Three Cheers for American Engineering!

Three Cheers for American Engineering!

Three Cheers for American Engineering!
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
May 19 2003 5:48 PM

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Today's slide show: Images from Paris. Today's audio: Tad Friend and Amanda Hesser describe the magic of travel by Segway. Today's video: Our first day on the Segways, exploring the streets and parks of Paris.

A team of American technocrats invades Paris’ parks
A team of American technocrats invades Paris' parks
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My wife and I arrived in Paris in the middle of a general strike—something about pension funds, though the French never seem to require an excuse to strike. Buses and metros were basically out, and it took us two hours in heavy traffic to get from Charles de Gaulle airport to our hotel on the Left Bank. We were here to ride Segway Human Transporters, the new two-wheeled scooters, around Paris' crooked sidewalks and to have a cultural exchange on the fly with our favorite cheese-eating surrender monkeys. The strike seemed almost too apt for our purposes; it made our first foray out with the Segway HTs as overdetermined as the opening scene of a Hollywood movie:

We open on a swirling, helicopter shot of the EIFFEL TOWER, then take a fast AERIAL TOUR of the CHAMPS ELYSÉES before the camera comes to earth midway down the traffic-snarled Boulevard Saint-Germain, which is filled with EXCITABLE FRENCHMEN, who stand beside their Renaults and Citroëns waving BAGUETTES over their heads, dashing their BERETS to the ground, and gesticulating at the state of their beloved CITY OF LIGHTS, which has not seen so much CHAOS since the GERMANS arrived in 1940. We hear angry voices ("Mon Dieu! What a folly of mankind it was to build cities zat no one can navigate" … "Who can save us from zees catastrophe of our own devising?" etc., etc.)

Suddenly, all heads turn as a devastatingly charismatic team of three Americans (the bespectacled and bookishly sexy TAD; AMANDA, his incredibly chic and provocative wife; and CHRISTIAN, the team's bearded, gnomic, all-knowing technology guru)—blaze down the sidewalk on SEGWAYS, the miracle scooters that will solve all of PARIS' transportation problems!

They move with such EASE, going where they will simply by leaning FORWARD and BACK, that they seem to herald a JOY of FLYING that mankind had hitherto only found in dreams. Before anyone can stop them they ZIP around the corner in search of new adventures, and we . . .

CUT back to the faces of the FRENCHMEN, who have lowered their BAGUETTES and now seem SCANDALIZED but PIOUS. Once again, the AMERICANS have arrived to bail them out, as we did in WORLD WARS I and II and by generously going along with that whole BEAUJOLAIS NOUVEAU SCHEME, and these OVERCIVILIZED DENIZENS OF OLD EUROPE cannot help—despite their grievances with us about IRAQ and McDONALD'S, and our ADAM-SANDLER-STYLE CULTURAL IMPERIALISM—feeling … what is it? The Frenchmen seem to rack their memories for the feeling, it is so foreign to them—Mais qu'est-ce-que c'est le mot juste? Ah, oui! GRATEFUL.

Oddly enough, when we began training on our Segways outside our hotel, that is more or less what happened. It took us about 20 minutes to learn the basics from three Segway representatives: Lean forward on the machine and you go forward, lean back to stop, keep leaning back to go backward, and twist the left handlebar to turn right or left. The machine has a zero-turning radius—you can spin on a dime, and it's really fun. There were a few small accidents—Christian unhorsed himself, and I took a stripe of green paint off a building trying to thread a narrow sidewalk—but within half an hour we were all able to navigate even the heavy medieval cobblestones in front of the church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés with ease. We were flying along at two or three times pedestrian speed. And we were grinning like school kids. Going where you want to go just by following your own inclination is like having a magic carpet.

Everyone—everyone—was transfixed by us. A burly man ran out of a brasserie and whistled down the street; when I turned he gave me a huge thumbs up. Two stylish women in blue raincoats grabbed each other and laughed from sheer pleasure: "C'est superbe!"A homeless man threw his arms over his head when Amanda went by: Hallelujah! "It's like being Jennifer Aniston!" Amanda said. "And I'm so tall!" (The platform gives you an extra 8 inches in height, putting my head right at awning level.)

Whenever we stopped at a corner, we were surrounded: "What is it?" (A Segway Human Tranporter, invented by Dean Kamen and produced in Manchester, N.H.) "How does it work?" (Each wheel is driven by high-speed electric motors that you recharge simply by plugging the Segway into an outlet overnight. The machine has five gyroscopes and two tilt-balancing sensors that determine, 100 times per second, what the terrain is like and how your body is arrayed.) "How fast does it go?" (Up to 12.5 miles per hour in top gear; we had them in sidewalk mode, where the top speed is 8 miles per hour.) "Is it available in France?" (In a few weeks, Keolis Group, Segway's partner in Europe, will start a pilot program along the Champs Elysées for 150 "responsible citizens.") "How much does it cost?" ($4,950 in the United States—they're available exclusively on Amazon. You can't buy them in France, but Keolis is planning to rent them out for about $8 an hour within a few months and eventually expects to set up "Oxygen Stations" at metro stops around the city where you could pick up a Segway, zip around for a while, and then drop it off at another Oxygen Station.)

The prevailing mood was curiosity and wonder: Thumbs up, applause, admiring head shakes. But on two separate occasions very serious men with brush cuts parked their BMW motorcycles and came over to write down all the Segway's specifications, assessing the undercarriage with frowns, as if they planned to reverse-engineer the machine that very evening on their lathes.

And one 40ish woman, her Joan Jett hair dyed that dark shade of henna that only French women consider stylish, stared at us at on rue de Seine, her left foot on the floorboard of a low chrome scooter, her face a mask of deep injury. When I looked back 10 seconds later, she still hadn't moved. She was yesterday's future and we were tomorrow's, blowing on by and leaving her in our noiseless, emissionless, dust-free dust.

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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."