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Transport / Mass transit

Why are so many grown adults whizzing around on electric unicycles?

Last Friday morning, I saw a tall, important-looking man in a black suit perched on a single, foot-high wheel, buzzing along the pavement at a laconic pace. This was odd enough, but five minutes later, I saw a besuited woman riding one, too. 

Naturally, I had to investigate. It turns out that both machines were part of a new tribe of personal transport devices, variously known as “scooter unicycles” or “electric unicycles”. They’ve been around in some form for a while now, but a quick and entirely unscientific straw poll confirmed that, in London at least, the last few weeks have produced a spike in sightings of the one-wheelers. 

Perhaps it’s the nice weather, or an extremely subtle marketing campaign. But either way, this seemed an interesting development: people are willing to annoy (and potentially run over) other pedestrians, look silly, and maintain a tricky-looking balance, all for the pleasure of not using their feet. 

Before we carry on, some key statistics. Airwheel and Solowheel seem to be the major two brands onsale in the UK at the moment. Some Airwheel models hit top speeds of 14mph, while the Solowheel can only get up to 10mph. A device from either brand would set you back anything from £500 to around £1,500, and most come with their own carry-bag, so you can swap between modes as you go about your zany cosmopolitan day. Granted, they generally weigh around 10kg, but at least you’d be making up for the exercise you miss out on by never walking anywhere. And yes, you can buy stabiliser wheels. 

Recent reviews by journalists have not exactly been raving. A journalist at Slate rated the Solowheel Classic’s “Doofus factor as “unimaginably high. Just off the freaking charts”, and claimed he could only balance on the thing long enough to have his photo taken. “Do you hate your shins? Then give them a good bruising with this torture device from America” was the scalding subheading for the Guardian‘s review of the Airwheel. Things don’t get much more positive in the review itself.

In theory it’s superb. You straddle the gadget, tilt forward and whizz about town as if you are some alien with gravity-defying powers. But, in fact, you are a middle-aged dork lying on the pavement in torn trousers, close to tears – and the office is still six miles away. Thanks a bunch, Airwheel.

Then again, journalists aren’t known for their hand-eye coordination or physical aptitutde. The commuters I saw seemed happy – smug, even – with their devices. And most importantly, neither looked like they were about to fall over.
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