In his Downtown Mall office, Stuart Leitch unfolds two pedals on either side of his electric unicycle, steps onto each and begins to balance from side to side with the 14-inch wheel between his shins.
“I’ve had it for a year and a half and I’ve used it pretty much every single day,” says Leitch, the chief technology officer at Silverchair Information Systems. “I’ll take it to the dentist, the hairdresser, basically anywhere I need to go within about a three-mile radius.”
That includes his workplace. Residing only a few blocks from the mall, Leitch is hard to miss by anyone living or working nearby: They’ve likely seen him—and maybe his wife, too, on her mini Segway—zipping around. “I generally have a pretty low profile,” he says. “Even a year and a half in, I’m surprised that so many people continue to comment. They say, ‘Oh wow, there goes the future!’ …They’re fascinated.”
It took him about a week to become comfortable riding his electric unicycle, he says. His is “dangerously fast”—it can go about 25 mph for 25 minutes. The device is controlled by leaning forward to speed up and backward to slow down. And though he’s had a few accidents, he says he’s usually able to stay upright. “You’re typically going at running speed. If you’ve got your wits about you, you just run.”
Max Barbour, a Silverchair coworker and the electric unicyclist who inspired Leitch to buy his own, wasn’t so lucky with his wipeout. The spill resulted in a radial fracture in his right elbow and six weeks of recovery time, but Barbour says when he recovered, he was ready to get back on the horse—er, unicycle. His is a bit bigger at 16 inches tall, but it doesn’t go quite as fast, and he says he’ll drive halfway to work before parking his car and riding the rest of the way.
With an emerging technology, it’s sometimes hard to know the road rules. Leitch says he’s been stopped by one patrol officer on the mall, who said she was unsure of any city code pertaining to electric unicycles. She suggested he follow the same rules as a traditional cyclist.
“No person shall ride a bicycle, an electric power-assisted bicycle or moped on any sidewalk or other area designated exclusively for pedestrian traffic…provided however, that this prohibition shall not apply to on-duty police officers and other uniformed emergency services personnel,” city code says. It also prohibits roller skates, skateboards, scooters “or similar devices on wheels or runners.”
The latter would affect Nick Taucher, who also works in the Silverchair office, but uses a mode of transportation that’s a bit different from his unicycling colleagues. His is called a Onewheel and it looks like a skateboard with a giant wheel in the center. It’ll go around 15mph for about seven miles—but unlike the unicycles, which take hours to charge, his only takes about 20 minutes.
“In terms of coolness, Nick’s would absolutely win,” Leitch says.
Last week the Charlottesville Business Innovation Council named Silverchair Information Systems Business of the Year.