The Segway Human Transporter was once touted as a pervasive new transportation tool. But the unusual personal vehicle is still rare enough that sightings of one rolling along the road still get a rise from passers-by.
Cars stop in the street, people point and stare, and there are whispers, giggles, mouths agape, and the occasional shaking of fists.
Segway's consumer base is still growing, but the $5,000-plus selling price seems to limit sales.
So while President Bush's well-documented fall off a Segway in June helped more people become familiar with the machine, few have had an actual encounter with one.
Segway has been working to find a place in the commercial sector since it was introduced by its inventor, Dean Kamen, in December 2001. Initial business partners included the U.S. Postal Service and Amazon.com. Other corporations, the military and police departments are among the groups around the country that have tried the Segway since.
But there are consumer users as well. Retired movie producer Itsi Atkins is, by his own estimate, one of more than 30 Segway owners in New York City. And while the novelty has worn off for him, he still tries to act as an "ambassador" for the new technology as he is bombarded with questions whenever he takes a ride.
In fact, Atkins is taking an active role in creating his own Segway accessories, dedicating his time to making bags, jackets, traveling cases, camera mounts and themed hubcaps designed specifically for the Segway. He's currently preparing to take them to Segway Fest, the first Segway owners convention, which will be held in Chicago at the end of August.
Police Test It in New York, Juneau
Joining Atkins' Segway on the streets of New York late last month were several new machines being tested by the New York Police Department.
One model attracted an audience at Rockefeller Center, drawing attention away from an outdoor Aerospace Technology exhibit. "I was surprised to see a cop on [a Segway]," said a janitor at the Center. He said it became difficult for the officers to move around because people were stopping them to ask questions.
"To actually see it in person, you want to know how it functions," he said.
Police officers in Juneau, Alaska, were also having fun during their Segway training session last week, according to Assistant Police Chief Greg Browning. He's looking forward to their trial with the vehicles because the Segway "gives the officers easy access to the public," since they can converse while riding.
Browning said the trial will be over by winter, though. "I understand [ice and snow] is a problem," he said.
And what about rain? "They tell me it can work even when it's partially submerged."
A French company is also working with Segway to develop a series of stations in Paris where commuters can rent Segways. Doug Field, Segway's chief operating officer, thinks the Segway is well-suited for European cities, and the company is working on building its presence there.
But Field acknowledges it will be a long road ahead. "Change that's that fundamental does take time," he said. "Especially in the U.S., where the car … is a form of identity for the people that drive them."
Selling the Benefits, Debating the Sidewalk
Transforming urban transportation is not Field's immediate objective. The executive believes while the Segway is ultimately capable of sparking such change, he stressed that before that happens the company is simply trying to create a satisfied customer base for its product.
The goal is "to take a fundamentally new technology … and introduce its benefits in a way that really solves significant problems for both businesses and consumers," Field said.
Field added that the focus is on ensuring quality and safety. So when Segway began selling units to the consumer market nine months ago, it required purchasers to attend a Segway-provided orientation before they were allowed to use their product.
One factor limiting Segway sales is that some states have made it illegal to ride one on the sidewalk.
New York is one of the states that has yet to pass legislation permitting Segways on the sidewalk, and Atkins says he understands the risk he's taking by riding there anyway. He says he has yet to encounter any problems with police officers, since he takes particular care not to give them any reason to ticket him.
"All the policemen know me," he said while riding around his midtown Manhattan neighborhood, taking care to yield to pedestrians and approach intersections slowly to avoid startling the unsuspecting.
But pushing to keep Segways off the sidewalks is Transportation Alternatives, a New York City-area organization that advocates fewer cars. While it seems like such an organization would partner perfectly with Segway, members of TA see it differently.
"It's an amazing technology," said TA Projects Director Noah Budnick, "but it doesn't belong on the sidewalk. It belongs on the street with bicyclists and rollerbladers.
"The sidewalks in New York City and New York state are already crowded, and pedestrians as a group are often faced with encroachments from motorists or small sidewalks or people who are illegally biking on the sidewalk," he said.
Atkins is frustrated by the opposition, but believes it would take only one thing to bring opponents around: Just hop on a Segway and give it a ride.