Segway debate steered by larger tourism concerns

Colleen Sanders

KAILUA—A number of complaints from community members in Kailua has prompted debate over the use of segways on the bicycle lanes and sidewalks. City officials, however, say the complaints are not grounded in safety, but in the larger issue of tourism moving too close to home. Conflicting laws pertaining to segways as well as accusations of poor enforcement by the City on commercial businesses are steering the argument away from a bill that would ban segways from all public parks.

Segways are personal mobility devices where the driver stands on a two-wheeled electric vehicle. They are used for personal transportation and by police, but what triggered the concern in Kailua was the operation of commercial tourism segway tours around town by a company called Segway of Hawaii-Kailua. The tours run from the beach park, through town, to the Ulupo heaiu, Kawainui Marsh, Lankikai, and other prominent sites. They are guided tours, as opposed to rentals, and participants travel along bicycle lanes and sidewalks.

The initial complaint from community members were regarding the safety of sharing pedestrian space with an electric vehicle.

“It’s definitely a controversy,” said Kailua Neighborhood Board member Virginia Enos. She explained the conflict arises when the “very narrow and not very user-friendly sidewalks [of Kailua] now have to be shared with pedestrians, bicycles, baby carriages, and now the segway.”

While the focus for some residents has been on safety, there are currently no recorded instances of segway-pedestrian accidents.

“I would really hate to have that first accident happen in the Lanikai loop,” Enos said. “It surprises me that motorized anything is allowed in the bike lane. It’s surprising to me that the bike lane is now going to be shared with baby strollers versus a visitor on a segway. A moped is not legal to be on that area.”

Whether the issue is safety or congestion, a request was put in to City Councilmember Ikaika Anderson to introduce Bill 13, which bans segway use from public parks.

“Before introducing the bill we did our due diligence and research on the issue before writing a bill,” Anderson said. “My office looked for statistics in regards to collisions, accidents between pedestrians, bicyclists, and operators of segways. Our office did contact the Honolulu Police Department to see if they had any stats and factual written data, which they could provide to us and we could point to. HPD told us they had no such data. In Honolulu there is no data that supports prohibiting segway operation in a city park.”

Rick McMahon, the owner of Segway of Hawaii-Kailua, agreed. “They’ve been operating in Hawaii for seven years without incident, without police report,” he said.

To determine their practical safety, Anderson investigated a segway personally. “I and my chief of staff went and took a ride on a segway to see firsthand the ability to start and stop safely,” Anderson said. “I came to the conclusion that he runs a safe operation and segways can be operated in a safe manner in our city parks so long as caution is exercised, and I stress that.”

Currently the legislation regarding segways is in a bit of a legal grey area, as the State and City provisions do not line up.

“One thing that’s not clear,” said Chuck Prentiss, Kailua Neighborhood Board Chair, “is that the State statute makes them legal on bikeways, but the county ordinance says otherwise.”

The Hawaii State ordinance (291C-134.5) reads: “Unless otherwise prohibited or regulated by a county ordinance, an electric personal mobility device may be operated on sidewalks, at a speed no greater then eight miles per hour, on bicycle paths of the State. ... An electric personal assistive mobility device operator on a sidewalk or bicycle path shall exercise due care to avoid colliding with, and shall yield the right-of-way to, persons traveling on foot and those using mobility aids.”

The City and County of Honolulu ordinance (Sec. 15-18.10) reads: “No person shall operate any vehicle other than a bicycle without a motor or authorized vehicles where permitted by posted signs… [or] ... engage in any sports or recreational activities other than the riding of bicycles.”

Therefore, while the State permits the use of segways on sidewalks and bicycle lanes, the City ordinance bans them. However, the State ordinance states that County ordinances ought to take precedence.

“These things aren’t always as clear as they should be,” said Prentiss. “Once it was determined it was legal on the bikeways, there wasn’t much we could do about it. The City ordinance says no motorized vehicles on bikeways, but the State statute took precedence.”

The State statute, however, leaves room for city provisions, so the direction the issue takes could come down to a matter of enforcement.

“Usually one of the biggest problems in the town of Kailua is lack of enforcement of the laws we already have,” Enos said. “I’m always for the laws on the books. If they need to be changed, then let’s change them and enforce them.”

McMahon, who said the conflict is based on misinformation, said, “It has nothing to do with the safety of the segway—which is a green machine that the town thoroughly needs because it is congested. The real issue is that I’m a smokescreen for concerns about bed and breakfasts. ... If that’s your concern, shouldn’t you be looking for bigger fish to fry? My operation averages half a dozen a week. It’s impossible for me to grow beyond maybe two dozen a week. I don’t bring tourists to Kailua.”

McMahon said his business is small and will likely remain so.

Beneath the safety concerns, a larger pressure against commercial tourism in Kailua is roiling.

“In my opinion,” Enos said, “what’s happening is just an encroachment. It’s a business sending their clients into the residential zone. It’s an example once again of tourist-related business coming into residential areas. The reason they’re coming in is because they’ve had it with Waikiki and over-development, but that’s exactly what they’re creating in residential communities. Taxpayers aren’t very happy with that. We didn’t buy into a commercial district—we bought into a residential zone.”

Included in those concerns are one of financial jurisdiction, as private entities use public infrastructure for profit.

“Suddenly, there’s a new tour in town, and suddenly, they’re on the bike lanes and some of the residents aren’t too happy about it,” continued Enos. “And whether or not there’s a valid complaint about safety, it’s another invasion of a commercial enterprise in our residential community where taxpayers pay for the services. Businesses are using our taxpayer-funded streets and bike lanes to support their businesses. Personally, I am not anti-business, however, I am a pro-taxpayer advocate.”

Neighborhood board members see a trend of poor enforcement by the City in other areas as well.

“There’s all those undercurrents are about bringing tourism to residential areas,” Prentiss said. “Kailua Beach Park is a pretty busy area and it’s not supposed to be for commercial uses. We don’t mind tourists coming, but organized commercial tours operating out of the beach park or using the beach park for their commercial businesses ... it looks like the City is looking the other way. Enforcement has been very poor on those issues.”

In terms of the proposed legislation to ban segways, which would also require enforcement, Anderson held that if at the heart of opposing segways is a push against tourism in Kailua, then pushing legislation to ban segways is not the answer.

“If the aim of those opposing segways is to decrease tourism activities in Kailua, Bill 13 is not the appropriate vehicle to do that,” Anderson said. “If we’re going to crack down on tourist activities in Kailua, I would suggest those folks wanting to do that focus their efforts and not via bill 13. You could possibly argue throwing a motorized wheelchair in there.”

Whether the segway debate is about safety, private companies using public infrastructure for profit, or tourism blotting out the residential nature of Kailua, residents and lawmakers have an uphill battle in coming to a consensus.