Cruising the city with Segway

The Segway is not for the shy.

This is the first thing I noticed once manager Craig Davidson of Capital Segway let me take the transportation device for a five-hour test drive. As I cruised throughout Georgetown and Foggy Bottom, I continually received looks from passersby. While some onlookers hurled jeers (“Did daddy buy that for you on his credit card?”), the response from the overwhelming majority of pedestrians was positive, and most wanted to learn more about the device.

Invented in 2001, the Segway seeks to revolutionize the way pedestrians travel by reducing traffic and offering an efficient, pollution-free alternative to cars. Riders stand on a platform about four inches off the ground and can travel up to 12.5 miles per hour. To accelerate or decelerate, the Segway rider simply shifts his weight forward or backward. After a few hours on the device, I no longer had to consciously think about my motion because the movements felt so natural. Riders use a twisting left handlebar to control lateral motion – the Segway can turn on a dime, which is convenient in tight situations. The battery lasts eight to 12 miles and can be fully charged in about three hours using a standard wall outlet.

I had difficulty mounting the device the first time I was introduced to it, but I had no trouble once I learned to trust the Segway. The vehicle relies on gyroscopes and computers to keep the rider safe and balanced. At times, I felt I couldn’t fall off even if I tried.

After Davidson taught me proper Segway driving technique and I saw a safety video that boasted riding a Segway was “one of the coolest things you’ll ever do,” I was ready to hit the road.

Though the Segway is no more obtrusive than a wheelchair, at times it was difficult to navigate Georgetown’s narrow streets. But once I hit GW’s campus, riding was quick and controlled. Because nearly every sidewalk has a wheelchair accessible ramp, Washington, D.C. is one of the country’s most Segway-friendly cities. Riding through campus and downtown was a breeze, and I was able to fit in well with pedestrian traffic. By the end of my run, I began to feel like I wasn’t riding a Segway; rather, the device was a natural extension of my body.

The Segway can handle cobblestone and bumpy areas of the road, without trouble, but gravel is a bit of a risk. When I hit a rough patch, it was no problem. I just stepped off, hit a button, and the device shifted to “power-assist mode” that let me drag it across with ease.

As I tested my moves near the White House, one man excitedly asked if I was an owner. I informed him I was a mere borrower, and he explained that he loves his Segway and uses it to commute downtown daily. He even told me about an online Yahoo! group with over 100 members dedicated to Segway life in the District.

Of course, the Segway is not without its flaws. Unlike walking or riding a bicycle, when using a Segway, it becomes tricky to pass obstacles in the middle of narrower sidewalks. Because the Segway is wider than a bicycle, users need to be aware of the areas that extend a few inches to each side.

Throughout the day I only had two wipeouts, both resulting from trouble mounting the device. While I wasn’t thrilled to take a couple tumbles (especially when one resulted in a homeless man guffawing at my misfortune), I know for sure that I fell more than twice when learning how to ride a bike, so I still considered my test-run an overwhelming success.

The Segway’s cost starts at $4,495 for the i180 model and financing is available. Anyone can try a Segway in Davidson’s store for $1, and Capital Segway will soon be offering tours of the District. Capital Segway is located at 3222 M St. and can be accessed online at www.capitalsegway.com.

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