"Segway's Assault on Walking"

By Christopher Orlet


Salon Staff
December 12, 2001 1:30AM (UTC)

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Christopher Orlet's smug, contrarian dismissal of Dean Kamen's Segway is a perfect example of the kind of shrill, eat-your-vegetables nannying that has made utopian progressivism an easy target for conservative mockery.

Make no mistake, the "assault on walking" is real, and it continues to be perpetrated by the automobile industry, and a culture that places car-related public spending far ahead of the needs of pedestrians and bicyclists, marginalizing us with a cycle of subsidy.

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What Orlet seems to wish to overlook is Kamen's statement on the "Good Morning America" launch, while scooting in circles with the anchors, that "What we are now is empowered pedestrians." To expand on that from my own perspective: Whatever changes to the social and physical landscape result from the popular use of the Segway will also benefit plain old pedestrians as well.

Every person, no matter how much Mr. Orlet scorns their body shape, who chooses not to drive and instead scoot on this quiet, harmless contraption represents one fewer two-ton missile for the greater society to fear. And every sidewalk that is widened, every ramp and bridge, every intersection that includes as a new priority the possibility that people, human beings outdoors and breathing air, might be passing through at less than killing speed is a victory for all of us.

Mr. Orlet is free to pack some celery sticks in a Ziploc bag and walk wherever he pleases, just as I am unlikely to give up my bicycle for a Segway. For myself, I welcome the incredibly subversive possibility that this technology can offer an alternative to the automobile and the smelly, lethal racetrack our cities have become.

-- Patrick Engeman

Thanks be to Christopher Orlet for his essay on Dean Kamen's obscene walking machine. It is a relief to know I'm not the only person in America who recoiled from that invention and its implications with horror. Kamen showed his true colors in a clip (first televised on a morning news program, and satirically aired on "The Daily Show") in which he announced that his scooter "will do for walking what the calculator has done for paper and pencil." It occurred to me then that Kamen's next invention had better be the suspensor belts mentioned in Frank Herbert's "Dune," the ones that hold up the obscene girth of the Baron Harkkonnen. The vision of city sidewalks covered with such bloated figures bobbing along on motorized platforms, limbs atrophied to uselessness, is hardly a future worth living for.

I am a member of that minority of Americans who avidly walk, and I thank Orlet also for pointing out the physical and philosophical pleasures of that activity. Given the ridiculous degree of hyped approval that seems to have greeted this latest assault on our health and well-being, his may be a voice crying in the wilderness; it was, however, to me a most welcome one.

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-- Jean Peterson

Orlet's article completely ignores the fact that several million people in this country suffer daily from joint and spinal pain that severely limits their ability to walk significant distances without pain and fatigue. These problems may have nothing whatsoever to do with obesity or sloth, but simply with unfortunate trauma and age. All the careful prevention in the world would not have altered the reality of their situation.

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What I see here is an attitude that regular exercise and careful attention to diet is somehow connected to a person's goodness. This is crap.

Would Orlet begrudge an elderly or disabled person the opportunity to "Segway" as a volunteer, performing tasks, offering advice and comfort to others that they would be unable to otherwise? Or would he tell them to take their fat asses out for a walk?

-- Barrett L. Dorko

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As a longtime bicycling enthusiast I'd love to compare one of these new scooters with a bicycle.

The comparison would go something like this:

Segway

Weight: 65 lb.
Cost: $3,000
Top speed: 17 mph
Needs recharging

... vs. a Huffy bicycle I could get at a Wal-Mart or Kmart

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25 lb.
$100
Around 25 mph
Never needs recharging

A bike is not only faster, lighter and cheaper, it is easier to lock, more fun to ride (I'm guessing) and a lot easier to lug up the stairs to your office.

I think I'll stick with the bike.

-- Drew Walker

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Christopher Orlet's premature diatribe against the Segway strikes a familiar Luddite chord for which there is an equally well-worn rejoinder. Looking into his crystal ball, Orlet foresees that Kamen's "magic sneakers" will lead to an increase in heart disease and a further assault on the declining quality of life for Americans. Well perhaps some Americans would agree, undoubtedly those who take as their yardstick the standards of a 19th century nonconformist unable to come to terms with the industrial revolution. We might balance Thoreau's opinions against the legacy of the railroad he seemed so put out by. Such developments in technology have always been mixed blessings, all the way back to growing grain for food.

Each of us can make a fairly convincing appraisal of whether Segway will help or harm our situation. I live within two miles of a subway, a supermarket and a small urban center (Boston's Davis Square). Every trip to the market and many to the square involve a short car trip that could be better accomplished by a Segway. Twice a week I have an hour commute, the final four miles of which I travel on a bus. If I miss the bus my choices are to walk or get a parking ticket. Maybe Thoreau had hours to spend walking around New England -- I don't.

Undoubtably the Segway will, like railroads, light bulbs and steam engines, change our society for the better and for the worse. Do Americans do so much walking that this will actually deprive them of that last bit of exercise keeping obesity at bay? I doubt it. Orlet picks up a convenient stone to toss and makes an easy accusation.

