Survivor's Guide

It's federal, state and local governments--not individuals or even companies--that determine if a transportation idea sinks or swims.
by | June 2005

A touching but erroneous American belief is that a good idea and individual know-how are all you need to change the world. But it's government, not just an individual or even a company, that usually develops, backs or distributes most world-changing technology--from the Internet to the Interstate highway system.

This principle is illustrated by examining the recent fortunes of two very different modes of transportation--Segway, the two-wheeled motorized scooter; and Amtrak, the nation's perennially underfunded intercity passenger train service. One has made every effort to get on government's good side; the other seems stuck on the bad. Therein their futures may lie.

Before the developers of the Segway unveiled their device in 2001, company officials hired the best lobbyists in the country and shopped around at federal and state governments for the kind of regulation they wanted. First, they went to Washington, where they got the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to agree that Segway was not a "motor vehicle." This meant the company wouldn't have to equip Segway with headlights or meet other onerous safety standards required of cars and motorcycles. Next, it was off to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which agreed that the Segway was fit to be sold. Armed with those two rulings, they hit the states to ask that the Segway be allowed on local sidewalks and bike paths.

"We would bring the machine to the state capitals, go through some of the benefits, and then get the legislators on it," says Matt Dailida, director of governmental affairs for Segway, who estimated the company spent up to $5 million on the lobbying effort.

The strategy worked. Government is known for moving slowly, but 42 state legislatures have already passed laws that generally classify Segway as something more akin to a bicycle than a car. Some localities have the right to overrule state laws, and they will be under pressure to do so. Paul White, executive director of the New York cycling group Transportation Alternatives, says that allowing Segways on sidewalks "sets a dangerous precedent for other types of motorized vehicles. Our point of view is that pedestrian space is sacred."

Meanwhile, Segways are not common in many towns yet, and the scooters' best customers are state and local governments. Chicago police ride them, as do Seattle meter readers. About two dozen local bomb squads have bought the devices: They allow a person in heavy armor to move around. Time will tell whether more ordinary people will adopt the Segway--they cost about $5,000 apiece. But with access to most sidewalks and bike paths pre-assured, Segways have a chance at success.

My own view of Segways is positive. I'm influenced--much as legislators were--by briefly trying one out. I could see dozens of practical uses for it and believe the device deserves the regulatory elbow room it's worked so hard to get.

As to Amtrak, politics can make or break a mode of transportation, and they have been breaking Amtrak for decades. Although there is considerable need and demand for intercity train service in developed corridors around the country, it has been difficult to translate demand into a reliable budget and consistent mandate for Amtrak. Congress has pushed and pulled the agency in different directions. A free ride on the new and troubled Acela train won't help. The Bush administration has proposed eliminating Amtrak's federal subsidy and having states that want intercity train service manage and fund it through regional councils.

Removing federal dollars doesn't make sense, given the clear national need demonstrated after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. But politics is not about sense; it's about translating the will of the voters through a system of governance. With Amtrak, that route has been torturous. David Gunn, the president of Amtrak, says he welcomes the Bush proposal if it sparks a more robust discussion of transportation priorities. "If there was ever a time when we needed an intelligent debate about intercity rail travel, now is the time," says Gunn , who notes that while Amtrak's small budget is vociferously debated, billions of tax dollars go annually to the nation's highway and air travel systems.

Amtrak and Segway's stories have no clear ending as of yet. Of course, some might say that Segway isn't asking for direct public dollars the way Amtrak is. But actually, Segway is, because the company wants its riders to use the public sidewalks and roads without paying any special fee for them. Money aside, it's also clear that no matter how well run a transportation mode is or how intriguing the better mousetrap, government--local, state and federal--plays a big role in determining its survival.