Shades of Green: Segway Personal Transporters

June 1, 2009
Filed under Travel

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They were supposed to influence the way we got around town, to inspire us to think differently about ourselves and our surroundings and, therefore, to change the world. Existing cities would be reconfigured to accommodate these innovative vehicles, or perhaps towns would be built from the ground up that would be tailored to the needs of these units, improving residents’ lives in the process. First introduced in 2002, Segway Personal Transporters were so unprecedented and technologically advanced that Time magazine featured the electric vehicles on its cover, touting the genius inventor, Dean Kamen, and ushering in the golden age of the Segway. That golden age, however, turned out to be little more than hype, since the cost of the vehicles proved to be prohibitive, Americans still cherished their large vehicles and gasoline was still generally affordable.

Flash forward, however, to a world caught in the throes of global warming, to a country converting itself to various shades of green and to citizens struggling to make ends meet because their gas tanks are siphoning away their paychecks. Instead of being a novel invention that was ahead of its time, Segway has suddenly become relevant, cool and even perhaps revolutionary. I admit these sentiments may be overstated, but I recently had occasion to tour Milwaukee’s
lakefront on a Segway, and the experience was transformative.

Segway of Milwaukee Tours sets up shop in Discovery World, a fantastic, science-oriented establishment that is well
worth visiting, regardless of one’s desire to experience a Segway. On a blue-sky June day on the Discovery World’s patio, I secured my helmet then raised my hand when our guide, Mary, asked who wanted to go first. After she told me to grasp the handlebars of the unusual contraption in front of me, she said, “Remember, you don’t balance the Segway; the Segway balances you.” I nodded, as though I knew what she meant, then stepped up, as Mary instructed, onto the platform that rests between the two wheels. Left foot, then right, then … wobble, wobble, whoa! She anticipated my unstable response by physically holding me steady, then reassured me that everything was as it should be when I apologized for my less-than-athletic shaking. “Everyone responds that way,” Mary said, then let me know that the human brain instinctively tries to compensate for what it deems to be a lack of balance. She had me step off the Segway, then step back on. My wobble was gone; my mind had adapted, and within a few seconds I was learning to maneuver my assigned vehicle.

Segways have no throttles and no brakes, and the technology that allows the vehicles to move is similar to humans’ method of ambulation. While we are standing, if we lean forward far enough, one of our legs will move in the direction of our lean to correct our imbalance,  propelling us. So long as we continue to lean, our inner ears and muscles will work in
concert to correct our askew equilibrium. Segways use gyroscopes and a motor to facilitate propulsion, but the principles are the same. Gliders, as Segway riders are colloquially called, simply put weight on their toes to move forward, stand flat-footed to stop and push down with their heels to go in reverse. It’s that simple, though technologically complex. To turn, gliders pull the handle in the direction they want to go. The learning curve is short, and smiles come quickly.

As I enthusiastically tested my reverse technique while I maneuvered through the orange traffic cones that stood in for pedestrians and pets in the practice area, I was politely informed that there was no need to travel in reverse, since Segways can turn around where they stand, their turning radius no wider than the width of their wheels. I heeded this forward-only edict, then maneuvered more and more quickly through the obstacles, raring to test the limits of the Segway on real terrain and to see Milwaukee’s sights.

The seven of us gliders soon leaned forward en masse, then followed Mary, a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, a grand total of a few feet. She stopped to describe the gorgeous 137-foot sailing vessel the S/V Denis Sullivan, upon which travelers
can take a hands-on sailing excursion. Since we were gliders that day, not sailors, we soon glided down the bike path, a single-file line of odd ducks that garnered curious looks from nearly everyone we passed. A few hundred yards along the path, Mary stopped us, then had us take our rigs out of Turtle mode. We were then free to explore the upper reaches of Segway speed – about 12.5 miles per hour, depending on the weight of the glider.

We zipped through the new state park, and heard strains of music emanating from Summerfest, the world’s largest music festival, held just steps from the waters of Lake Michigan. Sailboats took advantage of the steady breeze, parents pushed strollers along the bike path and cyclists secretly envied our exertion-free propulsion. Or at least that’s what I told myself, as I developed a little crush on my Segway.

Unlike many other motorized crafts I’ve driven or ridden on, Segways are incredibly quiet, the electric motor delivering more of a purr than a rev. At top speed, the wind rushing past a glider’s ears makes as much noise as the motor. Regaining approximately 90 percent of their charge in an hour, Segways can recharge while gliders eat lunch. And they have a range of about 14 miles per charge. Although various models exist, the one that may appeal the most to RVers is the Segway x2 Golf, a vehicle equipped with a stand that holds a golf bag and, when the bag carrier is removed,
can be stowed in a carry-compartment or on an external Segway hauler that mounts to a 2-inch trailer-hitch receiver. Bye-bye golf carts, and cart path-only restrictions should be rendered mute with the x2 Golf.

What wasn’t mute during my Segway excursion was the fact that all of us gliders enjoyed ourselves, thought the two-hour journey with Segway of Milwaukee Tours was worth the $50 cost and that Milwaukee’s lakefront is truly beautiful.

Perhaps the Segway’s time has finally arrived.

Segway of Milwaukee Tours, (800) 979-3370, www.segwayofmilwaukee.com.

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