Segways and New York City Sidewalks. Lets Roll.

by Harris Silver

Citystreets is a leading pedestrian rights and advocacy organization. Accordingly, we consider pedestrian safety to be the number one priority for street use. When it comes to Segways, it would be easy and logical for us to argue against their being ridden on sidewalks, under any circumstances. In fact with a current recall this position would be almost expected. We are uniquely qualified to fiercely defend this position. Unfortunately, such a position would not only overlook the compelling merits of this new mode of transportation but also ignore the more holistic and absolutely vital discussion we ought to be having about street use and transportation in New York City.

The Segway is the world's first intuitively driven, self-balancing transportation device. You stand on the machine and it balances itself to you. Not the other way around. There is no gas or brake pedal. To move forward you simply lean forward. To slow down or stop you lean back. Turning is done mechanically via hand control. Segways are often talked about and thought of as a form of scooter. They are not electric scooters and have nothing to do with scooters.

From an urban perspective, Segways offer a number of advantages: They are quiet. There is no exhaust pipe spewing pollution. They can operate at 4 times walking speed. They take up almost no space. And they do all this without the rider ever breaking a sweat -- which means they can be used by the broadest possible cross section of the population, including the elderly and infirm. These devices can help our older residents move around with an ease and dignity that would otherwise be unimaginable. Look at this picture. The guy standing is 91. He had been on a Segway all of 3 minutes and didn't want to get off.

And while claims about the dangers of Segway use are completely abstract and theoretical (no one has ever been injured by a Segway on the sidewalks of New York City), this assessment of its merits is concrete and first hand. During the development of our position on whether Segways should be ridden on sidewalks, we contacted the company with the questions and concerns we had about their device and their rationale for its usage. Quite frankly, we were skeptical about the machine's appropriateness for use on New York City sidewalks. E-mails and phone calls were exchanged and Segway, realizing that we were independent, fair-minded thinkers, boldly offered to send us a machine for trial and evaluation. We took them up on their offer.

The machine they sent is not yet available to the public but will be soon. It is called the "P Series" (horrible name) It is smaller than the "I series" (another horrible name), the machine that is currently available for sale. The machine is so intuitive that it literally took less than a minute to learn how to operate. Within 5 minutes we were comfortable enough to ride it on a non-arterial sidewalk. Within 15 minutes it felt natural and we could operate it safely on any sidewalk, even a fairly crowded one. We thought the machine would be confrontational to pedestrians. It wasn't. We thought people would be annoyed and frightened. They weren't. To the contrary, people were either friendly, curious, or oblivious but never bothered, frightened, or annoyed. To our surprise, in the right hands the machine was surprisingly pedestrian-friendly. Between the two models, the P model, which is smaller, has a more human feeling scale and is better suited to the sidewalks in New York City. So much so in fact, that Segway should consider only selling that model here.

Although they didn't know it, the engineers had it right when they originally named what is now called Segway, Ginger (after Ginger Rogers). Being a pedestrian is a subconscious dance. We gracefully move out of one another's way when walking, we avoid objects in our way with ease, we subconsciously time our jay walking to be as close to the last passing car as possible to give us the most distance from the next car. All without missing a beat. We are urban dancers. Ginger (Segway P series) can be a great dance partner. These machines are engineered so well and their controls are so precise that they can also be operated gingerly by anyone. That said we don't think this dance partner is quite yet ready for escalators, stairs, and subway turnstiles. But who knows what the future will bring?

But, in our minds, the bigger and more vital issue doesn't concern the machines themselves but rather the space in which they operate. If architecture can be defined as "places", then we need to look more carefully at the space between these "places"-the un-designed and largely unconsidered area that has been completely shaped by and for the automobile. This space can be summed up with a made up word “carchitecture”. Indeed, fewer than 15% of Manhattan residents own cars yet 85% of public space is allocated for their use. As we have designed most of our public space for automobiles, how do we introduce and even begin thinking about a new transportation mode? To do this correctly we have to re-conceive how we use our public spaces known as streets. At Citystreets we have been advocating a philosophical shift from cars back to humans as the basic design unit--a movement from, if you will, "carchitecture” back to architecture. Cities built for people not cars.

One way to achieve a more balanced and democratic use of this public space would be to create a road network where bicycles, rollerbladers and, now, Segways were separated from cars. We use the word "network" and not the word "lane" to define a space separated by something more substantial than a line of paint. We seek a space that cars cannot enter. Far from being a utopian abstraction, this extensive network of bicycle roads is a concrete reality in cities like Amsterdam. It works, it is wonderful and it should be implemented in New York City. Segways fit perfectly into our vision of cities designed for humans and not cars. It is now a matter of waiting for our infrastructure to evolve from the auto-centric to the human-centric to accommodate their usage. If the city shifted its thinking to a new pro-pedestrian perspective, it is our estimate that it would take a mere 7 years for a complete transformation of our public space.

We wish there was an existing infrastructure in our city that could ideally accommodate the Segway. But there isn't yet. And so we have to address the question of how and whether they should exist in this present, highly imperfect context. So, here is our thinking:

We understand that the idea of this new means of transportation being used on the sidewalks of New York City makes some people uncomfortable. But we also understand that to say "Segways can't be ridden on sidewalks in NYC" is essentially to argue that "Segways shouldn't exist in NYC", since the only place left to ride them would be on streets. And to tell someone standing on an unprotected platform to mix with 8,000 pound SUV's is not a reasonable thing to say as it places the Segway rider in unacceptable danger. But most importantly, we at Citystreets understand the value of ideas. We know that good ideas need some coddling, shepherding and support, especially during infancy. Segways are unquestionably a big idea. And they are unquestionably in their infancy. They have been described as "disruptive" in certain circles. As urbanists, we prefer the word "transformative."

