'Back to the Future' Didn't Predict How to Police Hoverboards — Just Ask the NYPD

Manuel Williams, 23, channels his inner Marty McFly on Decatur Street in Brooklyn.EXPAND
Manuel Williams, 23, channels his inner Marty McFly on Decatur Street in Brooklyn.
Alex Zimmerman, for the Village Voice

Ever since Marty McFly escaped an angry gang of teenagers by stealing a little girl’s pink scooter, breaking off the handlebars, and hovering away, humankind has been obsessed with the idea of hoverboards. People have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into crowdfunding campaigns that promise the technology, and at least one luxury car company has actually invented one (though, sadly, it requires access to liquid nitrogen and only runs on a track in Spain). Our love of hovering runs so deep that skater Tony Hawk actually apologized for “misleading everyone” after a viral video of him riding a hoverboard turned out to be fake. But even though commercial hoverboarding à la Back to the Future is still a distant fantasy, a different kind of “hoverboard” has landed in Brooklyn.

On a recent afternoon in Bed-Stuy, Manuel Williams is gliding down Decatur Street. He’s talking on his phone, but doesn’t miss a beat when he suddenly spins on his hoverboard and rides backward up a curb cut. The two-wheeled device he’s riding looks a lot like a smaller version of a Segway, one whose handlebars are missing and that's been tricked out with blue lights. He guides the device with subtle movements and shifts in his body weight — it might as well be attached to him. “It’s all over Brooklyn,” the 23-year-old Williams explains. “It’s a little pep in your step.”

And even if it’s just a fad, Williams is committed. About two weeks ago, when he tried to jump down to the street from the sidewalk, he misjudged the height and his hoverboard snapped in half. He immediately bought a new one for around $500, partly because “I use it every day...I don’t gotta get tired of walking no more.”

'Back to the Future' Didn't Predict How to Police Hoverboards — Just Ask the NYPD (2)

The self-balancing electric scooters (which go by a number of different names and have generated some Twitter outrage) have gained a celebrity following from Justin Bieber to Jamie Foxx. But for a few hundred bucks (up to $1,800 at the high end), hoverboards are gaining a mainstream audience. Walmart said last month it would start selling them in time for the holidays, though the devices are the subject of a patent war. In the meantime, the ranks of people riding them in New York seem to swell by the day, prompting reactions about whether anyone wants another fleet of slow-moving vehicles on the city’s streets and sidewalks, or whether they’re even legal.

“I think they’re completely bizarre,” says Pete Simpson, a 46-year-old from Clinton Hill. “They don’t feel like a danger, [but] any wheeled thing on the sidewalk is annoying.”

“They’re going to make people fat. You’re not getting any exercise,” adds Jerald J., an East New York resident who doesn’t want to give his last name. “They’re taking off — they’re going to have to regulate them somehow.”

For the city’s part, it isn’t entirely clear how the hoverboards fit within existing rules. The NYPD wouldn't comment directly or say if any citations had been issued against hoverboarders. Instead, they referred to a Wall Street Journal article on a range of new motorized devices. The piece quotes Thomas Chan, the NYPD’s transit chief, as saying, “There may be a small segment [of devices] where they’re going to be borderline and difficult, and sometimes that will have to be looked at on a case-by-case basis.”

But ask the people who actually enforce the law, and it’s clear that there is some confusion. “I don’t know, to be honest,” one Brooklyn traffic officer says when asked whether hoverboards are legal to ride on sidewalks. Another officer, patrolling near the Barclays Center, says they’re definitely legal to ride on sidewalks, since they don’t have gasoline engines.

Armani S., who uses a hoverboard as part of his commute from Fort Greene to a GED program, says the police never bother him. “Today, I was coming home from school [and] the police officer actually complimented me,” says the eighteen-year-old, likewise declining to give his last name.

When Armani gets to school, “I charge [the hoverboard] in the classroom — my teacher doesn’t have a problem with it.” In two hours, he has enough battery power to last the rest of the day.

Asked whether he plans to ever walk again, he says, blithely, “Up the stairs.”

Adding to the hoverboards' mystique is that they’re relatively difficult to find in stores. Williams says he’s seen them at the Kings Plaza, though a mall representative says the vendor that sold them is already gone. Calls to three other area shopping centers came up empty, but vendors are starting to set up pop-up stores around the city. Several hoverboarders interviewed for this story said they bought them online, through sites like Amazon.

But even if they’re hard to find, Wiz Khalifa — who was so attached to his hoverboard that he was handcuffed for refusing to dismount for airport security officers — doesn’t doubt their future popularity.

“I stand for our generation,” he tweeted, “and our generation is gonna be riding hover boards so if you don't like it eat a dick!”

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