Showing Segway the Highway

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

Two months ago, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that about two-thirds of Americans are overweight. In the same vein, a former U.S. surgeon general recently chaired a fat summit at which everyone agreed that an ever-rising ocean of lard threatens Americans' health, finances, and pursuit of happiness. The U.S. Health and Human Services Department says the costs of a fat society total $117 billion a year.

And just last week a group called the California Center for Public Health Advocacy released a study showing that California children are fatter than they ever were. The proposed solution: physical education quotas for kids and "healthier" cafeteria food. Great idea: Make childhood more hellish in the name of slenderness; I'm sure kids will buy that.

On the front page of the Segway Web site, you'll find a link to a section headed "Improved Productivity. Greater Employee Value." The main feature of this Greater Employee Value page is a "productivity calculator" that works in the manner of the mortgage calculators you see on real estate Web sites. In one field of the calculator, a potential corporate buyer of Segways enters the number of miles an employee walks per day; the employee's annual salary goes in another. If a $30,000-per-year employee who walks two miles a day were to cease walking and ride a slightly faster-moving Segway over those miles (the machines are advertised as moving at 12 miles per hour), she would save the company $2,000 per year, the calculator suggests.

"Because every business is slightly different, bear in mind that this interactive tool is only meant to provide a general gauge of your company's savings," the site explains.

The armies of newspaper writers who've been writing fat-American stories during this summer and fall of lard have made a big deal of our country's greasy, starchy, and sugary diet. It's as if they'd never traveled to France, where people inhale fatty cheese, sauces, and pastries, or to China, where people shovel rice into their gullets by the bushel, or to Central America, where pupusas and beans and meat and plantains combine to form a diet of Carl's Jr. heft. But, mysteriously, those vigorous, active, energetic, and attractive people aren't nearly as fat as we are.

When fried together, the piles and piles of studies on how to stanch Americans' growing paunches reveal two essential truths: One, diets alone don't work, and regular, moderate exercise does; and two, it's monumentally difficult to get people to exercise regularly, over the years, unless active movement is made an ordinary part of day-to-day life.

Is it by accident that San Franciscans are far more physically attractive than residents of San Jose? I think not; in eight-lane-to-everywhere Silicon Valley, it's impossible to walk anywhere. Here, it's a relative breeze. In fact, in every western city except San Francisco, it's becoming incrementally less possible to get places under our own power.

Chris Daly, the supervisor who sponsored the Segway-sidewalk ban, is a man I disagree with fervently on most issues, but he's got his heart in the right place when it comes to keeping San Franciscans healthy. At the annual membership party of the Bicycle Coalition last week, a healthy and only mildly full-figured Daly promised to expand the city's network of bicycle lanes, a measure designed to increase the number of healthy San Franciscans (at present, they represent 3 percent of the commuting population) who ride to work.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who swims at Aquatic Park every morning, was also at the Coalition meeting. He had strategically moved to postpone the Segway vote until Monday, so that the mayor wouldn't be able to sneak in a veto while the supervisors are off on Christmas break. (By postponing the vote a week, the supes have time to override a possible mayoral veto when they return to work Jan. 13: Supervisors are given 30 days to respond to the mayor's action.)

The Bicycle Coalition had hoped Segway LLC would put its lobbying cash behind building more Segway-friendly bikeways. Segway demurred, preferring sidewalks. And so the Coalition (and the supervisors who support its work) decided to demur on Segway.

"The alternative-transportation movement in San Francisco is so strong that we're not fooled by them taking on the mantle of alternative transportation. That's perhaps going to work in towns that don't understand what alternate transportation is about. But here, we understand what sidewalks are about, and we understand what it's about to crowd pedestrians," says Dave Snyder of Transportation for a Livable City. "Within the last year there's a whole new emphasis on how exercise is most effective when it's achieved as people go about their normal lives. Billions of dollars are spent having people go to health clubs. But they're finally coming around to realizing that the way our neighborhoods are structured, there is no way to get exercise.

"Walking to work, walking to the store, riding your bicycle is the way to get Americans more active."

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