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The Segway rolls along in D.C.
Heavily hyped a decade ago, it serves needs of police, tourists
Question of the Day
Remember the Segway? The high-tech scooter that was supposed to change the world, and mostly ended up changing the life of Paul Blart in "Mall Cop"? Turns out the much-mocked machine was simply miscast.
Last week, the Smithsonian Institution began offering guided Segway tours of the Mall, smartly addressing the annoyances and discomforts than can make summer sightseeing in the heart of the nation's capital borderline arduous for unsuspecting visitors.
There are the crowds, disembarking from tour buses like beach-stormers at Normandy, armed with fanny packs instead of bayonets.
There's the surprisingly commonplace dust, kicked up by construction and rehabilitation projects.
There's the sweltering, shadeless heat, the real reason Congress decamps in August.
There's even the sheer physical distance between, say, the Capitol and the Washington Monument, or the Lincoln Memorial and the National Air and Space Museum, the kind of long walks made necessary by scarce local parking.
Enter the Segway.
"If ever there was a place for it, it's here in D.C.," said Rick Tyson, manager for Smithsonian Tours by Segway."As far as touring goes — the White House, the Capitol, the memorials — to see everything, it's the best way. You can do it in three hours, and learn all the history."
Shameless corporate cheerleading aside, Mr. Tyson is right: A Smithsonian Tours' ride-along reveals Washington to be a near-ideal location for the Segway — and also a perfect place to understand why the machine never lived up to its initial hype.
Meet George Jetson's lawn mower
A Smithsonian Segway tour starts with a safety video. Followed by an injury waiver. The takeaway? Don't fall down. That would be bad.
The video is shown on an iPad — a device designed to fill the space between too-small smartphones and too-clunky laptop computers, the way the Segway was designed to fill the space between too-long walks and too-short car rides. Both inventions were much ballyhooed; only Apple's tablet became a world-beating consumer product.
Nobody has to watch a nine-minute safety video before turning on an iPad.
The brainchild of inventor Dean Kamen — a National Medal of Technology winner and creator of the portable insulin pump — the Segway first gained mass notoriety in early 2001, amid breathless media reports of a secret device code-named "Ginger."
Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos was a fan. Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr reportedly said Ginger would be bigger than the Internet. Mr. Kamen said his invention would "be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy." Steve Jobs said entire cities would be redesigned to accommodate it. Others predicted the machine would reach $1 billion in sales faster than any product in history.
Officially unveiled on national television in December 2001, Ginger turned out to be a two-wheeled, self-balancing, electric-powered standing scooter that resembled nothing so much as George Jetson's lawn mower. The device was a technological marvel, packed with stabilizing gyroscopes and microchips, battery-powered and environmentally friendly, with a price tag of about $5,000 and a top speed of 16 miles per hour.
Strike one: What was Ginger, exactly? Like a bike? Like a car? The device weighed more than 100 pounds. Should it be allowed on sidewalks? What if it hit a pedestrian? What if the driver was drunk?
Cities such as Boston and San Francisco banned Segway use on public sidewalks. Two years ago, Segway Inc. owner Jimi Heselden — who purchased the company from Mr. Kamen — died after the Segway he was riding plunged off a cliff.
Strike two: Price. Mr. Kamen once said the Segway was the biggest personal transportation breakthrough since the tennis shoe. Yet even tennis shoes designed by Kanye West don't cost $5,000. Perhaps it's not surprising that the sport of Segway polo — which really exists — was invented by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who just happens to be an eccentric billionaire.
Strike three: The Segway filled a need that doesn't exist. Shoes have worked for thousands of years; bicycles for a century-and-a-half.By contrast, you can't take a Segway to get groceries, nor use it to ferry around a toddler.
As a postal carrier once asked an MSNBC reporter: "What if it rains?"
In its first four years of existence, Segway Inc. reportedly sold 23,500 units — making the device not quite the next Air Jordan, let alone the next Model T.
Still, the company slowly has found niches: first with more than 1,300 police and security agencies and more recently with tourism.
Independently-operated Segway tours have sprung up in Bangkok, Berlin, Maui and New Delhi, as well as the District. Two years ago, Segway Inc. started its own touring business, offering historical jaunts through its headquarters city of Manchester, N.H.
Magical history tour
Prepared with input from Smithsonian staffers, the Mall tour is both scenic and illuminating, a mix of awe-inspiring sights — the Washington Monument never fails to impress — and fun facts: 1) President Garfield's inaugural ball was held in the Smithsonian's Arts & Industries building, the cheapest building per square foot ever constructed by the federal government; 2) The Capitol building served as a troop hospital during the Civil War; 3) The National Museum of the American Indian has a Zagat-rated cafeteria that Mr. Tyson says is "arguably the best" on the Mall.
Tours are limited to about a half-dozen riders, which is good: Anything larger becomes a potential traffic jam, while small sizes mean personal attention from tour guides. Riders disembark at sites such as the Lincoln Memorial, but not at museums — otherwise, the tour couldn't possibly cover its roughly 7 1/2-mile route in less than three hours.
"I've heard from other tour guides that a walking tour covering the same route could take more than a day," Mr. Tyson said.
On the Smithsonian tour, the Segway's vices are nullified: Cost is no object. The guides emphasize safety, taking great care to help customers avoid accidents. The Mall's extra-wide sidewalks are plenty accommodating.
Better still, Segway riding is easy. And enjoyable. It's not quite a "telepathic" experience — another early claim — but after a few minutes of practice, the device's shift-your-weight steering becomes second nature.
Moreover, zipping along produces a refreshing perma-breeze, not to mention a slight sense of schadenfreude while gliding past sweating, sun-tired groups of pedestrians — a feeling akin to sitting in first class and sipping a cocktail while other passengers lumber onto the airplane, desperately scanning for remaining overhead bin space.
On the other hand, steering clear of tanned, shirtless and buff joggers produces the opposite feeling, one that echoes an early criticism of Segway: America is already fat and inactive enough. Now we need scooters to walk? But never mind that.
On a recent morning, Mr. Tyson stopped his machine in front of the Capitol, then used its zero-degree turn radius to take in the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress.
A 33-year-old Air Force veteran, he studied history at the University of New Hampshire and was one of the Segway corporation's first tour guides.
"I love this," he said with a grin. "There's nothing like having a job where you ride a Segway all day. And what better job for a history major?"
The Segway may not have changed history, but it's a worthy way to experience Washington's monuments and memorials to the people and events who have.
WHAT:Smithsonian Tours by Segway (tours available in English, Dutch, French, Italian and Spanish)
WHERE:The Mall entrance of the National Museum of American History, Madison Drive between 12th and 14th Streets, NW
WHEN:Daily tours at 9 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. (Tours last roughly three hours.)
TICKETS:$79 per person (Riders must be 16 years of age or older and weigh between 100 and 260 pounds.)
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
About the Author
Patrick Hruby is an award-winning journalist who holds degrees from Georgetown and Northwestern. He also contributes to ESPN.com and The Atlantic Online, and his work has been featured in The Best American Sports Writing. Follow him on Twitter (@patrick_hruby) and contact him at PatrickHruby.net.
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