Ordinary cars and trucks are comfortable, useful and easy to drive — but sometimes it’s fun to climb aboard a two-wheeler and zip away with a windblown sense of freedom and a lot less steel between you and the open road.
No, not a motorcycle. There’s another motor vehicle that provides a different kind of two-wheeled thrill, if you dare: The Segway personal transporter.
More than 10 years after its introduction, I don’t think the Segway has been quite the hit with commuters that its inventors may have hoped but the gizmos are popular for other applications and are increasingly popping up in tourist destinations, including Detroit.
So, on the off-chance you’ve ever been tempted to whirl around Woodward Avenue aboard a Segway, or want to move faster than your two feet will carry you while sightseeing out of town, here’s a little review from my recent foray in Savannah, Ga.
First of all, it wasn’t my idea and it didn’t seem too appealing. I don’t even ride a bike because I’d probably get distracted by scenery and drive into a telephone pole. But being outvoted I laced up my Reeboks, strapped on the mandatory helmet, signed the liability waivers and gritted my teeth for the ordeal.
The $5,000 machines — which I always pictured as sort of like pogo sticks with wheels — are a lot bigger and heavier than you might expect.
After watching a training film (complete with stick figures tumbling head over heels after a don’t-try-this maneuver) I approached the 105-pound Segway PT.
The guide, spunky in a yellow safety vest, held the machine upright as I unsteadily stepped onto the platform. There is no kickstand or other stabilizer; you must balance the Segway every second you’re aboard.
The second surprise: No throttle control on the handles.
If I’d ever thought about how Segways operated, I’d have assumed they operated much like a stand-up motorbike, with speed and brake controls at the rider’s fingertips.
No. Those handles are merely for clutching with sweaty palms as you (hopefully) veer out of the path of a taxi or city bus. You control the Segway not by moving your hands, but by swinging the core of your body to and fro; some sort of gyroscopic brain amid the Segway’s inner workings is supposed to divine your intentions and move the machine where you want it to go. To turn, you lean until the Segway pivots.
Our guide could achieve forward or backward motion with an invisible twitch of her torso. Beginners aren’t so lucky and be forewarned: Any hopes you had of maintaining a dignified, elegant or suave demeanor are pretty much off the table once you mount your PT.
We novices twirled, teetered, spun and whirled around the practice lot with ungainly thrusts of hip and abdomen, accentuating all of our figure flaws for the world as we focused on staying upright and not crashing into one another.
Once deemed ready for the open road, we formed straggly single file behind our guide, who blithely sped across a four-lane street and into the thick of rush hour in Savannah, shouting “Don’t worry, they’ll stop!” to us chickens in the rear.
The locals’ disgusted looks belied their itch to mow us down and we rumbled past with feeble little three-fingered waves of apology from hands glued to the Segway’s rubber grips.
“Come on, Melissa, ride it!” our chipper guide exhorted annoyingly, as I gingerly navigated a historic stretch of cobblestone roadway.
Exasperated, I undulated my body, somehow triggering a burst of speed that left the guide and the rest of the group in my dust! It was exhilarating till the darn thing wouldn’t stop or slow down no matter how frantically I gyrated on the little platform.
Finally, I leaned into a 180-degree turn and met my tourmates halfway back up the block, somehow slowing to a more sedate pace.
With adventures like that, two hours aboard the Segway went by in a flash, as did much of Savannah’s tourist district. After an hour or so it actually began to seem fun, and we were injury-free if a bit disheveled and embarrassed by the amused glances of passers-by.
Would I recommend it? Yes and no.
Staring at the pavement ahead of me, alert for cars, bumps and pedestrians, was not perhaps the best way to appreciate the architecture, gardens and vistas of an antebellum city, or any tourist destination. You have to dress for the action in closed shoes, headgear and practical attire instead of cute vacation garb.
And so much attention is focused on the machine that the charm and details of the sights we came to see were overlooked.
You can’t stand still on a Segway, so as we gawked at, for example, Mercer House of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” fame, we were rolling forth and back or pivoting in circles in order to stay upright. I can’t see doing that while admiring the Lincoln Memorial, the Golden Gate Bridge, the casinos of Las Vegas and other destination tourist hotspots.
But like motorcycles and Jet Skis, the Segway does have appeal; it’s novel enough to be entertaining, the speed and maneuvers are exhilarating and making it through the tour without falling off gave me a certain sense of accomplishment.
I’d bet most people would enjoy a lesson and an hour or two of gliding around a track, ocean boardwalk or safe side streets, and I’m glad to have given it a whirl.
Melissa Preddy is a Michigan-based freelance writer. Reach her via email@example.com.