an hour's ride. On the whole, however, it is a wonderful machine.

But the jugular question is whether it is a toy or a useful tool. After riding a Segway for a few weeks in his sidewalk-free subdivision, the Wall Street Journal's Walter S. Mossberg concluded, "It's not easy to use in the suburbs." Nor is it always easy to use in Paris. Cobblestones and narrow sidewalks make for a jerky ride, and if you come to a curb higher than 4 inches tall, you have to step off, put the machine into "power assist" mode, wheel it over the curb, and get back on. I had never before realized how many 5-inch curbs there are in Paris.

Ideally, from Segway's point of view, cities would be reconceived to suit the new technology, as cities were remapped to make way for freeways and underground parking garages. Sylvain Pernin, the gallant, optimistic Segway Project director at the Keolis Group, a transportation company that is going to rent out Segways here in the coming months, acknowledges that there are difficulties at the moment. "But when we have 10,000 Segways here, it may be different," Pernin says, hopefully. "This machine is so beautiful, I think that the government will have to widen the sidewalks."

In the city's Marais or Latin Quarter, there is no room to widen the sidewalks without paving over the roads. Segways may be better suited to Paris or London than to, say, Los Angeles, but even Paris is currently configured—often badly—for cars. Which gives me an idea. What about building a Segway car, one that would run on batteries and accelerate as you leaned forward in the driver's seat? I have a feeling the Segway car would be anathema to Dean Kamen, the Segway's inventor—gravel-voiced, brilliant, with an eraser nub of black hair, in interviews he often seems dismayed by the world as it is—but, you know, Dean, the thing about roads is we already have them.

The other big thing a Segway car could do is protect its driver from the elements. The current Segway is no fun when it rains. So, this morning, when we finally stirred ourselves and went to the Pompidou Center to see some modern art—which mixes so beautifully with hangovers—we took a taxi.

The Pompidou turned out to be closed because of the ongoing general strike. We walked, in the drizzle, to the Musée Picasso. It, too, was closed. We angled sleepily down rue Vieille-du-Temple to the Seine, looking in at the shops, most of which were also closed. We walked across a bridge to the Ile St. Louis and then to the Ile de La Cité, and came upon the rear of Notre-Dame. Every tourist in Paris, driven by the twin horsemen of storm and strike, had gathered beneath its dirty gray buttresses hoping to get in.

We turned away and sought a taxi. On a corner a few blocks up, we found three cab drivers, all wearing black sweaters and smoking. Two were in side-by-side white Renaults, and the third had his foot up on the first car's bumper. The driver of the car in the middle of the road reluctantly agreed to take the fare. He had been lying fully reclined in the driver's seat, and when he raised himself, he had bushy gray hair and circumflex eyebrows and the toothy grin of a mad professor. He would be the ideal driver of my Segway car, I was thinking as he eased in the clutch, still talking to the others through the open passenger-side window. "Oui, oui!" he said, laughing, "Absolument oui!" Picking up speed, he shot them a kiss.

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Tad Friend, our mobile correspondent for "Segways in Paris," has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1998 and now writes the magazine's "Letter From California."