Rolling By the Bay

Walking is out and Segway is in

By: Beverly Burmeier/Photos by Larry Burmeier

People stare even giggle and point as we pass by, but they want to know more about the strange-looking, two-wheeled, gyroscope-balanced devices rolling through the streets of Fisherman’s Wharf.

“You’ll change from being tourists to being a tourist attraction,” warned John Go, general manager of San Francisco Electric Tour Company, as he acquainted the six adventurers in our group to Segways.

Introduced a few years ago as “human transporters,” Segways have provided an innovative way to tour the San Francisco Bay Area since November 2004. Using body movements similar to riding a bike or skiing, you go forward by leaning forward. Lean back, and that’s where you go.

“Your body is the braking mechanism,” said Go, meaning you stand up straight to stop.

A half-hour training session helps us feel comfortable with the machines, and everyone must wear a helmet.

“Each little shift in position causes a change in motion and direction,” he explained.

Soon we’re maneuvering tight 360-degree turns and steadily running along the practice path. We look for the happy face on our Segway dials, an indication that the gyroscopes are on and all is well. If you see a sad face, you have to try again.

When we’re judged sufficiently skilled, our guide, Carla Plante, leads us single-file onto Jefferson Street. Each Segway is equipped with a walkie-talkie, so she can guide us along the route, provide knowledgeable commentary about the sights, and give specific instructions for road conditions. Segways are not allowed on sidewalks in San Francisco, so we must dismount when not on approved paths, but Plante knows the best routes to keep us rolling.

Segways provide a completely new way to appreciate the beautiful City by the Bay. In 2½ hours, we cover eight miles, far more than we could walk during that time. We ride past the National Maritime Museum, stop at Pier 45 (the largest fish-processing spot in the world), learn history of the harbor and see Ghirardelli Square (famous for chocolate and shopping). The day is chilly and cloudy, so we welcome a break for coffee, hot chocolate and pastries at Green’s Vegetarian Restaurant, a trendy bayside lunch spot popular with locals and tourists alike.

We roll uphill and downhill (the downhill motion recharges batteries), shifting positions on the footpad as Plante directs us, and zip over to the Palace of Fine Arts. We stop for picture opportunities beside the dome and fountain, placing our Segways flat on the ground when not in use. Past the cable car turnaround, with views of Alcatraz across the water and Golden Gate Bridge in the distance, we carry on, leaning and swaying ever so smoothly.

“This is so much fun, just great,” says Rita Neubauer, a journalist for a German newspaper.

Although Segways can travel up to 12 mph, our color-coded keys allow us to attain only 4 mph at first. Later we’re upgraded to 8.5 mph. Because we’re touring on a cold January day, our group elects to cruise the upscale residential Marina District rather than windier open areas, and Plante easily adjusts our route.

Three-hour tours depart daily at 9:15 a.m. and 1:15 p.m., with a 4 p.m. departure available April-October. Cost is $65. Riders should weigh between 100 and 250 pounds and not have mobility issues. A parent or guardian must accompany guests under 18.