Backstory: A natural Segway ...

The two-wheeled transporters are making inroads into everyday life - from fishing trips to weddings.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

As the bagpiper wheezed into full song, a hush fell over the meadow and guests turned in their folding chairs to watch the wedding party. Bruce Dickson, the silver-haired father of the bride, beamed in his honey-brown suit as he prepared to escort his daughter down the grassy aisle. But behind his smile, Dickson was feeling rising anxiety - and it had nothing to do with the groom. He just didn't want to hog the spotlight - fearing that if he walked arm in arm with his daughter, he'd roll over her dress and tear it apart.

As she approached, he leaned forward gently and his gray Segway inched toward her. They held hands and moved down the aisle - the beautiful bride and her father on the self-balancing human transporter.

The wedding is Mr. Dickson's favorite Segway memory.

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A Washington lawyer, Dickson recently developed a neuromuscular disability that makes walking difficult. The Segway has replaced his wheelchair, and he uses it at home, at work, and around town. And like a growing number in the Segway subculture, he's used it as part of his everyday life - to dance at the wedding, fish near the Arctic Circle, to argue cases in court, and to give rides to his cockapoo, Pippi. He owns three Segways and his favorite is battered and dirty - a point of pride for heavy users.

"People are embarrassed by wheelchairs," he muses. "But they like [my Segway], they show interest in it."

The Segway, the enviro-happy machine unveiled to great hype in 2001 only to thud commercially, has made steady, if modest, inroads among early adopters, becoming the stuff of daily life for pockets of enthusiasts from coast to coast. It's used to commute, have fun and, in the case of Segway tour operators, make money.

Segway Inc. won't release sales figures, but Will Hopper, president of the users club SEG America, estimates there are 25,000 to 30,000 "seggers" nationwide, a fraction of the average ballpark crowd.This number doesn't include vehicles sold to police departments (officers look more approachable on Segs), research institutions, and other organizations.

"Today people are generally positive about it - kids think it's cool and seniors love it," he says.

But the machine remains overshadowed by the early hype and its price, says Steve Kemper, author of a book on the invention of the Segway. The Segway is a blast to ride, says Mr. Kemper, who nevertheless adds he isn't ready to pay the $4,000 to $6,000 sticker price.

Mr. Hopper, who missed being first to own a Segway in the Washington area by 20 minutes, shrugs off the price concern saying that for many, the Segway is a valuable investment. "I got it for fun," he admits, "but now use it instead of jumping in the car for little trips." The trips are usually for his jobs in downtown Washington, installing art and furniture.

Washington, with an estimated 300 to 500 "gliders," is one of the busiest clusters of users. It's not unusual to see half a dozen Segways snaking lazily around downtown on organized tours.

It could be argued that such low numbers do not a culture make - but, say Seg users, that would be wrong.

Ryan Colbert, for example, averages 250 miles a month on his Seg, which he says has evolved into a "one man stand against foreign oil, high gas prices, and our lack of interpersonal communication."

Most mornings, Mr. Colbert, who lives in Orlando, Fla., attaches a bicycle cart to his Segway and glides his 5-year-old son to school.

"It is the most popular way to arrive at his K-12 school," Colbert says in an e-mail interview. "The person directing traffic wishes us a good morning and helps us cross the busy entrance. It is really a nice time we enjoy together that will hopefully be a fond memory he looks back on when he's older."

Colbert is one of many gliders nationwide who converge in online discussion groups to swap stories, plan events or share names of their Segs (Seahorse, The Equalizer, Sammy Segway). They have a sport (Segway polo), they accessorize their Segs, and they have built a Seg-vocabulary. Gliding is the preferred action verb, closer to the segsperience than cruising or riding. Users are seggers or gliders. Seen a Seg somewhere? That's a Seg in the wild. A pack of Segs are a glide. And then there's the "Segway smile," the surprise reaction of a seg-skeptic once he climbs aboard.

For most users, the good outweighs the occasional battery problems (a six-hour charge can give you 12 miles of gliding), the falls that can occur in reckless gliding (yes, abrupt turns and excessive speed can cause wrecks), and the public scorn (some pedestrians can't resist hurling insults: "Get a bike!", "Start walking!"). Being rich or geeky (or both) are typical Seg-owner stereotypes. Add to all that the problem of looking manly - if you're a guy - while gliding. Many Segways have a man purse-like bag strapped to the handle, and gliders are a droll sight sporting helmets on moving platforms eight inches above the ground.

"It's like high school," Hopper says, laughing. "Gliders are more on the nerdy side than on the jock side." But when they show up to their first Seg gatherings, they park their transporters, step down and ask: "Where are the girls?"

Speaking of which, there aren't that many women on Segs yet - although Hopper says they relax faster once they step on the platform. By contrast, men get on it and try to manhandle it into balance themselves, though there is nothing in the Seg that needs taming. (Through gyroscopes and computer, the device self-balances - and acceleration is achieved simply by leaning forward.)

In terms of marketing, the machine is the kind of invention the majority of the public will jump on only after it's vetted by early adopters, which, in the case of the Segway, include groups ranging from police officers to Segway polo players. If a drop in price won't help the Seg mainstream, the network effect of the groups might.

