Upon its introduction to an expectant world a year ago this week, the Segway Human Transporter was hailed as a modern marvel - a contraption of ingenious gyroscopes and improbable balance that could recast urban transit. Twelve months later, however, the invention's most impressive accomplishment has nothing to do with technology or transportation.
In a trend one observer calls "unprecedented," 32 states have passed laws to make Segway legal on streets and sidewalks. Indeed, they have done nothing less than roll out a red carpet for the scooter, telescoping a process that often takes numerous bills and several years.
Yet, ironically, it is here in San Francisco - where leg-numbing hills taunt timid feet, and technology is seen as the answer to many ills - that a backlash has begun. Worried that walkers could be steamrollered, the Board of Supervisors last week voted to ban Segway. Although the vote is not final, it is the first significant anti-Segway action taken in any city or state.
Next year, more could follow, as many cities craft their own laws, and critics of the machine - taken aback by Segway's legislative progress - raise their voices.
"We wouldn't be surprised if some [legislatures] did go back and look at the implications for pedestrians," says Melissa Savage of the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.
California Assemblywoman Dion Aroner has already done that. As a representative from Berkeley, the home of the disabled-rights movement and the inventor of curb-side cutouts for wheelchairs, she was a Segway skeptic when legislation came up for debate this year. The elderly in her district voiced concerns that Segway, which can reach a top speed of 12 m.p.h., would turn sidewalks into bowling alleys of pedestrian pins.
Ms. Aroner's experience, however, sheds light on how Segway's lobbying effort has achieved such success in statehouses across America.
First, she says, Segway chose a good lobbyist - "one not perceived as being in anyone's pocket." Moreover, the company was open to her comments and willing to compromise on the drafted bill. For example, the California law - like those in several states - allows each locality to draw up its own laws on Segway, going street by street, if necessary.
What sold her, though, was riding it for 20 minutes around the statehouse. "My balance is not great," says Aroner. "But I could do it. I felt secure on it."
In fact, she felt Segway might be of benefit to those most concerned about it: the elderly.
Yet across the bay in San Francisco, it was a coalition of activists for pedestrians, the disabled, and the elderly that swayed supervisors to vote for a ban. The ban now must survive a second vote next week and a potential mayoral veto.
Still, it is a high-water mark for opponents. Moreover, with Philadelphia considering a proposal that would limit Segways in congested downtown areas, critics feel a sense of momentum.
"This is a great new technology in search of a place to put it," says Bruce Livingston, executive director of the Senior Action Network in San Francisco. "That doesn't mean it should be allowed everywhere."
When Mr. Livingston accelerated quickly while testing Segway, he knocked a chair to the other side of the room. "That tells me that if someone wants to do damage or loses control, he could do a lot of damage," he says.
How much damage Segways could cause is still a question. The company notes that police, postal workers, and other civil servants in cities including New York, San Francisco, and Atlanta have logged more than 50,000 hours on the vehicles. So far, no pedestrians have been injured.
Police in Boston tested them, too, but deputy superintendent Bill Casey has no concerns: "It can stop so quickly, that I don't think it could hurt anyone."