The dark, dark world of illegal Segway tours of Washington, D.C.

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
Font Size:

In Washington, D.C., it is illegal to talk about the monuments or the history of the city if a person pays you to take them around town. That is, unless you pay the government $200 and pass a 100 question multiple-choice exam.

The District requires that all tour guides get a tour operator’s license, which can be obtained by paying an application fee, a license fee and an exam fee, all of which total $200, and taking the exam. The penalty for failing to do so is up to 90 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $300.

That is a risk that Tonia Edwards and Bill Main take daily. The two operate Segs in the City, a tour company that conducts people around the city on Segways. Neither they nor their employees have the required license. And, they have no intention of getting one: On Thursday, Edwards and Main, with the help of Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm, filed suit against the city.

For Main, Edwards, and IJ, it is an issue of free speech: “The Constitution does not allow the government to be in the business of deciding who is — and who is not — allowed to speak about various topics.” Standing at the U.S. Navy Memorial, across the street from the National Archives where the U.S. Constitution is housed, Robert McNamara, staff attorney at IJ, declared: “That is un-American, that is unconstitutional and we will put a stop to it.”

The regulation has actually been around for about 100 years, though it has for the most part gone unenforced. But in July, the District new regulations took effect that specified that tours conducted on “self-balancing personal transport vehicles,” a.k.a. Segways, are subject to the licensing regulation. There are only three Segway tour companies in the District, so the threat was pretty clear. Instead of waiting around for the District to begin enforcing the law, Main and Edwards decided to sue.

Not only does the regulation require a license, but it prohibits anyone without one from “[using] the words “sightseeing,” “tours,” “guide” or any combination of these words, to advertise the availability of sightseeing tour services.”

Institute for Justice points out that many people’s jobs are to talk, such as broadcast journalists or comedians, and there is no licensing fee for them to do so. Moreover, the regulation has unintended broad-reaching consequences: “If … a person hires a D.C. taxi for a sightseeing tour (at a cost of $25 per hour), and the driver talks about the prospects of the Washington Redskins, no law has been broken. But if, during that same ride, the driver says “Hey, that’s the Washington Monument,” the driver can be fined $300 or even thrown into jail for three months.”

Operating tours is a seasonal business, and a lot of Tonia and Bill’s employees are students on break from school, or people who just graduated and need something to pay the bills while they look for a full-time job. It’s not exactly a demographic that can afford to pay $200 for the luxury of having a summer job, so none of Segs in the City’s tour guides are licensed.

If you’ve ever been unemployed, it’s hard not to see Bill and Tonia as sympathetic figures. The two happily hire people who are looking for full-time jobs, putting them into the schedule for about 20 hours per week so that they can make money, but still have time to job hunt. If these people first had to pay $200 for a license to give tours, it’s likely they would have moved on to another job before they’d even managed to break even.

Institute for Justice takes issue with the broader trend of requiring people to have a license for specific jobs — what they call “the explosion of occupational licensing.” According to McNamara, one in three people is now required to get a license to do their job, up from one in twenty 60 years ago. Past IJ lawsuits have fought licensing requirements for African hairbraiders, florists and funeral homes. IJ has also worked to prevent the implementation of a similar tour guide licensing requirement in Philadelphia, Pa.

This is not the first time Tonia and Bill have run up against this issue. Last August, they lost their business license in Gettysburg for giving a tour of the battlefield, an activity for which the National Park Service requires a license. Tonia says a park ranger even admitted that they had been telling tourists the same exact things that licensed tour guides said, but since they had no license, it simply didn’t matter.

Bill and Tonia don’t believe that an exam is required to ensure quality tours. They try to hire people with relevant degrees, usually in history or political science, and currently, they employ a guide who is writing his doctorate on the history of Washington, D.C., a man who is likely more qualified to lead a tour than most licensed tour guides.

Moreover, the two put their employees through a rigorous training process of their own. First, Segs in the City guides have to learn how to ride a Segway. It’s really fun, but the sensation takes some time to get comfortable with: to remain stable, you must keep your arms still. Leaning forward makes you move, and the more you lean, the faster you go, up to the 10 mph speed limit for Segways enforced in D.C., which Bill and Tonia observe “scrupulously.” “Look ahead, don’t look down,” Bill constantly reminds rookies, like the attendees of today’s press conference.

Once they’re comfortable riding a Segway themselves, guides must learn how to teach the skill to someone else in the first 15 minutes of a tour. New guides shadow experienced guides’ tours, learning everything: not only about the sights, but about the street crossings, which corners have ramps, where Segways are permitted on sidewalks, and where they are required to stay in the bike lane. They are expected to know this information cold, and Bill quizzes them on it. During this time, guides learn the most important skills — how to manage a group of people and keep them safe. As Bill says, “it is more important that you take care of your people than that you tell them about that building. But you still need to be able to tell them about that building.”

The training process takes about seven days, by which time guides have been on about 15 to 20 tours. Only then, are they set loose to lead their own tours, with Bill or Tonia come along to observe.

Almost none of this, Bill points out, would be learned by studying for an exam.

IJ notes that “Tour guides in the District offer ghost tours, food tours, and even TV and movie tours. The idea that all of these people should be banned from speaking until they’ve passed a single test on a variety of unrelated topics is completely indefensible.”

Washington Walks is one of the companies that offers a ghost tour, called “The Most Haunted Houses.” But Carolyn Crouch feels that the district’s test is important, even for guides giving tours such as these. “I feel it’s relevant because you still want people who have a general knowledge of Washington,” she told The Daily Caller. “You want people with a wide breadth of knowledge, and for better or for worse, the test that is required provides that you have to know that to some extent. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than nothing.”

Washington Walks, unlike Segs in the City, hires very few people for only a single season; rather, Crouch looks for people who have a passion for giving tours, and are willing to put in the time and money required to do that. Requiring the test and the fees “makes people take that extra step. Do you really want to do this or not, do you want to make the commitment.”

But for Tonia and Bill it’s a matter of principle. They believe that the government has no right to limit what they can say and where they can say it, and if they lose in court, Tonia suggests that rather than give in and get the license, they might simply take their business out of D.C.

In addition to being a violation of free speech, Tonia and Bill feel that such a requirement is impractical and unnecessary. Most people don’t go on tours to be lectured, she points out. They want to have fun, enjoy a ride on a Segway, and see the sights. “We’re not history teachers; we’re light-hearted entertainers,” Bill says. Giving a tour is as much about putting on a show as giving people the cold hard facts. Which means that there are occasions where guides don’t totally adhere to the factual record. Sometimes they even, gasp, tell jokes.

Standard for a Baltimore tour (Bill and Tonia also conduct tours in Baltimore and Annapolis) is a story about pirates. Baltimore used to be a place where pirates docked, and Bill will begin to spin a yarn as they leave one sight, continuing for however long it takes to reach the next sight. The story itself is irrelevant. What matters is how it ends: when pirates came to Baltimore, Bill tells his avid listeners, many of them would get their ears pierced. And back then, do you know how much they paid for that? He asks. “A buck-an-ear.”

A license hardly seems necessary to say that.