Patented less than 20 years ago, Segways were first marketed as a ‘personal transportation device’ and pitched to be the next big technological revolution. Former Apple boss Steve Jobs was quoted as having said that the invention would be ‘as big a deal as the PC [personal computer]’. Fast forward a few years and, while here in Europe Segways may not have become the new mode of transport of choice, they have become increasingly popular with tour guide companies, sightseers and others in the tourism trade.
Here in Barcelona they have become a frequent sight on the city’s waterfront and other major tourist areas, but their presence hasn’t been welcomed by all. What some see as a fun, convenient way to explore the city is considered by others as a nuisance gimmick, or worse, a dangerous hazard. Although to date there is only evidence of one accident on record, given the sheer volume of people present around the city’s most popular areas, locals can’t be blamed for hoping the authorities would step in to impose preventative measures before it’s too late.
One of the most densely populated cities in Europe, with around 16,000 people per km2 (compared to about 5,000 in London or roughly 4,000 in Berlin) these figures do not even account for the estimated nine million or more tourists who visit the city each year. During peak tourist season, the population in the most visited parts of town can double in a day. For many who live in the city, getting around town can be a struggle – one they consider is only made worse by the presence of Segway users.
After growing discontent from frustrated locals, the local government has decided to take action and, in a move which came as a big surprise to the seven companies who operate Segway tours in the city, have imposed a ban on using the machines on Barcelona’s waterfront. Anyone caught using a Segway anywhere between the tip of the Barceloneta by the W hotel and Port Olympic will risk a fine of €90, increasing to €1,125 for anyone caught speeding (Segways have a 10km/h limit) or riding in any other dangerous way. The ban will only remain effective during peak season and is expected to end on October 1st 2016.
However, the move could just be the beginning of an attempt by local government to heavily regulate the use of Segways and other personal transportation devices such as hover boards or electric scooters. The local mobility councillor, Mercedes Vidal, told reporters that ‘technology has progressed much more quickly than any possible regulations cities could introduce’ and added that ‘we turned to other European cities like Paris, Amsterdam and London for guidance, but these vehicles have never been regulated in a thorough way’.
The state of tourism in the city is without doubt one of the toughest and most controversial topics the local government, lead by the left-wing mayor Ada Colau, has had to tackle since coming to power. Colau has already spearheaded a crackdown on what many see as an out-of-control tourism industry, imposing restrictions on new hotel beds, tourist flat rental companies such as Airbnb and bar crawls in an attempt to appease disgruntled residents. Although the measures have been met with support and relief from many locals, there are fears amongst those in the trade that the city will lose out in the long run if it turns its back on its largest industry.
Given the context, this latest measure is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to resolving one of the most divisive issues the city is having to grapple with. This first attempt to regulate the use of Segways and other such devices is likely to play an important part in the local authority’s learning curve who have yet to decide what to do after the ban finishes in the fall.