For the future of Americans' fitness, 'It' is truly bad news.
By now, I'm sure you've all heard or read about "It."
That would be the Segway Human Transporter (a.k.a. "Ginger") that made its debut in New York. It's a glorified scooter that's supposed to revolutionize the way we humans get around.
You stand on the thing, and thanks to computer chips and gyroscopes, it senses where you want to go and keeps you upright while you're zipping along at speeds that can reach the high teens.
My esteemed colleague Alfred Lubrano, who witnessed its unveiling, described it as "an unhandsome cross between a lawn mower and a child's toy." To me, it looks like something sure to be featured in the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog, that porno mag for gadget freaks, acquisition addicts, and aficionados of decadent materialism and the exquisitely superfluous.
The inventor is a quirky fellow named Dean Kamen, a man of Edisonian imagination, a boomer Buckminster Fuller. He thinks the Segway is the answer to urban congestion. He predicts it will make cities more livable by offering a cheap, nonpolluting way to make short trips.
In other words, this is a device that gives Americans yet another excuse not to walk, not to use and move their bodies.
As your friendly health and fitness advocate, I feel compelled to stand up and shout: THIS IS THE LAST THING THIS NATION NEEDS!
We just don't get it. Instead of inventing things to save labor, we should be looking for ways to incorporate more physical effort into our lives. Make no mistake: Your body wants to work. And it becomes very unhappy - and ugly - when it doesn't.
Have you taken a gander at your fellow citizens lately? Then you know the statistics don't lie:
Nearly two-thirds of Americans are overweight (about 10 percent above their ideal weight).
Nearly a fourth are obese (about 35 percent above the ideal).
The fattening of America is not because of some sea change in the national gene pool. It's because too many people are stuffing their faces and sitting on their butts.
We Americans believe that happiness is a birthright. It says so in the Declaration of Independence. Unfortunately, we've confused the pursuit of happiness with the pursuit of luxury. To the typical American boob, luxury means the absence of physical exertion.
Example: My house is half a block from a shopping center with a supermarket. Some of my neighbors actually drive there to buy a gallon of milk or loaf of bread. The Segway isn't going to help matters. I envision this absurdity: People riding the Segway to the gym, then walking on the treadmill for a half-hour to compensate for not using their legs.
Yes, it's better to ride an electric scooter than it is to climb aboard an SUV. It would be more virtuous for New Yorkers to Segway down Broadway than hop into a two-ton cab for a 10-block trip. But what's wrong with shank's mare? It's dependable, original equipment designed by the Creator himself. Walking was good enough for Thoreau, Wordsworth and Einstein, smart guys all. Voltaire called his daily constitutionals "the best physick."
Far be it from me to throw cold water on Dean Kamen's vision. But if sizable numbers of Philadelphians took to the sidewalks on scooters capable of moving at 17 m.p.h., can you imagine the havoc? Think of the collisions on Chestnut Street at lunchtime. Every orthopedic surgeon in town would be performing triage. Personal-injury lawyers would be carting their winnings to the bank in wheelbarrows.
Here's a radical idea: It's a human transporter with a proven track record. It can carry you around the block or across the country. It requires no fuel, no battery, no computer chips or gyroscope. Its cruising speed is 15 m.p.h. Downhill, you can hit 50. While it moves you, it also makes your heart and legs stronger and nourishes your brain with oxygen. It helps control your weight by burning calories. You may have heard of it. It's called a bicycle.
For $3,000, which is what the Segway is supposed to cost when it becomes available at the end of next year, you could buy yourself a bicycle that's state-of-the-art. For a tenth of that, you could purchase a new 21-speed that's perfectly adequate. For $100 or less, you could buy a reconditioned bike from Neighborhood Bike Works in West Philadelphia (call 215-386-0316, Tuesday and Thursday evenings). Or you could be like me and pluck a battered but restorable bike from your neighbor's trash.
The other day, as I was commuting to work, pedaling down the path that parallels West River Drive, watching the sun sparkle on the river, exulting because I wasn't stuck in a metal box stalled on the Expressway, I began doing some figuring.
By biking to work and running most of my errands by bike, I probably save at least 10 gallons of gasoline a week. Let's assume 100 million Americans are capable of doing the same thing (if they weren't so lazy). Do you realize we could conserve a billion gallons of gas a week? That works out to about 24 million barrels of crude oil, which would reduce our reliance on imported oil by almost a third.
That's not enough to tell the Saudis to kiss off. Maybe we still need to drill in Alaska. But it seems like a good start to me.
Then again, what do I know? I'm not an inventor. Just a dreamer.
Art Carey's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.