"Certainly the desire to have an alternative way of getting around is gaining popularity," explains Tim Kanaley, a D.C. commuter who glides five miles roundtrip to his government job. "I think that with rising gas prices and more people taking responsibility for their immediate environment, [Segways] and other mobility devices will continue to grow in number," he says via an e-mail interview.

Etiquette recommends asking before taking a Segway into a building, but Dickson says he has had no choice but to break this unwritten rule; he parks his by his desk on the 11th floor of a downtown building. "I can't really leave it and walk." Somebody complained on a restaurant review website after seeing him glide all the way to the table at a local restaurant, and some museums have denied him entrance - though they proposed he check the Seg and get in a wheelchair. But being able to move around standing, Dickson says, "makes all the difference in the world."

Although the Segway is unlikely to fulfill its revolutionary promise anytime soon, gliders believe it's here to stay. And if the Silicon Valley Aftershocks, the US Segway polo team, takes the cup away from New Zealand's Pole Blacks next summer, who knows ... gliding might suddenly become less nerdy.

Gliders share their Segway experiences

There are an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 individual Segway gliders nationwide. These enthusiasts have found ways to integrate the Segway into their daily lives and hope more people will join their ranks. Correspondent Cristian Lupsa interviewed four gliders via e-mail about their thoughts on Segway. Excerpts follow.

***

Ryan Colbert, Orlando, Fla.
IT director for Rissman, Barrett, Hurt, Donahue & McLain, P.A.

What made you decide to buy a Segway?

I'm not a hippie or an environmentalist.

My wife and I spent our 2005 anniversary at Walt Disney World [and took the Segway tour]. It was love at first glide, and I knew then I had to have my own. I didn't know when I would get a Segway or if I would ever use it for more than recreation at the time.

How do you use it?

When I purchased my Segway, it initially was recreational only.... I rarely strayed more than about five miles from home. If I used it more than a couple times per week it was unusual.

In February of this year my family and I moved ... downtown. Since then, I use my Segway for my daily commute to and from the office. I think that I probably average around 250 miles per month on my Segway.

My morning starts with my 5-year-old son and I gliding about a half mile to school - he often rides in a bicycle cart attached to the Segway.... It is really a nice time we enjoy together that will hopefully be a fond memory he looks back on when he's older.

From the school I continue on my way to the office which is about 2 miles away. Along the way oftentimes people will stop to ask questions about the Segway and how it works.... Most people are especially interested when I tell them I've not purchased any gasoline since late April.

Some mornings I will make a 'pit stop' along the way.... I've never run into a store owner who didn't enjoy seeing me come in on the Segway and I've never been turned away from an establishment because of it.

Any particularly interesting moments as a glider?

On our way to school in early April I lost my balance.... I'm certain it was operator error and not some kind of equipment malfunction.... I thought I had broken my arm in the process of breaking a fender, popping a tire, bending my cargo bag frame and sheering off my left turning grip.

Fortunately for me, I purchased Segway Insurance from Progressive a few weeks before and both the damage to my Segway and my arm were covered.

***

Tim Kanaley, Washington, D.C.
Project manager with the Department of the Treasury, Financial Management Service

What are your impressions of the Segway movement in D.C.?

I am a member of a group of owners called DC SEG (DC Segway Enthusiasts Group) and we ... get together for "group glides" - just a fun and social event.

I don't know about a "movement," but certainly the desire to have an alternative way of getting around is gaining popularity.

Being an early adopter I definitely feel a part of a special group. I know that in 20 years when HTs [human transporters] are all over the place, I will be able to say I owned one of the very first ones.

***

Pam Costa, Sunnyvale, Calif.
Pricing analyst, Apple

What made you decide to buy a Segway?

Well, [my husband] bought his first, and I honestly thought he was a little nutty for spending so much on a "gadget." But, after playing around with it ... I decided I had to have one for myself. That "Segway Smile" is sure addictive.

How do you two use your Segways?

I'm a California wimp, so honestly during the rainier or colder times of the year, I don't use my Segway as much. [My husband] will ride rain or shine, he's a big brave man. That being said, now that the weather is warmer, it is a lot of fun to start riding my Segway again.

What are your hopes for the Segway in the long run?

From a big-picture perspective, I'm not sure about how widely adopted the Segway can become in the US unless there are some major changes in urban planning. However, my hope is that it continues to grow in popularity, and widespread acceptance as an alternative form of transportation. For us, it makes having one car a no-brainer, which offers a lot of savings. We are the quintessential "one-car, two-Segway family."

From a product perspective, I'd like to see more intuitive steering mechanisms that aren't as sensitive to tire pressure. Right now, if one of my tires is low, it turns that way all the time. Additionally, models for children would be really nice for Segway owners who want to enjoy riding their Segways as a family.

***

Jon Rutherford, Seat Pleasant, Maryland
Technology Mentor, Patriots Technology Training Center

What are the best and worst things about using a Segway?

Though the device does a great job at balancing and movement, there is a need to be vigilant when gliding because of road and pavement quality. Also, because there are no shock absorbers, I really have to actively survey where I'm traveling because there could be un-expected obstacles - tree limbs, flower boxes, and the like that could really make my day, if you know what I mean.

What are your hopes for the Segway in the long run?

I would want the policy makers to realize that tax breaks for Segways is a smart way to help the environment and [provide] easily accessible transportation on all the roadways.

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