Segway makes user an area celebrity

Monday, September 8, 2003

HOBOKEN, N.J. -- The Segway Human Transporter was hyped as the invention that would revolutionize the way humans get from point A to point B.

That hasn't happened. But the Segway may be something else altogether: mankind's newest cure for loneliness.

In two weeks of riding one of the lawnmower-looking scooters around Hoboken and New York, I received more looks from the ladies than a GQ model. And I'm no Brad Pitt. Heck, I'm not even a Harvey Pitt.

Being a married man, I was unable to test this particular application. Which is a good thing because the novel attraction could wear off if inventor Dean Kamen's dream of city streets packed with Segways ever comes true.

So, aside from quenching a thirst for attention, would you get your money's worth if you plunked down $5,000 for this two-wheeled, self-balancing scooter? All I can say is this is the most fun I've had on two wheels since the days when I fancied myself a dirt bike daredevil.

The Segway's performance lives up to its hype for simplicity and intuitiveness. Lean forward, and you go forward. Lean back, and you stop or go into reverse. On the right surfaces, the ride is as smooth and quiet as if you were standing on a conveyor belt.

It easily handled even Hoboken's most ill-repaired sidewalks, which are in about the same shape as those of Pompeii. Grass, sand, mud -- it rolls through it all.

Most impressive -- and what most sets the Segway apart from traditional scooters and mo-peds -- is how it handles tight corners. I was able to open the door to my apartment building, get on the elevator, navigate through narrow hallways, and enter my apartment -- all without stepping off the thing.

The only complaint I had was the alignment on my loaner seemed to be a hair off, causing it to drift to the left. But this was easily remedied by holding its steering knob --which sits on the left handlebar -- to the right while riding.

Aside from that knob and a red button that turns the Segway off, there are no controls to master. The only display is a tiny round orientation gauge set between the handlebars, with a stick-figure face that looks a bit like comedian Jay Leno.

When all systems are go, Jay looks happy. Try to step on when the scooter is not in a balanced position and the whole thing vibrates, turning Jay red and making him look madder than if Letterman just beat him in the ratings. Turn the scooter off, and Jay appears sleepy and sad.

It took me a few minutes to learn to ride the transporter, and a few hours to feel like a Segway master. And as a klutz known for injuring my back in a freak typing accident, I'm proud to say I rode for hours without falling off. That's more than I can say for my dirt bike days.

The Segway seems as safe as -- probably safer than -- a bicycle. The handlebars nudge you back if you lean too far forward. And the transporter maxes out at a speed of about 12.5 mph, slightly faster than a five-minute mile. That's a good sprint, but slower than your average bike speed.

The Segway can't go everywhere. Wrestling the 83-pound device through the revolving doors of my office building or up flights of stairs wasn't easy. The company says a lighter, more compact model is forthcoming within weeks.

What Kamen and company ought to focus on is lowering the scooter's price to make it an affordable gift for children.

By the end of the two weeks, I was in love with the Segway but sick of the celebrity stigma it gave me. I had an urge to have my "people" contact Barbara Walters' "people" to set up an interview so I could say something like, "Can't folks just leave us alone so we can live our lives?"

Alas, I have no "people." It's just me and Jay, and he doesn't talk much.

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