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Showing Segway the Highway 

San Francisco stays fit and comely by walking -- and by banning silly electric-powered scooters from the sidewalks

Wednesday, Dec 18 2002
As any political consultant or pool player knows, it's the easiest-seeming shots that test a hustler's chops. Call it the Dukakis-in-the-battle-tank syndrome: The most avoidable mishaps, the no-bank corner shots, are the ones that can really rattle an ace's game.

And so it was that local playah Karen Skelton, Bill Clinton's former deputy director for political affairs, the woman who has reportedly billed SFO $500,000 in lobbying fees, found herself standing in the middle of the second-floor hall in the Grant Building on Market Street, trying to sell bicycle activists on the merits of an $8,000 scooter.

Skelton had taken one of the devices up to the headquarters of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition in hopes of gaining political support from alternative-transport types. Segway LLC, you see, has been conducting a nationwide push to change local laws so its eponymous, computerized scooter will be allowed on city sidewalks; San Francisco has been the toughest sell.

Dave Snyder, former executive director of the Bicycle Coalition and founder of the lobbying outfit Transportation for a Livable City, gave the device a try. He had a hard time getting the hang of it. Then Skelton hopped on to demonstrate. She hopped off, presumably to show that the machine stops itself when unmanned. Last week, Snyder showed me two foot-long cracks, joined together in an "A" shape, that he said the pilotless Segway left in the Grant Building wall. I spoke with Matt Dailida, Segway's director of regulatory affairs, for an official explanation.

"What Karen has told us was that she was showing what happens with the machine if the person steps off, and what happens is there's a rider-detection system, and when the person steps off the machine it's designed to stop, and apparently it did hit the wall, leaving scratches," said Dailida. "As I understand what had happened, nobody could say for a fact that those scratches were not on the wall prior to this incident."

I called Snyder back. He expressed bemusement at his fellow lobbyist's apparent lack of candor.

"I cannot believe that Karen did not tell the Segway people she did it. That's ridiculous," Snyder said. "Karen reached down and picked up pieces of marble that had fallen."

I tell this delightful holiday tale of gyroscopically stabilized human transport not because I think the Segway is somehow based on defective technology -- I don't. Rather, it seemed a perfect -- ahem -- segue into a topic that's on everyone's mind, now that we've weathered our first holiday storm: lard. Buckets of lard. Fat, rosy cheeks. Ample alabaster bellies. Arms that flap, legs that waddle, bodies by the million shaking like bowls of jelly. In these terms, I believe, the Segway is a national threat at least as grave as Iraq: It's a high-technology lard-making device introduced at a moment when America is suffocating from obesity. Calculated in potential casualties on the field, the Segway is the ultimate American doomsday machine.

San Francisco, a city that trails the nation in so many ways -- whether in providing sufficient housing, in protecting its environment, in racial integration, or in good government -- became a national leader this week in the area of public health. Supervisors voted 8-2 Monday to keep Segways off our sidewalks. In so doing, they fended off a potential tsunami of lard.

As anyone with an Internet connection, newspaper, or television knows, the Segway is a high-tech scooter designed by a wealthy medical-device inventor. It's so supposedly revolutionary that Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and other commerce pioneers reportedly say whole cities will be built around it someday. Recently, the Segway company succeeded in its quest to have California pass legislation that allows the devices on sidewalks, unless local governments say otherwise. Monday, S.F. supervisors voted on legislation, backed by activists representing pedestrians and the elderly, that banned Segways from our walks. Initially, Mayor Brown said he would veto the bill, but mayoral spokesman P.J. Johnston said bill sponsor Chris Daly may well have the votes to override a veto.

"He [Brown] might veto it to give them a message; he might allow it to go into law without a veto," Johnston said. The ban "sends a defeatist message from San Francisco to the rest of the world. We're going to be the first city in the country to send out the message that we're afraid of this product, rather than embracing new technologies and new forms of transportation. It says we're so fearful that we don't even want to contemplate its use, and our attitude is gaining national and international attention."

Johnston said San Francisco's intransigence has been noted by the Los Angeles Times, NBC, and ABC. "I just got calls from reporters in Toronto," he said.

But would it be such a bad thing, really, if San Franciscans were to set a national example by manning the dikes against oceans of blubber?