We do not know whether or not the Segway will thrive in New York, but we do know that the answer to the question "Do we want to try to support a new mode of transportation that has zero emissions, zero noise, is easy to learn, safe to ride, and can move people at 4 times walking speed?" is a resounding, upper case "YES!" For Segways to fail because our public servants don't know how to accept new ideas and because it is easier and more convenient to sweepingly dismiss them is simply irresponsible. This behavior is not in the public's best interest. It is intellectually lazy and, in a word, unacceptable.

So the position we have taken is this: Until our urban infrastructure has a chance to evolve to accommodate this new transportation technology, Segways may be ridden on all roads and pathways that their riders can safely navigate. This would include avenues, side streets, bicycle paths, bicycle lanes and sidewalks. Yes, sidewalks. We say sidewalks with some qualifications (which we will describe in detail below) but also with the real confidence born of our firsthand experience riding these remarkable machines around our city.

We understand the classification of Segways to be both technical and political. We also see it as somewhat problematic as regulations deal only with what exists and there is nothing quite like Segway. The easiest thing regulatory wise would be for the city to provisionally consider them as bicycles, with the understanding that they have pedestrian traits and should be allowed on sidewalks. Another, more honest, approach would be to say "we don't really know what they are but they are neat, so let's live with them for a while, get to know them, and then figure it out."

But as they aren't pedestrians, aren't bicycles and, despite having motors and wheels, aren't really motor vehicles, this matter will need to be resolved eventually. At Citystreets we have been thinking of vehicles that don't exist for a while. And in our heads we categorize them as Vehicle X. We didn't predict a self- balancing human transporter, but what we realized a while ago is that we need a way to think and talk about vehicles and modes that don't yet exist and plan for them on our streets. One of our ideas is to marry the idea of Vehicle X with a pressing need for a re-prioritization of public space. Here's one way it could work.

Phelps Eno, the person who wrote the first set of traffic rules in 1903 recognized the need for prioritization of emergency vehicles. Today 100 years later people die because ambulances can't get to the hospital in time. Citystreets has advocated that a lane on arterial streets be reserved for the use of vehicles responding to emergencies. This lane can then be utilized by cyclists, rollerbladers, and Segways during non-emergency use. There are post 9/11 security reasons why allocating space for the efficient movement of Emergency Vehicles in our city has a more pressing need than ever before and, in fact, it is crystal clear to everyone living in New York since 9/11 and more recently with the Northeast blackout on August 13th, 2003, that there is a need for an infrastructure that can support the pedestrian evacuation of Manhattan.

The irony is not lost on us that a large portion of emergency trips involve ferrying pedestrians struck by drivers of automobiles to hospitals. It is astonishing that cars strike approximately 14,000 pedestrians every year in NYC. Or stated another way, every 27 minutes a pedestrian is hit by a car. In fact, automobile crashes are the largest public health threat facing the residents of NYC. This problem is so pervasive that it is almost impossible to see. How else can one explain there being so much public concern about the imagined dangers of Segways on sidewalks and so little about the stark reality of people perpetually being mowed down by cars?

Finally, as residents of NYC we’re also well aware that more people riding Seqways instead of cars means less oil use. And given the insidious link between oil dependency and terrorism, this reduction would do more to promote Homeland security than any bunker-bashing bomb or hi tech surveillance system. The fact is, we are long overdue for a national energy policy based on Efficiency in the spirit of American innovation and ingenuity. Segways are exponentially more efficient than automobiles for moving people around cities. Further, our economy has for years been aided by a hidden gasoline subsidy that benefits big box retailers with sprawling distribution networks at the expense of cities. What is damaging to cities are bad polices that favor the automobile and a suburban growth model and not brilliant energy efficient innovative inventions like the Segway.

Now back to our qualifications for riding on sidewalks: We can come up with a list of scenarios and instructions for safe sidewalk riding but it's more meaningful to say it like this. A Segway rider, when on a sidewalk, should ride on the sidewalk as if he were a temporary guest who has already overstayed his welcome. If there is a bike lane adjacent to the Sidewalk the Segway rider should ride in the bike lane before the sidewalk. It also goes without saying that when a Segway is ridden on a sidewalk it must be in a way that is physically safe to people walking there. It is understood that there are certain sidewalks on which Segways can't be ridden because of the density of pedestrian traffic. It also means that Segways on sidewalks must always give pedestrians the right of way. They must never make a pedestrian move out of their way. They need to exercise great care when passing. And they need to be ridden conservatively and with common sense. On crowded sidewalks the person operating a Segway should operate at a walking pace, giving up the speed benefit of the technology in the name of safety. Finally, the fact that Segways don't seem to have any lights or reflective material to adequately illuminate them makes their nighttime use a source of some concern. Fortunately, sidewalks are generally well lit but, nonetheless, this is an issue we have been thinking about and one that will have to be addressed in some manner (most likely, by making lights or reflective material mandatory).

We're going to give the benefit of the doubt that someone who has bought into a new transportation vision has a self-interest to act responsibly when on a sidewalk and not adopt the arrogant attitude and behavior that drivers did at the turn of the 19th century when cars were introduced, and whose effect we're still dealing with today. What we would like to see happening is, in fact, the opposite: Behavior where Segway riders learn to act in a manner useful to pedestrians. For instance, we would encourage them to block turning cars for pedestrians in crosswalks and to act as a barrier between pedestrians and cyclists when possible. If a pro-pedestrian behavior is adopted by early Segway riders and is practiced consistently, we believe it will do more to win over the hearts and open the minds of New Yorkers than any writing ever could.

Thanks for reading please send any comments you have to [email protected] and of course be safe out there however you choose to move around.