Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza recently saw the opening of a retail store for the worst invention ever, the Segway.The Plaza, the nation’s first planned shopping center and essentially an outdoor mall, is a mess of winding streets and tastefully disguised parking garages. Aesthetically free of stoplights or stop signs, drivers are expected to slow down as pedestrians dash across four lanes (or saunter and chat across four lanes, as the wealthier visitors are apt to do). The Plaza is a good example of our irrational dependence on cars. People have to walk to get to the stores anyway, so why let cars in at all? They could more than double the building space if they made people park on the periphery and walk in. Around 20,000 people live within walking distance of The Plaza, yet it has not one grocery store, not one pharmacy. This is a strong symptom of the lack of community in the area. People don’t want to gather in The Plaza because it is a dangerous, uncomfortable place for pedestrians.
Cars make distance travel, from the supermarket twenty miles away to a cross-country move, trivial, but that ease of mobility severs the ties that a person has with his area. Who cares if the corner market goes out of business when the supermarket is only ten minutes away. From this loss of local investment to streets scarring the landscape, cars are toxic to community. The Segway has been touted as the cure for our ailing communities, but it is, in fact, the worst invention ever.
Click the picture of President Bush demonstrating the Segway’s ease of use to find out why.
For those of you who spent the last five years in a detention camp, the Segway is a two wheeled self-balancing scooter. Oh, and it costs $3,000. Originally intended to put paraplegics back on eye level as they moved about, insurance and practicality reduced this noble idea to the worst invention ever. The Segway’s inventor, Dean Kamen, has touted it as a revolution in personal transport while he spins utopian tales of cities designed for people–no cars allowed. A wonderful vision of dense urban areas, supported by small local businesses. Communities so tightly knit that WalMart’s claws can find no purchase in their fabric. This is a beautiful dream, and though it did not originate with Dean Kamen I respect him for aspiring to it.
Yet, he is far off the mark. He’s right that we have to abandon cars if we want to rescue our communities, but he is replacing one automotive with another. Sure, the worst invention ever is small and battery operated, but it still disconnects the rider from his environment. Zipping along at eight MPH he has no chance to chat with the neighbors; he is, instead, a 280 pound missile. For comparison, the average rider going the average speed on a Segway has the same momentum as a frozen chicken flying at two-thousand MPH. Segways are heavier and less maneuverable than bicycles and much harder to crash safely. Just like bicycles, the Segway should not be operated on sidewalks. In fact, many cities have already passed laws making it illegal to operate a Segway on the sidewalk. This means Kamen’s cities will still require streets for the Segways.
Most Americans walk less than a half mile per day, because it’s easier and faster to drive. It feels safer. Most people don’t even live close enough to their work or the store to walk, and those that do would never consider it. So cities are built to accomodate cars, which makes it even less convenient and safe to walk. Rather than fix this problem, the worst invention ever again simply shifts this problem to a smaller vehicle. In Kamen’s cities, people will walk less than they do now, because they can ride their Segways right into their offices.
The Segway is seen as an ecologically sound choice, so people feel good about using one as an alternative to their cars. But it still uses electricity, rather inefficiently, which is largely generated by fossil fuels. The Segway doesn’t eliminate pollution, but concentrates it around power plants. The declining health of the Segway riding population will mean more people choosing powered transport for distances they could otherwise walk or bike. The worst invention ever will actually increase pollution; it just won’t be as highly concentrated in cities.
The Segway may make it easier for people to get around quickly in cities, but that is exactly the problem. It is too easy to get around quickly. Communities develop when it is easier to go to the corner grocery store than the supermarket. Communities develop when you can have a block party on the spur of the moment. Communities only develop when we live here and now rather than thinking of where we will be soon. Segways may change how we move, but they won’t change how we live.