Scenic Scooting

atie Holland

Riding a Segway through downtown Chicago with City Segway Tours is something like becoming a celebrity – or falling out of a science fiction movie.

Although the intoxicated Bears fans voiced their opinions loudest, my Segway tour turned the heads of nearly everyone on the sidewalk. People pointed, laughed and waved. Tourists took our pictures. One guy leaned clear out of his bus window and offered us $20 to take our hands off the handlebars and wave back at him.

“People generally sort of turn and have that look of amazement on their faces,” says Deena Bogan, city operations manager for City Segway Tours. “I like to call it the ‘Segway smile.'”

In the span of three hours, I became something of a Segway-riding expert, met a group of interesting people and saw Chicago from a whole new perspective. Chicago is known for its boat tours, and tours on buses are available just about anywhere, but a tour on a Segway is a unique concept. Cruising around Chicago on a Segway for the afternoon left me with great stories to impress my friends – and a personal experience with an up-and-coming technology that’s growing in popularity around the country.

After meeting our guide at the Adler Planetarium, my group got to know each other pretty quickly. People joked and pretended to snore through the goofy information video, and everyone seemed open to making new friends during our few hours together. But before we were allowed to go anywhere, we had to learn how to use the machines without crashing into soccer moms on Museum Campus.

A Segway Human Transporter is a futuristic scooter-type machine that looks like it belongs on a set for a movie around the year 2050. It stands about four-and-a-half feet tall with a pair of 19-inch tires. The rider stands on a self-balancing platform about eight inches off the ground and the handlebar telescopes to accommodate the rider’s height.

Inside the platform, five electrically powered gyroscopes are constantly at work balancing the rider’s weight to keep the platform in dynamic stabilization. According to Bogan, only three gyroscopes should be needed at any point, but the extra two are there just in case. The gyroscopes are operated by the central computer which connects to a motor inside the Segway. The platform senses motion, so when the rider leans forward or backward, the scooter moves accordingly.

Segway inventor Dean Kamen created the machines for personal transportation and professional use, but touring Chicago on one of these scooters is entirely for entertainment purposes. Proponents for their eventual daily use point out that Segways are safe, completely pollution-free, can travel on a variety of surfaces and can handle gentle slopes of up to 20 degrees. Plus, they are just plain fun to ride – sort of an expensive toy for adults.

At first, stepping on the Segway was a little disconcerting. Our tour guide, Katie Harris, warned us beforehand that it was important to step carefully onto the machine and keep it as steady as possible. She held the handlebars to prevent me from moving, but I could feel the gyroscopes working beneath my feet, adjusting to compensate for my motion. It feels a little bit like stepping into a small boat that tips and rocks with every movement. As long as I kept my knees slightly bent and stood straight, though, the machine stayed relatively still. I practiced getting on and off a few times, but it didn’t take long to learn how to do it without flailing about in panic.

The informational video we were required to watch before setting foot on the Segways told us that although it takes people months or years to learn how to walk or ride a bike, Segways take less than an hour to master. I wasn’t sure I believed it. Harris was patient, though, and within a few minutes, I felt comfortable gliding through pedestrian-heavy traffic on my Segway.

Once I got used to the feel of the gyroscopes in the scooter, it was sort of like the Segway was reading my mind. It responded impeccably well and barely required any movement at all on my part to make the scooter go forward. I would think about moving forward, subconsciously transfer some weight into my toes, and begin to roll gently forward. The scooters don’t have any kind of braking system, so the rider has to lean in the opposite direction from the way they are traveling to slow down. A rotating grip on the left handle twists to turn the scooter left and right. The Segway spins right in place and turns more easily the faster the rider is moving.

With personal instruction from Harris, each of my fellow tourists quickly learned the basics of Segway riding and then began to cruise around in front of the planetarium to get some practice. City Segway Tours limits their group size to eight riders to ensure an intimate environment and make sure that guests don’t have to wait too long to get their personal instruction.

“When I first started, I was a little tense and it was harder to do,” said Jerry Jackson, a West Virginian who was visiting Chicago for the weekend with his wife, Lori. “Once I relaxed, it was easy. It’s so easy, even people from West Virgina can do it.”

