Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The city plans to ban them from a key area. Time to kiss novelty urban transit goodbye?
Europe’s tolerance for novelty urban transit might just be reaching a tipping point. Last week came news that Amsterdam plans to ban beer bikes. This week, Barcelona announced it’s going to forbid Segways from entering a key section of the city center.
In recent years, hordes of Segways have snaked their way along Barcelona’s waterfront, allowing tourists the pleasant experience of walking along the quay while avoiding the apparently unpleasant experience of, well, walking along the quay. No more, says the city. The Segway tours are clogging the sidewalks and getting in people’s way in an area where local residents’ patience is already hanging by a thread. Both Segways and bicycle taxis found circulating on the promenade between the Hotel Vela and the Olympic Port will soon face a €90 ($100) fine, rising to up to €1,000 ($1,114) for repeat offenders.
For anyone who’s ever enjoyed these types of urban tourist high jinks, such bans from Amsterdam and Barcelona might feasibly be alarming—“First they came for the beer bikes, but because I was not a beer-spewing bachelor, I said nothing,” and so on. For others, however, this could be seen as a joyous turning of the tide against gimmicky approaches to metropolitan tourism.
But is the ban really fair? Bearing in mind that any sidewalk nuisance issue can be a hair trigger for CityLab readers, I am going to say something potentially controversial: Segways are not as annoying as beer bikes. That doesn’t mean that in the wrong place, they’re not a nuisance. In sufficient quantities, they risk turning walkways and paved areas that should be restricted to pedestrians into theme park rides in which people who actually walk are a mere obstacle. But that doesn’t mean that no wheels at all belong on sidewalks. For visitors with mobility concerns, it does seem as though Segways have a role to play, though obviously with some limits on exactly where and how many.
The measure comes as Barcelona is in the midst of tightening up just about every bylaw it can to lessen the negative effects that tourism has had on the city. Among the most recent clampdowns, the city is restricting the use of vacation apartments, bar crawls and kicking back against street noise. It has placed a controversial moratorium on new hotel beds and slapped very strict preservation orders on historic shops to make sure that chains don’t lumber in and ruin them. The latest move protects historic workshops in the hip Raval district, domestic-commercial hybrids structures that boomed in the city in the 19th century in the period before fully-fledged factories were built.
Taken against this background, a Segway ban is a logical next step to ensure a balance is struck between attracting tourists and protecting the qualities that attracted them in the first place. It would surely be going too far to damn Segways as Satan’s chariots, but they still need to go. Barcelona’s waterfront should be an open-air living room for the city, not a place where the experience of the city is simulated for motorized, walkway-clogging tourist groups.