Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

There's a 12 km/h limit on the future in Oz

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BRISBANE -- To "segue" into our future gives the impression of moving seamlessly into a glorious new age but the vehicle once tipped to transport us into the wonders of the 21st century is, frankly, a little disappointing.

The Segway is not quite what the baby boomer kids of the mid-20th century had in mind when they planned their space-age future while watching the Jetsons on TV.

Vacations on Venus and Rosie, the wise and unflagging household robot, all looked cool. But when it came to 21st-century transportation, that flying car and the 500 miles-per-hour speed limit were truly inspirational, setting an entire generation up for something a little more vigorous than a glorified scooter.

On Thursday, Segways became a legal form of transportation on footpaths and bikeways in Australia's northern state of Queensland.

The upright scooters, which require an erect posture, allowing riders to resemble slow-moving meerkats, have attracted much attention across the state more than a decade after their celebrated launch at the dawn of the 21st century.

Then Dean Kamen, who unveiled the odd looking, gyroscope-packed, electric-powered scooter in New York, declared it the answer to the global traffic congestion.

This "human transporter" would create a mobile revolution leaving us with smog-free, environmentally friendly inner cities populated by smiling citizens gliding silently along at 10 km/h to vegetarian diners to discuss global peace initiatives.

"(The Segway) will be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy," Kamen said back then.

The conservative Liberal National Party, which governs Queensland, obviously believes Kamen may have been onto something.

'Can-do' Campbell Newman -- the state's indefatigable premier -- personally instructed Transport Minister Scott Emerson to smooth the way for the Segway.

Emerson was quickly on board, in the literal sense, turning up to his press conference earlier this year with a slightly abashed grin to announce new Segway laws... astride a Segway.

The affable Emerson has also taken his brief seriously, overseeing legislation including a ban on riders under the age of 12, helmet requirements and a speed limit of 12 km/h.

"Like bicycles, they must have a bell or similar warning device in working order and use of mobile phones will also be banned while using a Segway," he cautioned.

Emerson sees endless opportunities including Segway-guided tours of Queensland's more accessible tourism destination (with obvious exceptions such as the Great Barrier Reef).

He has also mooted the possibility police officers may abdicate the cramped confines of their squad cars to opt for this more sedate form of transportation, more in keeping with the tropical climate.

Queensland police commissioner Ian Stewart has apparently suggested the machines could be deployed in areas such as Brisbane's popular Queen Street Mall or along popular beach-front attractions in the northern cities of Cairns and Townsville.

While there's been a flurry of public interest, there are questions whether an aging population that has enthusiastically embraced the four-wheel motorized scooter will also take up a technology costing more than $10,000.

And there's also a faint suggestion the Segway is proof positive that supersonic future we dreamed of is not all it was cracked up to be.

Fact is, there's a sneaking suspicion among an aging Australia the Jetsons were (to use a local phrase) "having a go at us."

All those futuristic documentaries of the '70s that had us wearing sparkling silver-coloured spacesuits and eating meals the size of a capsule while never having to worry about cancer again were also a little misleading.

The future is here and all we got was a largely abandoned space program, Skype, the GPS in the car and the bland world of Facebook.

The Segway may be environmentally friendly and even a practical answer to traffic congestion. But it's also a sign humanity has a little work to do if it wants to better realize all those wondrous futures we all gaze so hopefully into.

Michael Madigan is the Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 2, 2013 A11

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