How the Segway didn't change the world

The hype around this was incredible, I haven’t seen anything like it since. It was getting the level of hype that maybe would be appropriate for something like… inventing electricity.

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Having moved from the UK to Canada and I’m now butting up against the extremely car-centric design of life here. It seems quite obvious that there’s a bunch of things that need to change, top of the list is with the way planning and zoning are handled to return to older mixed use approaches, so that you’re not intentionally creating vast residential deserts that necessitates car journeys for something as simple as getting a cup of coffee with a friend or grabbing some essentials from a small, local grocery store.

It’s no surprise that the most desirable and pleasant parts of towns and cities across all of North America are almost always parts that were built pre-1920s. Primary reason? They haven’t allowed the motor vehicle to dictate urban design and so they are more likely to be mixed use and laid out in a human scale that makes it easier for people to walk to work, socialise, or to buy regular goods.

A lot needs to change, some of it at the legislative level to knock down these damaging zoning practices and to kill off plain stupid travel rules such as “right on red” which simply shouldn’t be allowed to exist. It forces pedestrians and cars into the same space and betrays the mentality that everything is a second class mode of transport before the almighty car.

I found myself in an argument with someone regarding the city I’ve moved to. There is a prominent property developer here who is known for buying landmark properties and then leaving them empty because “there’s not enough parking in the downtown”. I argued there was too much parking and not enough viable alternatives for getting customers and workers into and out of the city core, that if you went onto google maps and took a screen cap of the downtown core then coloured in all of the parking, you’d see it was pretty much 50% surface parking. That is hugely damaging, not just from an urban cohesity PoV, but gives off the impression of 1970s/80s NYC decay that actively turns people away from going into the core because it doesn’t feel safe.

Then they pulled out the hideous North American attitude that “those using public transport aren’t the types of people the city needs or wants coming into the downtown”… get tae fuck with that sentiment. As someone who has grown up within Europe and the constant benefit that public transport does across the continent it just dumbstruck me how wedded people are to their cars that they would think this way. When I asked them how would increasing parking spaces in the downtown area improve the city for people who can’t drive, they deleted all their comments.

While I’m here, I will continue to champion public transport and better urban planning to eliminate car journeys, because every time you do it has a net positive to the town or city it happens within. Health is improved, maintenance bills for the municipality are reduced, inequality is reduced, economic activity is increased, places become nicer to live in, cities become more vibrant and attractive.

There’s literally zero downsides to taking an approach of grudging acceptance towards cars, where you tolerate their presence only until there is a reasonable alternative that can be introduced.


The inventor has had some great ideas. But marketing isn’t his forte.

I disagree. The hype he generated off of a scooter with a self-balancing algorithm that first-year mechanical engineers program as an exercise was phenomenal. We are still talking about it today. And clearly, with all the varieties of scooters and hoverboards out there, it was an idea many others have made money off. Maybe he is like the wright brothers, who were essentially out of the aviation business by WWI. Maybe he was ahead of his time, or maybe just a poor business person, but his ability to market a mundane idea as something revolutionary rivals Jobs and Musk. Of course, one might argue that marketing is more than just building buzz, it is finding a customer and converting sales and delivering a product, which Jobs and Musk did/do just fine, but Kamen was not really able to accomplish.


Easy there. That’s a broad brush you’re painting with. Every single Canadian and American I know very much wants more and better public transit everywhere. Having lived in both countries for 25 years a piece, the will of the people is not the problem. It’s a lot more complicated than “North Americans hate poor people”




I wasn’t meaning it to suggest everyone on the continent has that attitude, but it is one you are far more likely to encounter here vs in Europe or Asia, where public transport is a lot more normalised and orders of magnitude more pervasive. It’s notable that you are far less likely to encounter it in places like NYC or Chicago, where the infrastructure is actually there (NYC Subway problems aside, which are the fault of underfunding and political shenanigans that residents of the city just want them to stop doing and fix that shit so it works better for them).

Partly because of the use of cars as a proxy for status and partly because “people don’t like public transport because it’s horrible, so why fund it” but it’s bad because it’s not getting the funding it needs, lending itself to a recursive loop and becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy that “only the poor use public transport”.


Still more convenient than air travel.

Understood, but try and take a sympathetic view of the entire history of the situation. We’ve got cities that were mostly developed back when cars seemed like a flawlessly great idea and it’s extremely expensive to go back and add transit now. Canada is the second largest country in the world with one of the smallest populations of a developed country. That’s extremely low density and small tax base with which to try and tackle huge infrastructure projects. In the US, the entire business structure of heavy rail systems makes improving passenger service basically impossible without going crazy with eminent domain. Again, those were structures put in place hundreds of years ago that are difficult to change now. Many cities are doing great work here. Toronto and Montreal have quite good subways. The Los Angeles metro is excellent, but doesn’t yet cover enough of the city. However a huge expansion is under way as we speak with Expo and Purple. Those systems cost a million dollars a mile to build and we’re trying to cover metro areas larger than some European countries. Progress is measured in inches and it’ll be decades to full completion. But people are trying.

Writing off the entire continent as ignorant car culture snobs is rather unfair to the history of the places you have apparently chosen to now live.


