Written by Tara Leonard
SANTA CRUZ, CA (June, 2011) - If you'd like to feel like a celebrity – albeit one with helmet hair – try riding a Segway. As my friend Maria and I discovered, zipping around town on these two-wheeled, stand-up vehicles is an invitation for public attention. Little kids smiled and waved. Walkers looked startled and then curious. At least one person took our picture. It was a fun and decidedly different way to explore Santa Cruz on a sunny summer day without ever breaking a sweat.
Our adventure began at the recently opened Segway Santa Cruz located across from Depot Park on the round-about. The two-hour tour started with a brief and unintentionally hilarious safety video. Since we weren't planning on riding down stairs or through bumpy, rock-strewn terrain, we figured it was safe to sign the waiver.
Then came the moment of truth. How hard would it be for a reasonably fit 40-something woman to balance on what looks like little more than a high-tech scooter? Would I fall on my face? Stepping up onto the platform, it became immediately clear that Segways really are self-balancing. Remarkably responsive, the machine moves forward with the slightest tilt of the hips. Lean back and it stops. Turning is as simple as bending to the left or right. Within minutes, our exuberant coach and company co-owner, Tami Buttenhoff, had the three members of our group threading through yellow cones and playing Red Light, Green Light to hone our skills.
The Segway PT, which stands for personal transporter, was introduced in 2001. Gyroscopic sensors in the base of the machine respond to shifts in weight to keep it upright. Inventor Dean Kamen saw it as an eco-friendly solution to urban congestion and a life-enhancing device for those with mobility issues. However, prohibitively high costs kept the machine from gaining widespread popularity. In 2009, the movie Mall Cop possibly did more harm than good to the brand, featuring a less-than-svelte Kevin James as a bumbling security guard who uses a Segway to fight mall mayhem. Such depictions reinforced criticism of the machine as the lazy man's excuse not to walk.
However, for those with mobility issues, the Segway is nothing less than a life-changing marvel. In 2004 Buttenhoff's mother, Chappell McPherson, had a double hip replacement. Looking to restore her physical independence, the women became hooked on the Segway. After several years working as Segway tour guides and distributors in Costa Rica, the mother-daughter duo opened Segway Santa Cruz on Memorial Day.
So there Maria and I were, just a week later, eager for a new adventure. After about 30 minutes of on-site practice we were off, traveling in the Pacific Avenue bike lane towards the river levee. The popular Westcliff Drive tour takes guests past the iconic boardwalk, wharf, lighthouse and surf museum. Riders in this group travel on the i2 Segway model, designed for indoor-outdoor use with a narrow wheel base for easy maneuverability. Maria and I were more interested in the less crowded river levee trail which winds along the San Lorenzo River towards the Tannery Arts Center. Members of this tour use the off-road x2 model with bigger tires and a wider stance.
It was exhilarating to glide along single-file with the sun in our faces. At first it was a challenge riding uphill because it didn't feel natural to lean forward. But soon I gained confidence and the ability to maintain a consistent speed regardless of terrain. We traversed back and forth over the river on pedestrian bridges. Lunchers gawked as we made a quick detour around the duck pond in San Lorenzo Park. The surprisingly quiet motors made it easy to chat as we sped past splashing water fowl and lazily sunning gophers.
"It's a great way to get out with Mother Nature," Buttenhoff told me when we stopped to stretch our legs. "They're quiet and comfortable so you get to enjoy the journey. You see three times the amount of things you would walking and you're not exhausted getting there!"
Feeling confident, we headed back towards town at no more than 12 miles per hour, careful to avoid oncoming bikers and pedestrians. According to Buttenhoff, the Segway is legally categorized as a mobility device rather than a motor vehicle, although use restrictions vary by state. In California users have the same rights as pedestrians and can travel in bike lanes, on sidewalks, and along roads. However, in a town where bike/car and hiker/biker issues are often contentious, not everyone was happy to share their little slice of blacktop with a motorized vehicle. While most pedestrians smiled at our mini parade, several bikers glowered and muttered unwelcoming remarks.
But don't let a few naysayers ruin your fun. Throw on some stable shoes, dress in layers in case the fog rolls in, and get a new perspective on our coastal community. Segways are a great way to share the natural beauty of Santa Cruz with those who can't walk or bike long distances. They would make for a memorable birthday party for adventurous teens. Best of all, they're plain old fun for those seeking a "staycation" activity close to home. Just be prepared to smile and wave at the paparazzi.