Most people probably don’t remember this, or have tried to repress their memory, but in early 2001, the media was ablaze with all sorts of speculation about Dean Kamen’s highly secretive miracle invention. Its codename was Ginger but the device was also mysteriously known as “IT”, which prompted all sorts of great headlines like, “What is IT?” and “Where’s IT at, Dean?”
IT obviously turned out to be the Segway PT, an electronic, two-wheeled, self-balancing, self-propelling vehicle that looked a lot like a very clunky scooter. Yes a very clunky scooter THAT WOULD SOME DAY CHANGE THE WORLD! That was the promised written into the very treads of the Segway. It was energy-efficient and faster than walking. It would afford the elderly and others with limited mobility the chance to get around and live like the rest of us, instead of confined to moss-covered basement cages, never seeing the light of day. Some day it would even displace vehicular travel within city limits. There were very long articles and news stories where people actually discussed the zoning of Segway lanes in the road, to make room for the future of travel. Dean Kamen’s designs for the Segway were noble and no less than revolutionary. And according to all the press and attention that followed its eventual arrival, if there were a sort of quintessential Segway user–the Platonic ideal, I guess–I think most would agree it looked a lot like this:
However, almost six years later, I think it’s safe to say the average Segway user looks bit more like this:
What was once heralded as the future of getting-around has, in a few short years, become exclusively the province of attention-seeking dorks and weirdos. It’s really interesting to me that something so ambitious could become forever perverted like this in such a short amount of time. For a while, the Segway was an expensive novelty. You’d see someone–usually a man nearing middle age, wearing a fannypack–riding one on the sidewalk and you couldn’t help but point and gawk a bit. If you were a bold person maybe you’d even ask to give the Segway a test ride.
That day has come and gone, at least for me. Now when I see someone cruising toward me on a Segway I usually regard that person with the same amount of disdain and embarrassment-by-proxy I do for people who purposefully show up at largely-attended public events covered in exotic birds or snakes or ferrets. (Earlier this summer I saw a guy cruising the Coney Island boardwalk with a parrot on each shoulder and a snake around his neck. We get it. A single species would have made your point just as well.)
Fortunately, I am usually spared this particular discomfort. I rarely see people riding Segways for sport these days, and I have never seen anyone ride one out of necessity. Instead, from what I can tell they’re used primarily as novelty rental vehicles from companies that offer city tours with an emphasis on the adorable. Segways are apparently also a really good go-to vehicle if you’re looking for an eye-catching way to distribute free samples of Go-GURT Smoothies.
Maybe it’s a sign of the unfulfilled technological promise of the late 1990s that the future of automobiles has netted out as the present-day adult tricycle, or that today the requisite uniform of the Segway pilot is not a helmet or a windbreaker, but a loud Hawaiian shirt and jester’s cockscomb. Or maybe it’s not a sign of anything except the limited appeal of a $5,000 scooter.