The Segway Cheaper than therapy and just as effective

If you haven’t noticed, D.C. can be a serious place full of important people with weighty matters on their minds. Gray is in, red is daring and purple is almost scandalous as staffers mill dutifully in and out of Capitol buildings.

But with spring, blossoms and the sun shining down, the uptight vibe is enough to make even the most strait-laced among us want to do something out of the ordinary.
Patrick g. Ryan
City Segway gives five-hour tours for $65.

Enter the Segway. A single ride on one of these two-wheeled, environmentally friendly, $4,500-a-pop machines and you’ll feel so carefree it’s downright Californian.

Fortunately, because of the recent arrival of City Segway Tours, you don’t have to forgo food or save pennies to get on one either. For $65 you can spend five hours making a spectacle of yourself and enjoying every minute of it. Honestly, it’s cheaper than an hour of therapy and five times as fun.

City Segway — and its pod of 20 Segways — arrived on the D.C. scene last September, the latest offshoot of a Paris-based company that also runs tours in Atlanta, Chicago and New Orleans.

When it first began, the City Segway operators worked out of a trailer, shuttling to various meeting points as they familiarized themselves with the maze of D.C. ordinances and jurisdictions.

“The Park Service has been great,” says operations manager Brian McNeal, a former special-education teacher who stumbled onto the job opening on Craigslist last November. “But they [Park Service officials] are cautious. [Segways] are still such a novelty they’re still afraid that someone who gets on them is going to fall off.” Which is why City Segway has its own lobbyist and is working closely with the Park Service as it completes a study related to concession use of the Capitol’s public spaces.

After months of searching, City Segs finally settled into a small office at the Willard InterContinental hotel, a location that, according to McNeal, has its pros and cons. The hotel is historic and beautiful, but the office opens onto a terrace that serves as a popular spot for receptions. With a grimace, McNeal recalls returning with a tour only to find the terrace filled with wedding guests. “They weren’t too happy with us,” he says, grinning.

In flip-flops, a City Segway T-shirt and a Salt Lake City Olympics baseball hat, McNeal looks as if he just awoke from a nap on the beach. He patiently watches as one of the members of the evening tour — Peter Hagan, visiting from Houlton, Maine — drives into a wall, calling out a lightly delivered suggestion that it is best not to run into things.

Peter’s father, Gary, buzzes jerkily back and forth across the terrace toward his son, his bike helmet flopping slightly to the left. His face registers a mixture of boyish glee and fatherly concern.

Stepping up onto my own machine and thinking of the sidewalks outside crowded with tourists and streets filled with aggressive drivers, I begin to question my sanity. And yet, after proving I could turn on a dime — one of two legal requirements guiding Segway behavior in D.C., the other being that you have to be over 16 — I find my “Seg” to be both easy and fun to ride. Within minutes I have mentally committed to taking my brother, parents and any visiting friend to on a tour.

After 10 minutes of navigating the Willard’s flowerpots, our guide, Dylan French, a junior at American University, leads us out onto F Street going toward Chinatown. Any initial feeling of embarrassment soon dissipates as it becomes clear that no one is going to crash. In turn, the ridiculous machines inspire instant popularity — if you’re riding around on a Seg, chances are you’re going to make a few friends along the way.

The evening tour — beginning at 6 — takes you down F Street to 9th Street and eventually to Constitution Avenue. Various stops are made along the way to introduce significant D.C. sights: Ford’s Theatre, FBI headquarters, the Canadian Embassy (which, if you didn’t know, has an echo chamber). French keeps up a steady buzz of historical information throughout, throwing in the occasional bad joke and anecdote from past tours.

“The mix of people is 50-50,” he says, referring to the ratio of locals to tourists who take the tour; the evening before, he had taken out a bunch of construction contractors who had worked on the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.
The tour heads to the Capitol, and from there it goes down Independence Avenue, crosses the Mall and continues down to the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. Somewhere along the way, everyone is promoted to the second key — which bumps up the speed and makes you feel as if you could take on George Oscar Bluth in Fox’s “Arrested Development.”

“This is a wonderful way to look at a lot of the city,” says a flushed Hagan Sr. as I leave them on 13th Street to continue their tour. “It’s outdoor, and you’re not in a stinky old bus.” His son nods, spinning his controls, eager to get moving again. Neither is shaky anymore.

There are a variety of tours and groups. McNeil aims to get all 20 Segs out every day and says there has been so much interest that he often has to turn people away. His plan is to set up a dinner tour that stops at various restaurants for appetizers, dinner, dessert and drinks at the end.

And, in spite of President Bush’s Segway mishap in 2003, in which our nation’s fearless leader flipped over the handlebars, McNeil still hopes to tempt the White House staff.