WANT TO cover a lot of ground quickly on a personal tour mobile? Then consider cruising our fair city atop a Segway HT (human transporter). City Segway Tours offers four-hour daytime or evening tours circling the Mall through Nov. 30.
The District provides ideal cruising grounds for Segways because it has the best disability access in the world, according to Brian McNeil, manager of the Washington office, which began offering tours in March. The company also conducts tours in Chicago, San Francisco and Paris, to name a few cities.
Because it was high summer and I didn't feel like dodging a lot of stray tourists, I chose the quieter evening tour. About a dozen corralled Segways rested against walls or with their handlebars on the pavement as I approached our starting point next to the Willard InterContinental Hotel. I had seen only pictures of these newfangled machines, and I couldn't wait to climb atop one.
The tours began with a half-hour orientation and training session to learn how to maneuver on sidewalks and around pedestrians. McNeil chose Kristi Jacobson, who was visiting Washington with her husband and 16-year-old son from Calgary, Canada, to be the first rider. Clearly no daredevil, Jacobson soon mastered the mechanics and was practicing her forward and backward motion. "If she can do it . . . " we were all thinking as we strapped on our helmets.
Segways, according to McNeil, have the technological equivalent of three computers inside to read your slightest movements and, thus, your desires. In other words, the Segway seeks to become one with your body. Lean forward and the wheels roll forward. Lean back and you'll stop. Keep leaning back and you'll zip backward.
Our guide, Sven Romberg, started us out at the slowest setting of 6 mph, an "old jalopy" speed that would limit our ability to hurt ourselves or others. Jacobson's son, Tyler, was soon accelerating to make circles around his mother, but she held her own.
With a flicker of trepidation, I touched one of my disk-shaped keys to the starter while Romberg held the Segway steady. I made sure the platform was level with the ground, took hold of the handlebars and stepped onto the foot pads. I leaned forward and rolled. I leaned back for a quick stop. When I was ready to turn, I twisted the left handle in the direction I wished to go. This was a cinch.
We were now confident, but McNeil and Romberg reminded us that accidents, such as dropping off a curb or step, could happen. (We had to sign waivers and promise to pay for any damages we caused.) We were to make "truck turns" and remember that we were now widest at our wheels rather than at our shoulders.
"You won't fall off the Segway unless you let go of the handlebars," McNeil said. "It won't let you."
Hmmm . . . a machine smarter than its rider? Our group was made up of nine riders from age 16 to mid-sixties, and our styles of riding varied accordingly. I fell somewhere between the teenager and the retirees.
"You guys ready to roll?" Romberg asked. This phrase was the top refrain of our trip. We followed Romberg single file down Pennsylvania Avenue and toward the Mall. Segways are not allowed on the Mall, so our tour skirted its outer boundary but still gave us ample views and photo ops.
At first, it was a bit tricky to maneuver between those enormous flower pots that adorn so many corners or around those charming security barriers. Also, Segways don't jump curbs, so we had to angle the wheels down the ramp section of each crosswalk. We had to cross streets single file, so our whole group didn't always make it before the light turned. But Romberg assured us all that we were in no hurry and that safety was paramount.
As we made our way past the National Archives, across the Mall and up Independence Avenue toward the Capitol, Romberg was happy to let us ride in silence, although he had an array of monumental facts and city anecdotes at the ready should we seem eager to listen. Most of the riders were tourists, so we stopped frequently as Romberg shared his knowledge and some lighter observations, such as this one outside the National Air and Space Museum: "They had to build an annex because they ran out of air and space." Har, har.
About an hour into our tour, Romberg let us ramp it up a notch and restart our machines with a second key -- the "sedan" key -- that would let us go 8 mph. I could feel the speed change and greatly appreciated the breeze as we zipped in front of the Capitol. The waning sun shone orange through the midsummer haze. "It's amazing how comfortable you get on these at this point," Kristi Jacobson said.
I looked around. Everyone seemed completely at ease. Romberg, though, reminded us to step off if we wanted to take pictures. Most people have a tendency to lean backward while shooting, which could be disastrous atop a Segway. Romberg was happy to play photographer for our shots.
Segways are still a rarity on Washington streets, so the spectacle we created was half the fun. Necks crane, pedestrians halt and the world pauses a moment to take in your ride. You can't help smiling. It's great fun to rock gently as you come to a quick stop or to do a 360-degree turn in place while walkers gawk. Outside the FBI building, we formed a line and zigzagged expertly through a long line of trees.
As dusk fell, we admired the alabaster glow of the city at night. For the last leg of the tour, we parked our machines and strolled toward the National World War II Memorial. My legs felt wobbly after riding for nearly three hours, but the illuminated monuments beckoned. I was surprised how crowded these monuments are at night, but I soon understood why. The nighttime view of the city from the steps of Lincoln Memorial was spectacular. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was even more solemn in darkness.
Tired and sweaty -- it was much cooler to ride than walk -- we headed back to our pile of Segways. I stepped atop eagerly and did some quick, show-off spins before our last roll through the city.
CITY SEGWAY TOURS -- 1455 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, in the upper courtyard of the Willard InterContinental Hotel. Reservations are required. Call 877-734-8687 or visit www.citysegwaytours.com/washington. The four-hour tours run from March 1 to Nov. 30 at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Tours cost $65, and riders must be age 16 and older. Pregnant women may not take the tour.