Canada being the 2nd largest country is something that I have made a point of keeping in mind when I think about the how and why some things are the way they are (such as the prevalence of pickup trucks, which makes sense when you think about the sheer wilderness available to you), since the trite saying “Europeans think 100 miles is a long way while North Americans think 100 years is a long time” is still very true from a mindset PoV, though I also keep in mind that about 50% of all Canadians exist within a corridor of land comparable to a large European country, which helps with the mental abstraction of the problem at hand, namely the efficient movement of people within and between major urban centres. When I talk about public transport in Canada, it’s not from “why isn’t there better service between Montreal and Vancouver”, it’s from the thought of “why are there less than 3 trains per hour between the largest city in Canada and cities of 200,000 to 700,000 within a few hundred miles of it”. The Quebec-Windsor corridor is Canada’s version of the Boston-Washington one in the US or the Edinburgh-London one in the UK, just a bit scaled down for populations but still packing a decent enough density of people.

That there are only a handful of train services between major cities in southern Ontario is hugely problematic, the history of why it’s this way is mainly due to ownership of rail lines, since they’re freight owned and so passenger services are an after-thought and suffer from lower priority to getting huge freight trains and their goods across the country. A territory as big as Canada is a legit logistical nightmare when it comes to operating supply chains so within that context I can appreciate my bleating about public transport can come off as being from a privileged position.

The obvious solution would be to build dedicated passenger lines, but as you say that’s an expensive endevour when it either means compulsory purchases and tearing down of established city centre properties or just as/more expensive tunnelling to get trains in and out. That’s on top of environmental concerns, as those rails would likely cut right across important sites for biodiversity. The issues with politicians basically ripping out and turning down a lot of these proposals (such as the high speed rail line between Windsor and Quebec that was recommended by the study) means it usually devolves into a farcical “let’s do it” and “let’s not” tug-o-war between political ideologies. Thanks Dougie.

I’m not totally ignorant of the history that influences much of the why things are the way they are here (tho there’s still much I don’t know), but I’m also coming from a position where I know many of the fundamental positions against doing anything to improve things that I’ve had used against me when I’ve debated this are simply false because I’ve lived it. Such as the aforementioned “the problems with downtown won’t be fixed by making it easier to get into the core for the types of people who use buses to get into town. Just build more car parking spaces.”. You can’t solve traffic problems with building more traffic capacity and it doesn’t help everyone because those who can’t drive are still left disconnected from their cities and the opportunities within. And that is an attitude that, in my experience, is far more common here than in places outside of North America.


Here’s the problem with the differences you’ve experienced:



A Quebec-Windsor rail line is roughly equiv to one from Nuremberg to Bordeaux, with a little bit of a rough sketch that I dribbled out using google maps at the same zoom level as a further aide to scale. It’s certainly not impossible to make a reality. Just very expensive,

Cities it could serve:
Quebec City - 705,103
Montreal - 3,519,595
Ottawa - 989,657
Toronto/Mississauga - 5,429,524
Hamilton - 693,645
(Maybe) Guelph - 132,397
(Maybe) Kitchener - 470,015
London - 383,437
Chatam - 43,550
Windsor - 287,069

That’s 12.65m people covered by those cities listed above.

With local commuter lines acting as spokes to some of those hubs, you’d be able to phase in an even larger amount of coverage.
The numbers are there to support it, from what I can tell it’s the will to spend not the money but the political capital (aka votes) on such an expensive bit of infrastructure.


Not in my back yard! /hs

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Change one person’s world…


“Did I kill the Segway?”
No, it was stillborn.
A foolish idea from the start.

Do you see any way to carry things other than in a backpack? That silly little basket is all but useless for anything beyond a muffin or sunglasses.

Even mopeds, motor scooters of the Vespa variety and bicycles have cargo capabilities.

Do you see people demanding more places to stand for long rides on the bus or subway as opposed to taking a seat?

Care to go shopping using one or even pick up a lunch to go? Let’s see you ride one while holding a Bento box and a cup of tea.

Even around a huge campus like Apple, want to carry your laptop or briefing papers or a prototype design someplace else?

No, the idea was obviously not going to change the word when viewed dispassionately by a neutral observer or someone handicapped, or overweight or pregnant or aged or people who cannot stand for long periods or use a cane or crutches.

“Entire cities will be redesigned around the Segway!” was purest hubris and the gods responded as they usually do to such flights of ego.

You cannot kill that which was never alive from its conception.


There are many reasons that the Segway was not a success, but there were versions available that had cargo capabilities on par with bicycle saddle bags. And most people with bikes don’t have saddle bags mounted anyway.


First I have ever heard or seen those panniers for the thing. I live in a city that is pretty bicycle friendly and lots of bikes have cargo carrying capacity: front/rear baskets/panniers or even small trailers hauling kids or golf bags/dogs what have you.

Given the cost of a Segway starts at the price of a mid range Vespa I cannot imagine those doodads are cheap either.

Still seems a rich person’s toy at best.


No argument there. It was never going to live up to the extreme hype under any circumstances, but I think the price tag at the time of release is the #1 reason that it didn’t have at least the modesty widespread usage we’ve seen for those electric hoverboard toys or trendy stand-up electric scooters that litter sidewalks in city centers.