-- Peter Walsh

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I couldn't agree more with Christopher Orlet. Walking is not only good for you physically, but provides an opportunity for reflection that is not possible with any motorized form of transportation. There are many days that, despite working full-time, I walk eight to 10 miles, and I do not feel right any day that I don't walk an hour. The only advantage to the Segway is that it is faster than walking, but if I'm on a deadline and need to be somewhere, I drive. I positively cannot understand Kamen's aversion to walking. Is he opposed to exercise altogether?

-- David Friedman

Christopher Orlet's well-put article on Dean Kamen's ridiculous new scooter was music to my ears -- and feet! When I finally saw the scooter that was going to "change our lives" and take us 12 mph, I thought, my bike goes faster than that! Why would I bother? Why would anyone? It's bad enough that people drive everywhere, now they won't even walk a few blocks? I keep waiting for our novelty-loving culture to wake up and start understanding what life is about -- living and breathing and thinking without the constant aid of machinery. Sadly, most people are on their cellphones with the windows up in their SUV's, unable to hear the voice of "The Little Prince." He would never understand the way they live their lives.

-- Jessica M. Brady

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Just read your article about Segway. A couple of points:

I currently take the subway or a bus to work. I don't walk -- it's too far. And a bicycle requires me to shower when I get to work -- which does not exist. If I had a Segway, I could use that instead of the subway. My commute would be about 18 min. on the Segway, as opposed to a 75-minute walk. You don't think there would be an energy savings if a slew of people did this?

What if the people who now use a car to go three blocks to the store use a Segway instead?

Also, the majority of people who would use a Segway would be using it instead of another conveyance. It's not meant to replace walking (or the car, for that matter) -- it's meant to give us another cheaper, cleaner alternative. I'll still use my car to drive long distances.

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As to the lazy/fat issue: Would you advocate eliminating elevators to help slim our population down?

And what of the elderly or infirm, to whom walking around is not as easy as for you or I?

I don't know if the Segway is going to change the world. But I'm willing to give it a chance before I bury it.

-- Richard Keegan

The Segway is a joke, another development in what I like to call the "ride the escalator down" society. Will it move through snow? Mud? What do you do with it when you get where you're going? What if it's dirty?

I can't believe this was supposed to be the invention that would transform the world. True, the technology that is in the Segway is remarkable, and could have some very useful applications, such as for the disabled or for highly mobile robots and other unmanned vehicles. But the very notion of putting on my "magic sneakers" to do my walking for me is beyond laughable -- it's pathetic.

-- Michael Friedmeyer

Can Kamen describe a day in the life of a mom, with two children, who can use the Segway in an optimal way? Then maybe I can decide if this is worth spending time even thinking about.

-- Arundhati Chakravorty

Perhaps Orlet should spend a lifetime performing physical labor, something like delivering mail. Then he might be qualified to comment on whether developing a device like the Segway was a waste of time.

-- Robert Huffman

"It will be as big as the Internet". No ... not the dot-com bust, you moron. Not the porn surfing either. Well, OK, the Internet may be a bad example.

First we have to "redesign the cities" to make the Segway practical. Presumably this means making it legal to operate a high-speed mechanical device on crowded sidewalks, since you'd be at clear risk of injury or death if you ever rode it on the street amid cars. The Segway travels at "only" 12.5 miles an hour. Let's see, that's a little faster than those marathon runners, isn't it? How injured will a pedestrian be if he's hit by a marathon runner at full tilt? I can see the "plaintiffs bar" salivating over this now. Maybe that's why Segway costs $3,000: Kamen is anticipating lots of liability suits.

A thought experiment: If the bicycle had never been invented, and Kamen hyped this for months before unveiling his "velocipede" on TV, it probably would have received even greater accolades, I expect.

All you have to do is "redesign cities" to make them practical, right?

-- The K-Martian

Maybe Orlet is right; Americans who have come to hate anything that is not convenient will get even more obese and die off like the dinosaurs. If we are lucky it will be the ones I see picking up their one child in their full-size Suburbans or Expeditions, but that's just my rant. What he is failing to see is the impact this technology could have for people who are handicapped like me. I have M.S., and as I watch my body decline, and the idea of that wheelchair, instead of my cane comes ever nearer, I see this as something that could possibly help me. This is hope for me; despite handicap accessibility, things are not that accessible.

-- Yolanda Hoopes

This article is a pretty impressive hatchet job.

The automobile is all about convenience. People won't use the Segway for their health; they'll use it because it gets them to the shop in a hurry (like, under 10 minutes) without having to drive (and park, and generally pay for) a car. Even in the winter, it starts instantly and doesn't need warming up, so it will be competitive with the car. If Segway can go where pedestrians do, then door-to-door transportation is realistic, and this too beats the car.

Many two-car families might become car + Segway, eh?

-- Fred Baube

Orlet's attack piece on the Segway Human Transporter completely misses the point. Kamen invented a very useful and amazingly innovative transportation option -- just like the car, the bus, the bicycle and the horse-drawn buggy. Each of these has strengths and weaknesses, and none of them is going to make us stop walking (duh!). Kamen is a prolific and truly heroic inventor (how many lives do you think his medical inventions have saved?), and he deserves more respect. I suppose that Orlet (apparently a Luddite) would have bewailed the death of candles after Edison invented the light bulb.

-- Mark Silverman


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