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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Easy glider

My piece on Segways from last Thursday's Irish Examiner...

It’s a beautiful, sunny spring afternoon in Dublin’s Phoenix Park. Kids are playing, couples are having romantic picnics, the joggers are out in force, and elsewhere hordes of people are enjoying nice, leisurely strolls in and around the Park’s fields and green areas as the deer frolic nearby.

“Suckers!” I think to myself as I whizz past them all on my snazzy, sleek Segway transporter. What’s that you ask? A Segway is a two-wheeled, self-balancing electric vehicle that you operate standing upright. Movie-goers will have seen one featured prominently in the recent comedy Paul Blart: Mall Cop, while regular travellers might have encountered them, or even used one, while visiting several other European countries or US cities like Washington DC or Chicago.

Hot-headed super-chef Gordan Ramsay was also snapped in the papers last week falling off his Segway while buzzing around Santa Monica pier in Los Angeles. Just how Ramsay managed this clumsy feat is beyond me because the machines appear to be foolproof in terms of safety.

That’s because it operates according to your body movements: it is designed to be as intuitive to use as walking. To move forward, you simply lean forward. To stop or slow down, you lean back. Similarly you just turn your body slightly left or right to turn the transporter in that direction. All the while, electronic sensors ensure you keep your balance.

The good news for all of those wishing to try out one of the machines is that there is now a guided Segway tour of Phoenix Park in operation. Organised in conjunction between Segway Ireland and Pat Liddy Walking Tours, ‘Glide Tours’ take groups of eight people at a time on a two-hour Segway expedition of the historic park, taking in the buildings, monuments, and natural sights.

Upon arriving at the Ashtown Visitor Centre in the Park, I’m met by Vincent Lundy of Glide Tours and Martin Butler from Segway Ireland. I spend a few minutes in training, familiarising myself with the machine. This is so easy that the most difficult aspect is figuring out the strap on the helmet.

“Loosen your knees and act natural,” Martin advises as I scoot off down the path. I’m a bit careful at first, but after a few minutes, there’s no stopping me. I have a huge, goofy smile on my face the whole time, what Martin refers to as ‘the Segway Grin’.

It is an incredible way to get around: it literally turns with my body. The machine - which, incidentally, will cost you about e6,000 - works by a computer programme, which sets the speed at a maximum of 20km per hour.

The inbuilt safety mechanism ensures that if you approach that speed, it will force you into brake mode. What’s more they can’t coast or free-wheel: they only move when you do.

In addition, their green credentials are unimpeachable. The Segway has a maximum range of 38km on a single charge, which is one unit of electricity costing 16c (or half that if charged overnight). The company’s research also shows that travelling a distance of 9km in Dublin city centre would take about 20 minutes on a Segway, which is surely of interest to all of those who sit in gridlock traffic every morning and evening.

Lost in my own world, I don’t realise that a large crowd of French students have assembled along the sides of the path. As I pose for the Examiner’s photographer, they all start cheering and, I suspect, willing me to fall over for their own entertainment. Thankfully, I don’t give them their wish.

Stopping to rest for a moment, a young boy shyly approaches and asks me to autograph his football. My Segway exploits have made me a star.

After that I convince Vincent and Martin to take me on a quick tour of the Park. The machines are cross-terrain so we whizz down by the Aras (apparently President McAleese gave a big wave to one of the tour groups last month), over to the Papal Cross, where I get brave and chug up the small mound and back down again with ease, and then return to the start point via the US Ambassador’s residence.

Every passer-by stops to have a gawk. A car slows down at a roundabout and a young man’s head pops out the window to shout, ‘How is it they don’t fall over?’ I start to reply, but realise now probably isn’t the best time to get into a discussion on the complex engineering dynamics of the “inverted pendulum”. I pass a young boy playing with a scooter. He looks at me disconsolately as I power past, shooting him a superior look. Elsewhere a sweaty jogger calls out to me: “That’s cheating man.”

Having prised me off the machine, Martin explains that Segways are so new here in Ireland that their legal status is “a bit of a grey area” in terms of public usage. “There’s no classification as yet, but we’ve had very positive meetings with [Minister for Transport] Noel Dempsey so that should change soon. The legal model we discussed was based on what the Austrians did which more or less classed the Segway as a bicycle.

“Our clients are mainly security, building management, warehouses, and medical response in large complexes. Private citizens, mostly with mobility issues, are using them on the streets, but they’re very select.”

One such private Segway owner - perhaps the most famous in the country - is RTE’s economics editor George Lee, who has been regularly spotted zipping around town on his machine. “It’s like a magic carpet - that’s the only way to describe it,” Lee explains.

“I have mine since last August so I have about 700km up on it. It’s very addictive, I look for any reason to use it. I get a huge reaction to my Segway. Everybody wants to hear about it, even if they think you look odd on it.”

The financial wunderkind says that he uses his Segway to make the five mile journey from his home in Cabinteely to work in RTE in Donnybrook, as well as for popping into town. “I have a lock for it, so I can tie it up in a bike stand, plus there’s an in-built de-mobiliser so it’s actually impossible to take the machine away,” he explains.

He adds that his Segway even saved the day once when he had to rush across the city for a live report. “I had to get down to the IFSC to do a live feed for the Six One news,” he recalls. “It was 5.50pm and I was still in RTE. I knew I’d never make it in a car or taxi. I had no choice but to take the Segway. I was down in the IFSC from RTE in about 8 minutes. I couldn’t believe it. I was live on air for the top story at 6pm.”

On that note, my interview with George ends, and I trudge to the bus-stop to make my way home. I can’t help put scowl resentfully at the bus when it (eventually) pulls up. After all, how can any regular mode of transport ever hope to compare to a ride on a ‘magic carpet’?

1 comment:

Ciara said...

God I love them. Such fun. Have you seen that clip of George Lee on one?!