It's funny the Segway vote should come a few days after San Francisco's first real winter storm; that's about the moment I usually begin my annual fret about weight. I'm finding my fellow Americans also have blubber on their minds; for months now American newspapers have been soaked in lard.

Two months ago, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that about two-thirds of Americans are overweight. In the same vein, a former U.S. surgeon general recently chaired a fat summit at which everyone agreed that an ever-rising ocean of lard threatens Americans' health, finances, and pursuit of happiness. The U.S. Health and Human Services Department says the costs of a fat society total $117 billion a year.

And just last week a group called the California Center for Public Health Advocacy released a study showing that California children are fatter than they ever were. The proposed solution: physical education quotas for kids and "healthier" cafeteria food. Great idea: Make childhood more hellish in the name of slenderness; I'm sure kids will buy that.

On the front page of the Segway Web site, you'll find a link to a section headed "Improved Productivity. Greater Employee Value." The main feature of this Greater Employee Value page is a "productivity calculator" that works in the manner of the mortgage calculators you see on real estate Web sites. In one field of the calculator, a potential corporate buyer of Segways enters the number of miles an employee walks per day; the employee's annual salary goes in another. If a $30,000-per-year employee who walks two miles a day were to cease walking and ride a slightly faster-moving Segway over those miles (the machines are advertised as moving at 12 miles per hour), she would save the company $2,000 per year, the calculator suggests.

"Because every business is slightly different, bear in mind that this interactive tool is only meant to provide a general gauge of your company's savings," the site explains.

The armies of newspaper writers who've been writing fat-American stories during this summer and fall of lard have made a big deal of our country's greasy, starchy, and sugary diet. It's as if they'd never traveled to France, where people inhale fatty cheese, sauces, and pastries, or to China, where people shovel rice into their gullets by the bushel, or to Central America, where pupusas and beans and meat and plantains combine to form a diet of Carl's Jr. heft. But, mysteriously, those vigorous, active, energetic, and attractive people aren't nearly as fat as we are.

When fried together, the piles and piles of studies on how to stanch Americans' growing paunches reveal two essential truths: One, diets alone don't work, and regular, moderate exercise does; and two, it's monumentally difficult to get people to exercise regularly, over the years, unless active movement is made an ordinary part of day-to-day life.

Is it by accident that San Franciscans are far more physically attractive than residents of San Jose? I think not; in eight-lane-to-everywhere Silicon Valley, it's impossible to walk anywhere. Here, it's a relative breeze. In fact, in every western city except San Francisco, it's becoming incrementally less possible to get places under our own power.

Chris Daly, the supervisor who sponsored the Segway-sidewalk ban, is a man I disagree with fervently on most issues, but he's got his heart in the right place when it comes to keeping San Franciscans healthy. At the annual membership party of the Bicycle Coalition last week, a healthy and only mildly full-figured Daly promised to expand the city's network of bicycle lanes, a measure designed to increase the number of healthy San Franciscans (at present, they represent 3 percent of the commuting population) who ride to work.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who swims at Aquatic Park every morning, was also at the Coalition meeting. He had strategically moved to postpone the Segway vote until Monday, so that the mayor wouldn't be able to sneak in a veto while the supervisors are off on Christmas break. (By postponing the vote a week, the supes have time to override a possible mayoral veto when they return to work Jan. 13: Supervisors are given 30 days to respond to the mayor's action.)

The Bicycle Coalition had hoped Segway LLC would put its lobbying cash behind building more Segway-friendly bikeways. Segway demurred, preferring sidewalks. And so the Coalition (and the supervisors who support its work) decided to demur on Segway.

"The alternative-transportation movement in San Francisco is so strong that we're not fooled by them taking on the mantle of alternative transportation. That's perhaps going to work in towns that don't understand what alternate transportation is about. But here, we understand what sidewalks are about, and we understand what it's about to crowd pedestrians," says Dave Snyder of Transportation for a Livable City. "Within the last year there's a whole new emphasis on how exercise is most effective when it's achieved as people go about their normal lives. Billions of dollars are spent having people go to health clubs. But they're finally coming around to realizing that the way our neighborhoods are structured, there is no way to get exercise.

"Walking to work, walking to the store, riding your bicycle is the way to get Americans more active."

About The Author

Matt Smith


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