It was meant to revolutionise the way we move around cities. Garry Maddox tests the $200 million Segway.
My great Segway tour was going brilliantly. Having started at Bondi Beach on a magical summer morning, the "self-balancing motorised scooter" that was once touted as the future for personal transportation was proving a real attention grabber.
A German surfer with a board under her arm asked what it was. A shaggy-haired toddler holding his mum's hand beamed as I rolled smoothly past like a friendly Dalek on a morning constitutional. A road worker called for his mates to take a squiz. There were wows, cools and awesomes as the Segway proved a match for the sometimes patchy footpaths of the eastern suburbs.
There was even a wolf whistle, presumably for the machine rather than the rider. At traffic lights, bystanders wanted to know how much petrol it used (easy question: it's battery powered), how far it goes (40 kilometres without a recharge) and the top speed (20 kmh).
The plan was to test whether the Segway is a shimmering hope for Sydneysiders sick of traffic jams and unreliable public transport.
Six years ago, after almost $200 million in development costs, 50-year-old American inventor Dean Kamen launched the Segway Human Transporter, claiming the eco-friendly gyroscopic scooter would replace cars in crowded city areas. He predicted that riders would be zipping around on footpaths for just 10 cents a day.
"We believe that Segway HT is a technological advance in short-distance transportation that can change the world for the better," Kamen said, amid bullish forecasts from financial backers that it would make more money in its first year than any start-up venture in history.
And then, after all that hype, the Segway seemed to disappear. You occasionally see one of these futuristic machines around the city - being operated by a security guard at a shopping centre, a tour party at Sydney Olympic Park, a commuter or a disabled rider. Overseas, the Segway has more of a niche. You can take one on a tour of Paris landmarks. Elsewhere in Europe and the US, police and security staff use them to patrol airports, railway stations, parking stations, movie studios and college campuses. Some golfers prefer them to buggies. There is even an off-road version for motorised trekking.
But despite rising petrol prices, the promised revolution - streets full of eco-friendly machines silently transporting commuters and shoppers - is not even close. It's not that they're difficult to operate. It took 45 minutes of instruction from Tony Burke, the managing director of Segway Tours Australia, to master the basics near his East Sydney office.
"To make it go forward, you lean forward," he says. "To make it stop moving, you stop leaning. Lean back to go backwards. It's a very subtle shift of weight - toes and heels."
The scooter's intuitive qualities were quickly apparent. An hour into the tour, around Woollahra and Paddington, I only had to think of stopping, slowing or turning and a subtle shift of weight made it happen. As a piece of technology, it was ingenious. Weighing 45 kilograms and moving on two large rubber wheels, the Segway might look like a lawnmower but was as smooth as riding an airport travelator. When a pedestrian stepped onto the footpath, you slowed almost instantly to walking pace. When the path was clear, you accelerated quickly and turned smoothly. Uphill, it automatically upped the power.
Around Taylor Square, the Segway seemed to have developed a personality. Waiting for a "walk" signal at an uneven kerb, it skittered like an impatient horse. Near the Capitol Theatre, I swear it momentarily connected with a delivery driver's trolley, like a highly trained house dog recognising a primal connection with a rangy wolf.
I was a fan. But then I met Chloe Mason. "Hey," she yelled as the Segway rolled smoothly past. "You're not supposed to be doing that!"
I stopped to find out what she meant. A consultant to a Roads and Traffic Authority review of motorised pedal cycles, Mason saw red when she spotted the Segway on the footpath, insisting it was dangerous to pedestrians. Having been politeness personified throughout the tour, I didn't agree but promised to call her for a fuller discussion afterwards.
Heading down a crowded street at walking pace, a fit pedestrian jumping the lights kept overtaking for the best part of a kilometre.
In Chinatown, the most common question was: how much does it cost? When a Chinese grandmother heard it was $9400, she threw her hands in the air and muttered darkly. Her teenage grandson translated: "She says she can get a second-hand Merc for that."
Around Darling Harbour, Pyrmont Bridge, Hickson Road, under the Harbour Bridge then around the Botanic Gardens, life could not have been more perfect. More smiles, enthusiastic comments and questions about where to get one. The only awkward moments were dismounting to roll the scooter up and down stairs and kerbs without ramps.
Heading down crowded George Street, no one seemed fazed to be sharing the footpath with a mechanical intruder travelling at a relaxed crawl. But the dug-up Market Street was tricky when pedestrians were funnelled into narrow detours.
Across the bike lane on Anzac Bridge, the Segway was in its perfect environment. With no one else around, it cruised smoothly at maximum speed, while motorists heading in the opposite direction hooted their horns. By Lilyfield, it was time to get the scooter back to the shop and find out more about why it hasn't taken off.
Burke says the price - twice as much as a cheap motorscooter - is certainly an obstacle. So is its image. "It's got a bit of a geeky label," he says. "And the Segway marketing leaves something to be desired. All their initial marketing was very American. The people they used, the film clips they made, there was nothing sexy about it at all."
But the biggest problem is that the Segway is not designed for roads although the RTA considers it unsuitable for footpaths. That leaves it stranded in no machine's land. When I spoke to Mason, she put a case for electric-powered pedal cycles as the future for eco-friendly personal transportation rather than Segways. She believes the Segways' weight and top speed made them hazardous for pedestrians.
An RTA spokesman confirmed they were illegal on roads "or road related areas" because they don't comply with vehicle safety standards: "In simple terms, riders are way too exposed to mix with general traffic on a road and too fast, heavy and consequently dangerous to other users on footpaths or cycle paths."
Even though some commuters use them around Sydney, Segways are only legal on private property or approved areas such as Sydney Olympic Park. The RTA spokesman says the manufacturer's claims of easy and safe usage were damaged when US President George W. Bush fell off one in 2003.
That last claim left Burke fuming. "It was turned off!" he says of Bush's tumble. "It was like sitting on a bike and stopping pedalling. Of course you fall off!"
Burke says the Segway is not dangerous because of its stopping ability, manoeuvrability and low centre of gravity and believes the RTA should allow them on shared footpaths. "It's just like using a bike on a footpath. Bikes are not allowed on footpaths yet how many bicycles do you see on footpaths? When people use them with the appropriate courtesy, nobody gets too worked up."
The verdict on the Segway?
Terrific technology and great fun. But unless it can operate on a better network of bike paths and Segway-friendly footpaths, the inventor's vision is a long way off in Sydney.
In NSW, Segways can be bought from Segway Tours Australia for $9485 to $10,795. They can be rented for $220 a day or $660 a week. Tours at Sydney Olympic Park operate on weekends - $99 for two hours - with private tours and corporate events during the week.