There’s something inherently silly about the Segway. The electric personal transporter was, after all, the vehicle of choice of the arrogant older brother and failed magician G.O.B. Bluth in the TV series “Arrested Development.” And it made ironic headlines in 2010 when the millionaire owner of the Segway company plummeted off a cliff to his death — on a Segway.
So when St. Michael’s College student Dennis Sullivan first spotted an opening at Burlington Segway Tours in his school’s summer-job listings, he says, “I burst out laughing.” It couldn’t be real, he thought. “But now I have a full-time job,” Sullivan says, wearing a red Burlington Segway Tours hoodie sweatshirt at the fledgling company’s Pine Street headquarters.
Sullivan is one of three interns who’ve been fully trained so far to lead Segway tours around the Queen City this summer. On a recent morning, he joins BST owners Rick Sharp and Ruth Masters to train another intern, Champlain College student Andrea Drag, and a curious reporter.
Sharp and Masters began offering the tours last March, and since then they’ve been giving out a lot of freebies, they say, just to get visibility. But they’ve had paid customers, too — a one-hour tour is $59; two hours is $89, plus a small park fee. Riders have come from as far away as Michigan, Masters says.
Sharp, the 60-year-old attorney and activist largely credited with creating the Burlington Bike Path, worked long and hard to get the city’s permission to lead Segway tours there. The Kiss administration didn’t like the idea, but Mayor Miro Weinberger’s administration has granted BST a one-year temporary permit. Sharp hopes it’s enough time to turn the community on to the Segway.
There’s a misconception, he says, that Segways are something “lazy, fat people ride on.” For Sharp, the transporter has been a life changer. In 1996, while paragliding in Mexico, he crashed into a cliff and was nearly paralyzed. He has had difficulty walking ever since, and riding a bike is out of the question. Four years ago, during a visit with Masters to Lincoln, N.H., he got his first ride on a Segway. Now, Sharp says, “I can go a lot of places I couldn’t go otherwise.”
Recently, here at Seven Days, we started noticing the BST groups gliding past on South Champlain Street — big helmets atop upright bodies making the riders look like bobblehead toys. Sure, it looked silly, but it also looked fun, so we decided to try it out.
BST HQ is decorated with brand-name swag — red sweatshirts, T-shirts and sunglasses — as well as old newspaper clippings and other memorabilia from the creation of the Burlington Bike Path. In a big garage below the office, 16 Segways — which cost more than $6000 a pop — are plugged in and charging up. Sharp and Masters also have six off-road Segways at their Milton property, Sharp Park. Sharp says the transporters can keep a charge for 24 miles, long enough to get one recent tour all the way to the Colchester Causeway bike path and back to Burlington.
Before riders hop on their Segways, they’re required to watch a safety video and sign a release form. “Everything we do here, we’re very cognizant of doing safely,” says Sharp. “And we yield to everything — people, bikes, dogs, frogs.”
I never thought riding a Segway could be dangerous — unless, of course, you’re involved in a freak accident like the unfortunate former company owner. But the safety video actually makes it look quite scary. Using snazzy animations, it shows a hapless stick figure getting launched from its Segway in a variety of directions and at different speeds after smashing into rocks and curbs or careening down slippery slopes.
So I’m prepared for the worst when I step onto my self-balancing, gyroscopic, zero-emissions chariot. Luckily, getting in tune with the Segway is easier than the video made it seem.
The key, Sharp says, is staying “steady-Eddie but loosey-goosey,” which means keeping your weight centered and your knees and muscles relaxed. The Segway moves forward when you lean forward; it stops when you lean back. To turn, all you need to do is gently tilt the handlebars in the direction you wish to go.
When we pull onto the beat-up pavement at the dead end of South Champlain Street, I start to get nervous and almost lose control. Masters asks, “Are you a skier?”
I nod and regain my balance. Going over cracks and railroad ties is like skiing over moguls, she says: Keep your knees bent.
I start to get the hang of it and suddenly find that I can’t stop smiling. As we’re cruising down Maple Street in single file, a guy walking toward us on the sidewalk flashes us a thumbs-up and a big grin. Wide-eyed kids point and stare. On Battery Street, a middle-aged woman rolls down her car window and shouts, “That looks like fun!”
Somewhere near the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival waterfront tent, after we’ve turned off “turtle mode” — the beginner setting that keeps the transporter from going any faster than 6 mph — I start to feel I’ve become one with the Segway. The wind rushes through my hair while I swerve subtly left to right — it feels as graceful as ice skating.
Each of us wears a small radio around our neck so that Sharp can point out various points of historical interest along the way, such as the Greek Revival Follett House, built in 1840 by Burlington merchant Timothy Follett — and the site, Sharp says, of legendary, Gatsby-style parties.
Just when I’m starting to get cocky, we head up a hill and practice stopping on a steep decline. I botch the lean-back movement and start to panic, nearly mowing down Sharp, who is demonstrating in front of me. Masters points out helpfully that the Segway’s sensors are in the foot pads — it’s best to think about the leaning as a heel-to-toe motion — and I get it the next time.
Sharp says Segway tours have caught on over the past several years in cities around the world. Still, he notes, New York City, Boston and San Francisco have all banned Segways from their sidewalks.
“If the problem is that the sidewalks are too narrow, make them wider,” he says. “We should not be dominated by the car.” Sharp is a proponent of small-scale environmental change, such as improving infrastructure for alternative transportation.
And it’s been a long battle. “When I first came to Burlington in 1978, you couldn’t [access] the water,” Sharp says during a group breather on the fishing pier. So he was thrilled to notice hundreds of bicycles parked at the waterfront for last summer’s Grand Point North music festival. “That says we’ve had a big success here,” he concludes.
If it were up to Sharp, gliding bobbleheads would be just as common as the two-wheelers.
Burlington Segway Tours is open Thursday through Monday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., or by appointment. One-hour tours are at 10 a.m., noon, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.; two-hour tours are at 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Info, 489-5113. burlingtonsegways.com
The original print version of this article was headlined "Electric Glide"