The Solowheel: Transportation solution or Segway sequel?
Ted McDonald glides up to Seattle’s Solowheel headquarters on his tiny electric “unicycle,” gracefully slows, steps off and picks up the 25 pound wheel with one hand.
“Other than Bill Gates’s helicopter, this is the fastest thing in town,” he fires off.
Tightly wound and intensely intelligent, McDonald is best known as a legendary runner of ultramarathons. Author Christopher McDougall immortalized him as “Barefoot Ted” in his 2009 book Born to Run, which was recently optioned for a Hollywood movie starring Matthew McConaughey.
"I'm really hoping Woody Harrelson plays me," says McDonald, the self-proclaimed “quirk in the universe.”
More recently, McDonald’s lifelong search for the perfect mode of human locomotion has coalesced into the battery-powered wheel between his feet.
"Being a C-list celebrity has its advantages. When I have a story to tell, it's easier to get people to listen."
McDonald’s hyperkinetic life has twice put him on the cusp of revolutions in human movement. Growing up in Los Angeles in the mid-'70s, he was among the first wave of skaters to switch out metal skateboard wheels for the faster, more versatile urethane wheels.
"I was only 10 or 11 years old, but I knew something was happening. You could just feel it," McDonald says. What McDonald was feeling was the birth of modern skate culture.
In the coming decades, McDonald would experiment with all kinds of human-powered motion, until he felt compelled to reconnect with the “primal” human form: He started to run barefoot. Soon after, he became a high-profile champion of the minimalist running movement and helped turn Vibram's FiveFingers shoes into a multimillion-dollar industry.
"At first, the Vibram CEO said: 'Hey Ted, how can I sell these clown shoes?' Then he said: 'Hey Ted, how can I spend all this money?'" says McDonald, who first drew attention to "barefoot running shoes" in the 2006 Boston Marathon.
Now, McDonald’s hoping that lightning will strike a third time. He's hooked on the Solowheel.
The afternoon I met him, McDonald invited along fellow Solowheel-enthusiast, Jon Gerster, who commuted from Madison Park to Lower Queen Anne by Solowheel in just 25 minutes.
“I feel like I’m being beamed. It’s the closest thing to it,” Gerster said.
McDonald and Gerster are but two members of a growing crew of wheeling disciples who want to transform Seattle into a production center for the wheels. Conveniently, the Solowheel Seattle headquarters is also the office for McDonald’s LUNA Sandals business, which he started in a Capitol Hill garage.
“We can make things here,” says McDonald, motioning to his shop of 10 employees.
The Solowheel was developed by Shane Chen, a Beijing-born inventor now based in Camas, who rolled out his first prototype in 2010. Chen patented the wheel through his company, Inventist, in 2012.
Extremely simple, the flagship model is a 24-inch wheel with sturdy metal foot pegs on an ABS plastic frame, all of which encases a battery system and 1500 watt motor.
In an email, Chen explained that his company sold around 6,000 Solowheels since Inventist licensed the production less than four years ago. According to McDonald’s records, he has sold around 100 Solowheels in Seattle, more than any other U.S. city.
"Seattle ends up being the first and best place to start this revolution," McDonald says.
Our roads are choked in a “bloodbath of energy waste," he continues, and with its steep hills, crowded streets and lack of bike lanes, Seattle is “not a great bike city.”
"But there is still plenty of space on the sidewalks.”
With a regenerative battery, the Solowheel even charges while rolling downhill as well as braking, which means that, in a place like Seattle, the wheel can run all day (otherwise, you'll be charging your battery the old-fashioned way, by plugging the Solowheel into an outlet).
Unlike the bulky Segway, the Solowheel is small. And with an average top speed of 10 miles per hour, an accomplished rider can easily navigate busy sidewalks.
"You're an enhanced pedestrian. I ride mine through busy Westlake Plaza at midday with no problems," says Danny Currit, an engineer who started “wheeling” in November of 2014.
Drawn to the Solowheel for its practicality, Currit says his three-mile commute from Queen Anne to Rainier Square – which used to take an hour – is now 25 minutes (and independent of traffic).
The only impediment is people stopping him to ask about the wheel, which happens often.
"I'm not necessarily the kind of guy who wants to be an oddball or draw attention. I'm a family man, an engineer. But I just saw it as the best solution to my commute problems."
Even McDonald admits that the Solowheel makes you stand out: “Riding this, you've got a parrot on one shoulder and an iguana on the other.” But this is part of his plan. He wants the Solowheel to spread “virally.”
Yet, Currit has a point: In spite of its attention-grabbing aesthetic, the Solowheel has some practical advantages. Its size and portability make it uniquely compatible with other kinds of transport – you can easily cart one onto a bus, train or plane, or tuck it into the back of a Car2Go (with which McDonald envisions a possible partnership).
Music to the ears of transportation nerds, Gerster says: “It’s all part of this intermodality. The more different types of transport we can get on the road, the less wear on the pavement.”
And where a new Segway costs anywhere from $6,000 to $8,000, the basic Solowheel currently goes for $1,495. Cheaper knockoffs of the Solowheel, most notably the Airwheel, can be found on Amazon starting at $450.
“It’s very democratic. Not everyone can have a BMW, but everyone can have one of these,” McDonald says.
While the verdict is still out on whether the Solowheel will help release the pressure valve on Seattle’s traffic, one of the most intriguing things about the wheel is the cult following it’s developed.
Riders use terms like "bliss," "joy" and "road love" to describe their commute. The riding style – body erect, center-of-gravity slightly forward – is similar to the posture that minimalist runners describe as the “flow state”: a controlled fall where the legs and feet create a tiny wheel, powering the center forward.
McDonald has run "three or four dozen" marathons and ultramarathons, but as he grew tired of running, he began to dream of "leaning forward and cutting through space.”
The Solowheel is awkward at first – it feels a bit too high and a bit too fast. The body wants to bend at the knees, sending the wheel into a wobble. Some novices will be turned off before they learn the ropes, but once a rider taps into the proper body alignment and feels the weightlessness, it's just a matter of "time on the wheel".
“It’s the flow state, dude...You’re in a dynamic position. Your core is engaged. You’re going at a natural speed and not in a vulnerable state,” he says.
Right now, most of the Seattleites commuting on Solowheels are middle-aged professionals. But if the Segway was deemed irrevocably uncool, these “unicycles” are at least making their way to “cool.”
In February, Macklemore got over 72,400 likes on an Instagram video he shot of a man riding a Solowheel in the Central District, adding the caption, “I need one of these, #picturemerollin.”
No one has seen Macklemore rollin’ yet, but McDonald did sell a Solowheel to Raz Simone, who rapped into a cordless microphone while riding through the streets of Austin at SXSW 2015. Rolling Stone later called Simone’s Solowheel rapping “street performance, elevated on every level,” and tagged it as one of the 50 best things the magazine's staff saw at SXSW this year.
In an upcoming performance, a Teatro Zinzanni character, the Space Needler, will wheel around stage on a Solowheel. McDonald hopes people will wheel over to see it.
"Cities are these great vestibules of content, but we're accessing it with dial-up. You can meet people, eat good food, go to shows, start a riot or a revolution. But we're killing ourselves trying to get there."
Crosscut's Community Idea Lab will hold a discussion of transportation issues and solutions on June 17. For event information, go here.