These Wheels Just Keep on Rollin’

Posted September 21, 2010 at 5:12pm

They look like something straight out of a “Star Wars” film — their helmet-capped drivers gliding over sidewalks, elevated above the crowd, zipping through the inching traffic, dodging pedestrians.

Whether D.C. residents like it or not, Segway Personal Transporters have woven themselves into the fabric of city life and are increasingly part of the daily bustle.

You can’t walk the National Mall these days without spotting a line of Segway riders following a tour guide, like chicks behind a mother hen. Police also ride the electric machines to keep an eye out for suspicious activities.

Similar to bicycles but minus the legwork, the two-wheeled vehicles ride smoothly, like cars without the costs of gas, insurance and speeding tickets. They self-balance; drivers lean in the direction they want to travel, reaching a top speed of 12.5 mph. They can travel 24 miles on a lithium battery charge.

“A car takes you many miles; a bicycle takes you a few miles; walking only takes you up to about a mile,” said Steven Orr, manager of touring company Capital Segway. “Segway was invented to be the level between those.”

Tourists seem to be Segway’s most ardent clients, paying from $60 to $80 for two-hour sessions. Three main Segway tour companies in D.C. cater to this crowd, and spokesmen at each said sales have grown in recent years.

John Voci, manager at City Segway Tours, said the number of people taking Segway tours each year has almost quadrupled since it opened its D.C. location in 2005. Orr’s company averages five tours and 70 people a day.

Capital Segway offers a “See the City” tour in which visitors check out the White House, the Capitol and the National Mall monuments, and zoom by the FBI, U.S. Navy Memorial, National Archives and the Newseum. The company also offers a “Masonic Lost Symbol Tour” of Freemason symbolism in the city.

City Segway Tours has an Abraham Lincoln assassination tour in which people wheel over John Wilkes Booth’s steps from the White House and old War Department offices (now the Old Executive Office Building) to Ford’s Theatre.

Segs in the City offers a night tour of the Mall and one of Embassy Row and the National Cathedral.

Tourists might not get their exercise taking a Segway tour, but who watches their weight on vacation?

Tours at Capital Segway begin with a short orientation in which visitors watch a five-minute video of stick figures acting dangerously and falling off Segways — a “scare tactic for safety precaution,” said Adam Plescia, a Segway tour guide. They then ride around the store and acclimate to the machine around Franklin Square.

Since the National Mall runs nearly two miles from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, the most obvious benefit of a Segway tour is speed. Orr said visiting all of Washington’s attractions requires a “three-day walk.” But a Segway allows tourists to see most things in a few hours, he said.

“You get a good overview of everything,” said Janine Bishop, an Ontario native visiting D.C. “We wanted to do this first so we could get an idea of where we wanted to go afterward.”

In addition to showing visitors around the Mall and city in fashion, guides share fun facts about the history behind various buildings and statues.

But tourists aren’t the only Segway riders.

Marty Reiser, manager of government policy at Xerox Corp., has been riding his Segway to work since 2007. It takes him 15 minutes to zip from his Capitol Hill home to his office at 14th and H streets Northwest.

He uses his Segway to pick up groceries from Eastern Market and dog food from the pet shop. And when he visits Congressional offices, he parks near the bike rack, activates his Segway alarm and goes to work.

“If I took the Metro, I’d have to walk to the station, then walk to work from there,” he said. “I like being able to get around the city quickly. It’s faster than driving a car because there’s no traffic.”

He also said it’s a “leisurely thing” and enjoys the sweeping, wind-in-his-face feeling.

Tiesha Banks, a legal secretary at Jones Day law firm at 51 Louisiana Ave. NW, said one of her co-workers rides into work every day on a Segway.

“I think they’re useful for people who live around the city,” she said. “There’s no gas expense, and she doesn’t have to worry about parking.”

Orr, who also rides his Segway to work, said Segways cost $5,500.

“I want to buy myself one and use it to go to work every day,” D.C. native Lauren Smith said halfway through her Segway tour. “I love it. It’s just really easy, simple and fun. I think everybody should do it at least once in their lives. The new technology is exciting.”

The Metropolitan Police Department officers also use Segways.

Officers “can cover a much wider area and not wear themselves out,” Orr said. “They’re actually 8 inches off the ground so they’re able to view the crowd a little bit better.”

They’re fun and increasingly popular, but are Segways really the future?

“Five years ago, I think everybody looked at Segway tours and said, ‘What the heck is that thing?'” Orr said. “I think people now say, ‘Hey, that’s a Segway,’ or ‘Hey, I want to do that.'”

Segways will revolutionize city transportation in a few decades, Orr said.

“Most people don’t know that the automobile was built in the later 1800s, and it took almost 50 years until Henry Ford actually created that automotive [production] line to get everybody to have a car,” he said. “My dad always said, ‘I’ll never have a computer.’ Well, now he has four in his home. It’s the same situation: It’s that time frame of evolution — people will start to use other types of transportation as opposed to getting in their cars.”

But not everyone is sold on the idea.

“They look kind of stupid,” said Tory Martin, a Department of Commerce employee. He doesn’t think they’ll revolutionize city transportation.

“They have their utility, but it’s niche,” he said. “Here in D.C., people can use them on the wide sidewalks. Tourists can use them, so can mailmen. But I don’t think they’re the future.”

Amber Palmer, a communication consultant in the Hall of States Building, said: “You won’t get me on one of those things. Remember that picture of President [George W.] Bush falling off of one? They look dangerous. … I see some commuters using them, but I think they’ll fade away.”

Even Reiser doesn’t think more commuters will use Segways.

“There’s a small group of us that hasn’t really grown,” he said. Commuters “should use Segways, but I’m not sure whether more people actually will. But the technology, whether or not it’s the Segway specifically, will continue. Electrically powered small machines are here to stay.”

Like it or not, Washingtonians may have to get used to Segways. The growing sales and demand for tours suggest they’ll be around for a while.

That is, until the next “Star Wars”-type of new technology invades D.C. streets and sidewalks.