TCS Daily

Radiant City Redux

By Edward B. Driscoll - April 16, 2002 12:00 AM

Having spent about twenty minutes cruising around on a Segway, that scooter-like device that's been hyped up and down the Internet and TV, I can safely say that it's a technological marvel. But what its designers want to do to the urban areas that it will operate in, is yet another attempt to build a utopian city, much like Le Corbusier's ill-conceived efforts, 70 years ago.

The Segway's designers say that the technology in its chassis has the computing power of three Pentium computers, with ten computing processors controlling five electronic gyroscopes. And it is remarkably intuitive. I haven't been on a bicycle, motorcycle or skateboard in almost twenty years, yet after about thirty seconds, I had no problem balancing myself on the Segway. Or more accurately, the Segway had no problem balancing me. According to Segway's tests, that technology is also robust enough to handle wet and frozen road conditions with ease.

But here's the rub, who wants to be exposed to those conditions? In Tampa, where the post office is testing Segways for their mailmen, they have taken to bolting umbrellas to them for rainy days. Me? On a rainy or snowy day, I'd rather turn the heater up, the CD player up, and roll the windows up, in my Dodge Intrepid. And I'll bet, for a very, very long time to come, so will the vast majority of Americans.

The Big, Big Bet

And that's the big, big bet, one that the folks at Segway are taking the opposite side of. Naturally, having designed an amazing piece of technology, the Segway's builders want to sell as many of them as possible. While he stresses that Segway doesn't want to eliminate cars, at least for city to city drives, Dr. Gary Bridge, Segway's vice president of marketing says, "35 percent of the average surface area of cities in the United States is covered by cars, most of which aren't moving: most of it's parking.

"Well, what if we left them on the perimeter of the city, a mile out even, in land that isn't worth anything, because it doesn't have the density of traffic by it, and you ride your Segway in. So we're in conversations with Atlanta, around how they could put literally thousands of Segways in areas that they want more people in, without having to bring the cars in, and they'll basically give them to you free in one theory, one dream. And you'd go down and basically learn how to ride it, get a key (and they're all unique keys-over a billion encrypted codes) and you'd take your key and when you came to that area, you'd be entitled to drive one."

Turning the Radiant City on its Head

To understand why Segway's vision of a technological utopia is nothing new, it helps to remember Le Corbusier's Radiant City concept of the 1930s. As an architect, Corbu created amazing forms for his buildings, first sleek and streamlined, and later in his career, complex and busy in a mathematical, Arnold Schoenberg, 12-tone dissonant music sort of way. But he was an absolutely diabolical urban planner, attempting to radically reshape urban environments for the automobile, the great technological wonder of the early 20th century.

One of his goals was to banish the sidewalk from the Radiant City, because it was messy, smelly, crowded and unorganized. Instead, cars would glide through on gleaming overpasses and speedy freeways, departing from gleaming white apartment buildings sequestered in verdant parks of grass, trees and vegetation in the residential end of town, and arriving at their destination: gleaming white skyscrapers sequestered in verdant parks full of grass, trees and other vegetation at the business end of town.

This was the model of urban renewal in post-World War II America, right up until the late 1960s, and it was disastrous. As Jane Jacobs wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Vintage Books) and Peter Blake in Form Follows Fiasco, (Little Brown & Co), Corbu confused clutter with life and vitality. And while it looked pretty on paper, when Corbusier's urban planning concepts were implemented, urban renewal projects, without a city street full of people watching their kids, and watching out for each other, quickly turned into crime-filled, no-man's lands of drugs, rapes and muggings. It took until the mid-1970s, when monstrous developments such as St. Louis's Pruit-Igoe began to be dynamited, and rebuilt in more human friendly forms, for that paradigm to finally, grudgingly be abandoned.

Segway's vision takes the Radiant City full circle: Instead of reorganizing the city for the car, we reorganize it for the Segway. The car is banished. Streets, if they exist at all, will only be used for mass transit - and, of course, the Segway. As Bridge says, individuals would park their cars in greenbelt areas outside the city and glide in on their Segways. Never mind that it still hasn't been proven that people will actually buy the Segway, its builders are already in talks with city governments (Atlanta seems to be particularly keen on the Segway concept for some reason) to almost insure that they will have no choice. And if they don't, maybe the city government will buy a fleet of them and let individuals rent them.

The Rolling Rorschach Test

In urban areas of California, where it's sunny six to eight months of the year, this might possibly work (and it would be a boon to sun block sales, as health-crazed Californians probably would not want to get melanomas on their daily Segway glides into work), but on the east coast, where the weather seemingly changes every 15 minutes, it sounds like an invitation to disaster.

Of course, I could simply be projecting my own fears into the project. Bridge described the Segway to me as being "like a Rorschach test: everybody sees in it what they want to see." Left-leaning magazines like Salon see the Segway as a threat to walking and exercise. Libertarian publications such as Reason see it as a threat to automobiles.

It could be a threat to both. Or the Segway could be another fad that's hot for a year or two, and then cools off, without causing all that many ripples in society, as was the case with skateboards, rollerskates, and rollerblades.

But largely thanks to the bicycle craze that began in the 1970s, the American Disabilities Act, and other previous pieces of legislation, we've got enough social engineering -- in the form of wheelchair-friendly cuts in sidewalk curbs, bike paths, and other areas that will be Segway-friendly -- to see if the general public actually buys the damn thing, before we go building 21st century Radiant Cities that ban the car, a proven technology, to accommodate one that the jury is very much still out on.

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