Celebrity inventor Dean Kamen envisions a future city where urbanites zip seamlessly through crowded streets on his new invention, the Segway Human Transporter. The problem, Kamen says, is that although most people can see that his revolutionary scooter is a neat invention, few share his vision of the Segway replacing cars in urban areas.
MIT graduate student Erik Rauch believes those few people who heard about Kamen’s invention and thought of North Point, the new neighborhood currently being planned in East Cambridge, are finally starting to get the picture.
Kamen visited Cambridge recently, where he demonstrated his new Segway scooter to approximately 400 high school students at an event to raise awareness of the benefits of alternative fuel vehicles. Speaking April 11 at the National AFV Odyssey Day at the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Kendall Square, Kamen said he believes the Segway should displace the car for travel in heavily populated urban centers.
" It would be perfect, " said Kamen, speaking after the event. " Why continue to use these pieces of metal that weigh 4,000 pounds, take up 16 feet of curb space and take 15 minutes to go eight city blocks? This is the answer. "
Kamen, an inventor with 150 patents who lives and works in New Hampshire, recently became internationally famous for inventing the Segway — a self-balancing scooter that has no engine, brakes or steering wheel, and produces no emissions. The world has been straining to get a look at the device since news broke that Kamen was working on the invention at a development cost of more than $100 million. Following a year of media hype, the Segway was unveiled in early December on ABC’s ‘Good Morning America.’
Speculation was that Kamen had invented a hover craft. Instead, he unveiled the Segway — a 65-pound vehicle that can carry the average rider for a full day, non-stop, on only five cents’ worth of electricity.
Speaking in Cambridge, Kamen forecast his prediction that cities are only going to get bigger and more populous in the future. Devising new modes of transportation in an increasingly fragile ecological environment will be necessary, he said. Since Sept. 11, he added, people have started to focus on the need to close the gap between the world’s ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots.’
In short, Kamen’s Segway Human Transporter would be perfect for North Point, said Rauch, a graduate student at MIT who works in the school’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Last year, Rauch submitted a proposal to build a car-free neighborhood in North Point.
" There’s a network of car-free activists around the world, and the Segway caused a bit of a buzz for them, " said Rauch. " The verdict seems to be that anything that removes people’s obsession with cars is positive, and the Segway would contribute to that. "
North Point is a 50-acre parcel of abandoned rail yards on the border of Cambridge and Somerville, near the Lechmere T station. There, developers and city officials are planning to build a new neighborhood that would house as many as 5,000 people.
According to Rauch’s proposal, North Point would have residential buildings that would be no taller than six stories, and streets too narrow to allow any cars other than emergency vehicles. Residents would park their cars in garages on the perimeters of the neighborhood.
" In my car-free proposal, I have a bicycle boulevard that goes right through town. That’s where I see the most likely place to ride a Segway at its top speed. If it’s riding slower, which most people would do, there’s no need why it couldn’t mix with pedestrians, " said Rauch.
Dozens of cities worldwide are building new car-free neighborhoods, and hundreds of cities have converted existing neighborhoods to be car-free. But Rauch’s proposal was not adopted during a city rezoning process last year. But the rezoning plan still contains enough room for developers of North Point to go pretty far in creating a car-free community there, should they desire.
" I don’t know if we could create a completely car-free neighborhood, based on the habits of Americans, " Ralph Cox, an assistant to the developers of the North Point district, said at the time.
Rauch said he is considering contacting Kamen to inform him about North Point planning, and to see if they can join forces in presenting a new car-free proposal. Kamen is currently traveling the world lobbying municipalities to consider contracting large numbers of Segways for city transportation. But Kamen said that he confronts a lack of imagination and understanding, particularly from regulators. Inventing new technology is an easy task, he said, compared to the task of changing people’s attitudes and their willingness to accept change.
" Contacting Kamen is a great idea, especially given his talent with marketing and public relations, " said Rauch. " He’s captured the public’s imagination. I think he’s really tapping into something that’s been under the surface for a long time now. "