Friday, September 25, 2009

Cool but Useless?

A Voice in the Wilderness sent me this video about a Segway-like unicycle. He thought it was cool, but not very useful. Most of the comments under the video suggest that anyone who rides one of these is just lazy – why can’t they just walk? I disagree.

I think the point of these is not to ride from the parking lot into the building, or to ride from office to office at work, but to enhance public transportation. If I want to ride the subway, I have to walk from my house to the station, then walk from the station to my office. I may also be faced with a walk for lunch(1). Of course, I am capable of walking; I can even walk long distances. But when I am wearing a suit, and carrying a 25lb briefcase (2), and worried about what time I get there, a half-mile is about as far as I want to walk. Lunch during working hours is an even bigger deal, because every minute I spend walking to my destination has to come out of my lunch time, or my work day, or my personal time at the end of the day. That creates a limited circle of places I can go, which limits my choices for lunch – maybe forcing me into the dreaded McDonald's that so offended commenters.

The point of the Segway, and of this similar unicycle device is not to let you be lazy and do less, but to let you go farther and do more. I can walk a mile in 20 minutes. Maybe in those same 20 minutes I can go 5 or 10 miles (and not be exhausted when I get there), or maybe I can travel that same mile in 2 minutes, and create 18 minutes (or 36 minutes, round trip) in my day. If I am a commuter, a device like this can make the difference between being able to use public transportation and preferring to drive my car. The unicycle shown in the video seems much smaller than the Segway, so more practical on subways and buses. (Plus, people apparently won’t laugh at you as much on the unicycle, compared to the Segway -

Finally, for the crowd that thinks I should revel in the walk for fitness sake, I agree with the ideal, but I have lots of goals in my life, including how much work I get done during business hours, what time I leave my family in the morning and what time I get home at night, and how I look (and smell) to the people I work with. For the most part, I get my exercise on my own time (3).

I am not sure what the real limit to the adoption of the Segway was (or is), so I don't know whether a unicycle will fare any better. Technology is making the world smaller, and this helps solve the problem of moving people more efficiently over the last mile between public transportation and their destination.

1. I actually work out of my home office, so I don't commute. But I do face these decisions whenever I travel to a major city with good public transportation - I like to use it, but look carefully at the "last mile" walking distances. This always limits my choices on hotels and restaurants, and often forces me to rent a car.

2. When I was in business school (and traveling as part of my full-time job), weighed my bag at 25 lbs. It typically contained one or two laptops, two or three large books, lots of accessories, and all the miscellaneous junk you need when you are trying to get a lot done while you are away from home, like gum, breath mints, extra batteries, lots of business cards (two versions of mine, plus everyone I have met in the last week or two), etc. It adds up fast, and by the end of the week, you notice which shoulder you have been using the most.

3. And if you think I should quit being such a sell-out workaholic, and become a forest ranger so I can wear shorts, walk around and commune with nature all day long - I'll bet you don't give the same advice to your doctor, or your lawyer, or the airline pilot on your plane. You probably hope those guys are really focused and good at their job. You don't know what I do for a living, but I don't think you would be happier if I stopped doing it well. I know I wouldn't.