Oak Park entrepreneur opens tour business hoping to capitalize on two-wheeled people-movers

Learning your Seg-way around Oak Park

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By Marty Stempniak

Staff Reporter

When my eyes are pointed at the pavement, feet plodding along as I make my way to the next assignment, it's easy to miss those little things. The ornate details of an old brick apartment building or the little blossoms starting to peek out from the branches of a Bradford pear tree. On a gloomy Friday afternoon last week, a local entrepreneur gave me a chance to slow things down, and observe the intricacies of Oak Park that I usually miss.

Last week, Luke Thornton and his wife opened the Oak Park Segway Experience Center, located on the second floor of the Medical Arts building, 715 W. Lake. There they offer tours of the village on these two-wheeled, electric-powered machines, highlighting local businesses and architectural attractions.

Thornton decided to start his own Segway tour business after trying out a similar excursion in Saugatuck, Mich., which also has a collection of Frank Lloyd Wright homes.

The startup costs were steep — about $6,700 a pop for each Segway, of which he bought 10 — but Thornton believes there's a niche for visiting tourists here that isn't being filled.

I decided to take a spin myself last week to sample the new offering in action. Thornton started by having me slap my John Hancock on a waiver form (you must be over the age of 14 and 80 pounds, but this side of 275 pounds).

He proceeded to show me a quick seven-minute video on safety, punctuated by crash test dummies leaning too far forward on their Segway while speeding down a hill, resulting in their faces scraping along the pavement.

"This is designed to show people the seriousness of driving," Thornton said. "Is this stuff going to happen? Probably 95 percent of the time, it's not going to happen."

He then decked me out in a neon yellow vest and bright red helmet for protection. The latter barely fit over my big noggin (despite the extra-large size), though it got a little cozier after Thornton removed some of the interior padding.

After a brief tutorial behind Jimmy John's, we were off — whizzing up Linden near the high school stadium. Students passing by begged for a quick ride, which Luke gently declined before handing over a flier for his business.

Initially, Oak Park Segway is offering two choices — a tour of the Oak Park Arts District along Harrison or a more touristy romp through the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District (which I opted for). Each tour costs about $60 and lasts two hours.

One of Thornton's first stops was a handsome prairie-style apartment building on Linden. Four years at Oak Park and River Forest High School and I never noticed this little gem, designed by John Van Bergen.

"Most people don't," Thornton said with a chuckle.

Other stops along the way included Pleasant Home, the Wright Home & Studio, and the Hemingway Museum. Luke told the story of Wright's "bootlegger" homes on Chicago Avenue and how they got him kicked out of an architectural firm. He also talked about problems homeowners have had with tourists just wandering into their Wright-designed houses.

Thornton read most of his cues from cards, but he said he's working to wean himself and perfect his delivery.

The last pit stop was Austin Gardens, where my tour guide switched the speed mode on the Segway and let me zip around the circular path in the park for a couple of minutes before we detoured through Scoville Park and back to the Medical Arts Building.

There he introduced me to Jack Sheehan, who owns the local landmark, which was once the tallest building in Oak Park.

"They're all a little strange," Sheehan said when asked if this was the most unusual business in his building. "I like the idea and I'm excited about it." So excited that he himself is featured riding a Segway in one of the company's first television commercials.

Thornton hopes he can capitalize on tourists, along with staycationers who want to look at Oak Park from a different angle.

"You may have lived here a long time, but there's a lot more here than just driving by the streets and not noticing anything," he said.

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john murtagh from oak park  

Posted: April 22nd, 2011 10:23 PM

SEGWAY--It is a motorized vehicle-- It requires NO driver training or license required--NO written test--NO license plate--NO vehicle registration--No requirement for insurance--It weighs 120 lbs--Passenger can weigh up to 260lbs--It is silent--Can go up to 12mph--At 20" wide (not including wrap) it takes most of the walkway space--No helmet required--No requirements for physical fitness--can be used for mobile advertising--can be purchased by anyone. It is a SEGWAY. We need an ordinance!


Posted: April 22nd, 2011 4:39 PM

For starters there are about 1000 to 1 bikes to Segways. People must balance and operate a Bike. Segways balance themselves and pretty much operate themselves too. I think this would be a great idea for the FLW tours


Posted: April 22nd, 2011 3:59 PM

According to a handbook distributed by the IL Secretary of State anyone older than 12 years is prohibitted from riding bicycles on the sidewalk and must adhere to the rules of the road when on the street. Why should Segways be any different?

OP Resident  

Posted: April 22nd, 2011 1:57 PM

Interesting that Segway riders/drivers wear a helmet. I wish the Village Board and OPPD would agree that bicyclists must also wear some type of protective head gear. We are getting close to the days when there are going to be a lot of people riding bikes, especially children. Several years ago, I attended the wake for a 6 year old who died after she fell off her bike. A sad day for us and the loss devestated her family. Would the WJ please consider a editorial in support of requiring helmets?


Posted: April 21st, 2011 6:03 PM

Segways for ALL the residents in the Comcast Project and we wont need a parking lot or have much congestion? Hopefully they ALL work locally.

Patricia O'Shea  

Posted: April 21st, 2011 2:28 PM

1) Hit by an adult on a bike. Scary 2) Hit by an adult on a Segway. Scarier 3) Hit by a kid on a bike. Meh. I'm with J.

J.oak park  

Posted: April 21st, 2011 2:23 PM

@john, now i am back on your side, even if it is not a side you are in favor of. let children ride their bikes on the sidewalk, please. I don't want children riding in the street, it is not safe for them. And also don't spend any money on bike lanes on ridgeland, madison, agusta or division... those streets are not safe to cross at a cross walk, never mind ride a bike on.

john murtagh from oak park  

Posted: April 21st, 2011 2:08 PM

If Segways belong on the sidewalks, why do bikes belong in the street?

epic lulz  

Posted: April 21st, 2011 1:32 PM

Segways belong on the sidewalk. Think of them as wheelchairs for people too lazy too walk, but not too lazy to stand.

J.oak park  

Posted: April 21st, 2011 12:44 PM

@OP...wait just a second: we actually agree on something, for once ever. @John, I though that was a little over the top. From what I have been reading from a lot of people lately it looks like it is time to rip up the sidewalks and get rid of kids smart and dumb(not pc, i know) old people, poor people and rich people, high rises, one story house and certainly apartment buildings and condos. rip up the street, because we refuse(can't afford) to fix them. back to the prairie, please.

Greg from Wauconda  

Posted: April 21st, 2011 12:32 PM

Segways are NOT a menace on sidewalks. Like any activity, If people are responsible and civil there is no more risk of a "260lb Segway" that a 300lb man. Even the photo shows the clearance for others on the sidewalk.


Posted: April 21st, 2011 12:13 PM

Another wonderful"I love to live in OP" comment by john murtagh. Misery loves company

Neighbor to the North  

Posted: April 21st, 2011 12:11 PM

Great, in-depth article. That Marty Stempniak sure has upped his game.

john murtagh from oak park  

Posted: April 21st, 2011 11:55 AM

Segway photo shows riding on the sidewalk; not on the roadway where cars and bicycle ride. Bikes are dangerous on the sidewalk, but not nearly as big of a risk as a 260LB Segway. I agree that Segway are exciting and I think they are safe if located in the right place - like Milennium Park. Children are excited by Segways and love to run to look at them. They are at risk of Segways on the sideways. Let's think this out, folks.

Vanita Stevenson from Chicago  

Posted: April 20th, 2011 2:18 PM

I think this is a exciting new business, and one that I think Chicago people will take advantage of.

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