This isn’t the future we were promised.
From The Fifth Element to Futurama, we were told of a world with flying cars, zipping through the sky with the speed of a billion Usain Bolts. And yet… here we are in 2017, still relying on taxis, bikes, and trains to get us around. Who cares if they run off solar? If they can’t float, they’re a disappointment!
In light of this staggering let down, we just may have to settle for the next best thing, the flying car consolation prize. Unicycles.
You heard it here, friends. The noble unicycle is stepping out of your juggling cousin’s garage and into the limelight. In 2017, on the cusp of singularity, this age-old circus trick has gone electric and is poised to take over the streets. It’s the newest, hottest way of living out futuristic dreams while saving time and money. The hoverboard is dead (and banned), all hail the uni.
“All you’re doing is literally leaning forward to accelerate,” says Tishawn Fahie, a superstar of the electric unicycle scene. “If you want to stop and brake, you just gotta lean back.”
The New Yorker has been traveling the rough city streets with his wheel for three years, after initially being introduced to electric unicycles when he was knocked down by one. As Fahie stepped off the curb, he was blindsided by a unicyclist — but to his surprise the other man didn’t fall off his wheel. He just stood there, balancing like a magician.
Rather than get angry, Fahie found his thoughts completely on the majestic vehicle in front of him.
“Myself, being really intrigued and loving technology so much, I didn’t care that I got hit,” he says. “I just wanted to know ‘What the hell is this guy riding?’ He was already gone down the block, but I got a glimpse of him. He was on a wheel, that’s all I knew.”
When Fahie made it home, a Google search revealed that while electric unicycles weren’t popular in New York City, they were all the rage in Korea, Japan, Paris, and other parts of the world. A message board with nearly 100,000 posts dedicated to all things electric unicycles connected the curious would-be rider to other local unicyclists, who freely imparted their knowledge to him. The message was clear: Unicycles were becoming “a thing.”
Fahie started to edge into the scene, though he admits it took him a year of practice to become an expert at riding.
“I’ve donated a lot of skin to the pavement from learning how to ride,” he says. “But once you get the hang of it, it’s all good.”
The key, Fahie says, is tricking your brain into believing you can balance on a single wheel without any help from a handlebar, like those seen on Segways. It takes practice, but the new unicyclist was never alone in his pursuit — he quickly befriended several electric unicyclists and electric skateboard enthusiasts, joining two separate crews, with whom he now zips around the city.
“I’m more with the electric skateboard crew,” he says. “Because these guys literally attempt to ride every day, so whether it’s just a lunch, or, it’s just like a couple of miles down Manhattan. We’re always on the road. I mean, these guys are hardcore.”
Fahie’s pretty hardcore, himself. He’s such a master that his six electric unicycles are now his primary means of transportation. Pricey MetroCards, gas, car payments, insurance, repairs and wasting away hours in traffic aren’t a concern — unless the weather really turns.
“It would have to be a blizzard to stop me from riding this thing,” Fahie says. “I commute about 30 miles a day. My main wheel goes about 35 mph.”
While the New York City speed limit is 25 mph, Fahie says he’s never been stopped and given a ticket,though he has been stopped by police officers fascinated by his ride.
“It’s more to say, ‘Hey, how does this thing work, it’s pretty cool,'” he says with a laugh. “They even attempt to ride it.”
One of these curious cops was Florida Sheriff’s deputy Shaquille O’Neal. The Big Unicyclist?
“He actually stopped me,” Fahie says. “He attempted to try it, and he was intrigued. He was definitely, like, ‘Wow this is really cool! I don’t know if they make any that can hold my weight.'”
At 325 pounds, Shaq destroys the average electric unicycle’s 264-pound weight limit — which means he may have to opt for a custom made version. For the average user, though, the rides range anywhere from $350 to $2100. It’s an expenditure that’s Fahie believes is entirely worth it.
“It pays for itself,” Fahie says. “It was just the best investment ever.”
Last year, a traffic analysis firm found that New Yorkers spend an average of three days a year stuck in traffic. Same for Houston, San Francisco, D.C., and Los Angeles.
“If you jump in a cab and try to go from 14th Street to 42nd Street (NYC), you’re in traffic forever,” Fahie says. “And you’re watching the cab meter rise. And you’re just stuck. So, with these portable transportation devices, we can get anywhere we want. It’s amazing how fast we get to certain places.”
That’s not to say it’s always a smooth ride every time Fahie steps out with his wheel. The New York City streets are marked with potholes. Cabs are in a constant state of rush. Factor in the millions of people walking by, and you’ve got a perfect recipe for some faceplanting. Still, it’s not an issue for an expert rider.
“If you’re experienced enough, chances are you’ll stay up. You won’t ever be on the ground.”
If you think about it, that actually sounds pretty close to flying cars. Maybe the future is bright after all.