April 18, 2003

University Bans Use of Segway

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The Segway Human Transporter claims to be the world’s first self-balancing, electric-powered personal transportation device. Vice President Dick Cheney has used one, as have park rangers and postal workers in various cities across the United States. Its inventor, Dean Kamen, promises it will revolutionize how people get from place to place.

But not at Cornell, at least in the near future.

Phil Karnofsky ’06 found this out when he approached Cornell Transportation Services (CTS) about using his recently purchased Segway on campus. After a meeting with representatives from Cornell University Police Department, the Judicial Administrator’s office, Environmental Health and Safety and the Risk Management office, Susan Powell, CTS’s special programs manager, gave Karnofsky the news.

“I am unable to offer even temporary authorization to operate your Segway on campus. [If] you choose to ride it on campus at all, you [risk] being cited for violations of state and municipal law,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Powell cited existing traffic laws, which allow for “electrically-driven mobility assistance devices” on sidewalks only if the operator has a disability. Additionally, Powell noted, the Segway does not yet meet existing qualifications as a motor vehicle, as there are no standardized provisions for its registration, insurance or safety equipment.

According to Powell, Cornell’s hands are tied. New York has yet to join the over 30 states which have passed Segway-friendly legislation.

“Once there’s a law from the state legislature, we can work with that,” Powell said.

Resolutions qualifying a “Segwayer” as a pedestrian were proposed in both the New York State Assembly and Senate, and both were referred to each body’s transportation committee.

Even if such resolutions are passed, “the picture may or may not change,” Powell wrote.

Mike Katz of Ithaca’s Sciencenter sympathized with Karnofsky’s woes.

“It’s technology moving faster than legislators,” he said.

Pennsylvania recently passed legislation allowing Segways to be used on pedestrian walkways, but at Penn State University the administration opted to ban the devices anyway. Powell said Cornell would likely contact Penn State and other universities about Segways, but that the University would also look at how the devices fit into existing campus traffic patterns.

When inline skates became popular, Cornell went through a similar process, Powell noted. After determining that existing traffic patterns made it unsafe for skaters to use roadways, the University allowed them on sidewalks instead.

Karnofsky shelled out more than $5,000 for the vehicle instead of buying himself a motorcycle. The first three Segways available for purchase sold for considerably more, a combined $364,800, with profits going to charity.

Karnofsky cannot return the Segway “because they only accept unopened returns,” and he is “not allowed to sell it for a few months [due to] the terms and conditions of the sale.”

He lamented that “having it just sit in my room is a big disappointment. [The] way it’s looking, I probably won’t be able to ride it while I’m at Cornell.”

Yesterday, in front of Founders Hall, Karnofsky gave a demonstration of his Segway. Nearly every student passing by stopped to gawk, ask questions and try it out.

The Segway looks like a plastic upright push lawnmower with a platform between the two wheels. As the rider leans, so goes the device, up to a speed of 12 miles per hour. It weighs about 90 pounds and can turn on a dime by twisting part of the handlebar. There are no brakes — leaning back stops the device’s forward movement.

“It’s supposed to be an extension of your body, to mimic its movements,” Karnofsky said. “All you’ve got to do is stay loose.”

Karnofsky believes that the Segway is “just as pedestrian as a motorized wheelchair,” occupies less space and is easier to control. It is designed to go in any building that is wheelchair-accessible and even uses its wheels’ traction to grip onto stairs, making it easier to drag up several floors.

Around 20 students tried the Segway yesterday. Aryeh Kaplan ’04 came up with the most creative application for the device.

“I could joust with this thing,” Kaplan noted.

One way to acquire a Segway for less than its list price is to enter the Ithaca Sciencenter’s raffle to be held on June 27.

Archived article by Dan Galindo