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No Bikes, But Segways May Cruise on Park Paths

A proposed Segway tour route including Strawberry Hill. Click to enlarge.
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A proposed Segway tour route including Strawberry Hill. Click to enlarge.
A plan to allow guided Segway tours on bike-free paths in Golden Gate Park has rankled residents

Single-file rows of motorized Segway scooters could be allowed to snake through an extensive network of pedestrian paths and trails in Golden Gate Park that are off-limits to cyclists and skaters.

San Francisco Electric Tour Company, a Bay Area tourism operator, recently secured a five-year contract with the city's parks department to conduct electric Segway tours on pathways covering much of the 1,017-acre park between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. The two-hour tours, priced at $70 per person, are scheduled to begin in February.

The plan is expected to eventually provide more than $100,000 a year in new revenue for San Francisco’s cash-strapped parks department, but it has rankled park and neighborhood advocates who are concerned the machines could force wheelchairs and strollers dangerously close to the edges of paths.

“We’re okay with it if it’s just on the roadways and the streets,” said Ray Holland, president of the Planning Association for the Richmond, a neighborhood group representing residents north of the park. “But when it's on the pathways and trails, you’re competing with pedestrians and joggers.”

Holland, who rides motorcycles, road bikes and mountain bikes, said his group also objects to the use of pathways for commercial Segway tours that are off-limits for cyclists and skaters, such as those on Strawberry Hill and in redwood groves.

“That makes no sense,” Holland said. “You can react very quickly on a bicycle but you can’t react as quickly on a Segway.”

Nicole Avril, an official with the Recreation and Park Department, defended the decision to allow segways on bicycle-free paths, arguing that it would allow people with mobility problems to visit parts of the park where larger vehicles are banned.

“The route is exciting because it brings people, especially people with mobility challenges, to parts of Golden Gate Park that they might otherwise not be able to reach,” Avril told park commissioners during a Dec. 16 hearing before they voted to approve the contract. Commissioner Meagan Levitan cast the lone dissenting vote.

“Lots of people make it to the de Young and lots of people make it to the Japanese Tea Garden, but very few people do make it to the redwood tree forest,” Avril told commissioners.

Segway riders will be trained for 30 to 45 minutes before their expeditions and required to travel in single file behind a tour leader at up to six miles per hour, which can be three times faster than a slow-moving pedestrian. Safety vests and helmets will be mandatory, and riders will have to yield to all other park-goers.

San Francisco Electric Tour Company owner Brian Huber said the planned routes were used safely during a six-month trial run, which began in 2008, and that they were modified slightly based on a single complaint.

“Our current routes safely use numerous types of trails, paths, walkways, bike lanes and cover hilly terrain. We stop and yield right of way to everything,” Huber wrote in an e-mail. “We have operated slowly and safely in crowded environments in both San Francisco and Sausalito for over five years.”

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors plans to meet to consider approval of the contract by early February, according to Supervisor Eric Mar, whose district includes Golden Gate Park and neighborhoods to its north.

Mar said he supports elements of the plan — including its potential to generate revenue for the city — but he's worried that the proposed tour routes traverse peaceful areas, including some where tai chi is practiced. He said he plans to conduct a full tour of the routes next month.

"I have concerns about electric vehicles like Segways in narrow walkways that are currently used mostly by walkers or runners," Mar said Tuesday. "If bikes can’t go in a certain area, I think the Segways are also a concern."

The plan is opposed by the group Friends of the Music Concourse because it will see two 20-foot containers installed behind the park's historic bandshell. They will be used for equipment storage and recharging, adding to storage-related clutter in that area.

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