Showing Segway the Highway

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

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.

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