Scooter entrepreneurs want to share the sidewalk with D.C. pedestrians.
Last year, press reports announced that a reclusive New England entrepreneur was fast at work on a futuristic scooter equipped with gyroscopes and other fancy gizmos. The device, according to investors, would revolutionize cramped cities, diminish the country’s dependence on oil, and delight riders with its sophisticated balancing technology.
Boosters neglected to mention that the scooter might also bowl over pedestrians. The Segway Company, based in Manchester, N.H., is lobbying officials in the District and other cities to exempt its product, the Human Transporter (HT), from laws prohibiting motorized vehicles on sidewalks.
In February, At-Large D.C. Councilmember Carol Schwartz and other local officials were treated to a demonstration of the newfangled machine, consumer versions of which will hit the retail market later this year. (Segway’s commercial units are already on sale.) So impressed was Schwartz that she proceeded to introduce a bill clearing sidewalks for the $3,000 machines.
“It’s a really interesting invention, a sort of fun gadget that could have potential uses for people who have difficulty walking, with some possibility of use for postal workers and public-safety officials,” says Schwartz, who chairs the council committee—Public Works and the Environment—with jurisdiction over streets and sidewalks.
Because Schwartz can’t legally call her legislation the “Segway Promotion Act,” she settled on the next-best title: “Motor Vehicle Definition Electric Personal Assistive Mobility Device Exemption Act of 2002.” The legislation will likely see council action this summer, following the budget process.
The HT currently falls under the definition of motor vehicle under District law, the same as a motorcycle, car, or truck—that is, a vehicle banned from the sidewalk. But Segway is trying to make the scooter a legal tandem of the bicycle, which is allowed on sidewalks outside of the downtown business district. The company’s lobbyists point out that the scooter is safe and easily maneuverable, thanks to the gyroscopes and computers that prevent riders from falling over.
The HT, however, is 3 feet wide and weighs 80 pounds—more than twice the size and heft of an average bike. A spokesperson for the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) says the organization fears that the scooter, which can go as fast as 12 mph, will plow over elderly people on sidewalks.
“It depends on the etiquette in its use,” says Tom Otwell of the AARP.
“We don’t have an official position on the [HT] yet,” he continues, “but its widespread use could be a problem for senior pedestrians.”
Such concerns haven’t slowed down Segway’s multistate lobbying campaign, which is aimed at blazing a path for the HT. “We are looking to gain access to Washington, D.C., as hard as we are any other state,” says Matt Dailida, state and government affairs manager for Segway. “We have tremendous networks of consultants working every state that has a legislature in session and many major cities.” So far, the company has 36 HT-friendly bills in state legislatures, 13 of which have been signed into law and six of which are pending a governor’s signature.
The company thus far has avoided making political contributions to policymakers. “We don’t have a [political action committee], and we haven’t contributed to candidates to date,” says Meredith Grogan, a spokesperson for the company.
A timely contribution from Segway, though, might help to move the mayor’s office, which doesn’t share Schwartz’s view on the HT.
“I don’t think the mayor has given it one second of thought,” says mayoral spokesperson Tony Bullock. “It’s neither fish nor fowl. [HTs] don’t belong on the sidewalk, and they probably shouldn’t be used on the road. This will go the way of the DeLorean and the Hula Hoops.” CP