Lori was one of the last members of our group to get her lesson, and she looked a little nervous waiting for her turn. She joked that her Segway – named Poseidon by the tour company – just might land her in Lake Michigan if she wasn’t careful. As soon as she got on the machine, though, she was perfectly fine. She said many years of skiing taught her to lean into her turns, and Harris even awarded her “style points” for good posture on her stops.

The Jacksons were enthusiastic about the tour, and I enjoyed talking to them along the way. I even walked the mile and a half back to the El with them after the tour while we swapped restaurant suggestions.

There were a few minor mishaps during the learning session – one man misjudged the distance between his Segway’s wheels and a stone bench and stumbled off the platform – but no injuries or major traumas. Liability issues necessitate helmets for all riders, so we looked a little nerdy, but our guide promised that no one had ever been injured on one of her tours.

Segways have three different keys – black, yellow and red – that regulate how fast the scooter can travel. That is, if you consider “fast” to be peeling out at up to 12 mph. If the rider tries to exceed the maximum speed allowed by the key they are using, the Segway automatically straightens itself and slows down. Starting off with the black beginner key, we could only go about five miles per hour – more than fast enough for a first-time rider. After we rode for awhile, Harris graduated us to the yellow and red keys.

Once we got going, I was surprised how much distance we were able to cover during the course of our tour. In fact, that’s one of the major advantages of a tour on Segways compared to a walking tour.

“You can cover more ground on a Segway than you can on foot before you get tired,” Bogan says. “You get a more personal, up-close view of the city.”

The tour launched from Adler Planetarium and took us through Museum Campus, past Shedd Aquarium and the Field Museum of Natural History. We traveled all around Grant Park, wheeled across the stage of the Petrillo Band Shell and perused the symmetrical, Versailles-style gardens that were still bursting with color in the late-September afternoon light.

I’ll admit that I felt a little bit silly scooting along the sidewalk while cars full of staring Bears fans were backing up the streets for miles, but I enjoyed myself nonetheless.

Every so often, Harris would stop us for a few minutes to give us a chance to stretch and move around on solid ground, because we were basically standing still on the Segways while we were moving. With her day job at the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau, Harris was knowledgeable on the history and places of interest in Chicago and answered any questions our group could come up with.

We made it up to Buckingha
m Fountain in Grant Park just in time to catch the hourly water show. Harris spouted some interesting facts about Chicago architecture while we watched a few million gallons of water gush out of the marble and bronze fountain.

Since Segways are only allowed in Millenium Park for security personnel, Harris filled us in on the park’s attractions from the outside. On the way, we took our Segways along the sailboat-filled waterfront past Queen’s Landing and back up the peninsula to the Planetarium.

At the end, Harris offered us the chance to try out the red key and take a spin around the planetarium. A couple of middle aged guys from New York who were on the tour had had enough by then, but the Jacksons jumped at the chance to try the full range of Segway speed. We zoomed around for a few minutes giggling like little kids with new toys before consenting to letting Harris put the scooters away.

During the entire tour, the sky was threatening rain, but we managed to beat the weather. Segway tours run rain or shine as long as there is no lightning, but I can’t imagine that it would be a whole lot of fun getting pelted with rain for three hours, even with the stylish ponchos the tour company provides.

Because Chicago winters are less than ideal for an outdoor tour, City Segway Tours only run April through October. The Chicago office started giving tours in July 2004, but they also have other locations around the world including Atlanta; Budapest, Hungary; Paris, France; Vienna, Austria; and Washington, D.C.

For a college student, $65 is a heavy price to pay for a tour, but the people on my tour didn’t seem to mind. “If you break it down over the three hours, the $65 wasn’t all that outrageous,” Lori Jackson said. “Our kids would love this. We would recommend it in a minute.”

As a college student, I would save the tour for a weekend when my parents were visiting. The tour is great for anyone over the age of 12 who wants to experience Chicago in a new way.

For more information on City Segway Tours, call (877) 734-8687 or visit www.citysegwaytours.com.4

Medill sophomore Katie Holland is a PLAY writer. She can be reached at [email protected]