Dockless electric scooters could take flight once more in the Boston area, this time in more towns and greater numbers. But currently their return is in limbo.
Following the surprise — and brief — deployment of dozens of Bird scooters this summer in Cambridge and Somerville, local officials and scooter-sharing companies are plotting a path forward for when and how to bring the vehicles back. Cambridge held a hearing on the subject last Wednesday, which was attended by representatives from Bird and Lime, another micro-mobility company hoping to bring scooters to the area. Scott Mullen, Lime’s director of expansion in the Northeast, says he was “heartened” by the discussion.
“I think scooters are going to have a bright future in Cambridge and the region,” Mullen told Boston.com.
That said, exactly how distant that future is on the horizon is a bit unclear. Currently, officials on both sides acknowledge their return won’t come until at least next year.
“The delay is I know frustrating to people who are really eager to jump on scooters this fall, but I think if we want this to be a successful program in the longer term, it probably is not a bad idea to have the time to get our ducks in a row and do it right,” Cambridge Vice Mayor Jan Devereux, who led last week’s hearing, said in an interview Tuesday.
Where things stand now
In July, Bird dropped dozens of their scooters on the streets of Cambridge and Somerville without any prior notice or permission. While the company said the number of rides taken by local residents soared, officials in both cities said they were illegally operating without a permit. When the scooters were not pulled from the streets, Cambridge and Somerville sent Bird cease-and-desist letters and began impounding the scooters. Eventually, the company agreed to withdraw its fleet while Cambridge and Somerville “build a framework” for regulating electric scooters.
However, a more existential issue for scooters also emerged: Bird’s vehicles themselves appear to be illegal under state law, which mandates that any motorized scooters on public ways need to have brake lights and turn signals. Bird’s scooters have neither, and, while the newest iteration of Lime’s scooter has a brake light, it doesn’t have any turn signals.
Joe Barr, Cambridge’s transportation director, also notes that it would be tough to operate turn signals with riders’ hands occupied by the throttle and brake on each handlebar. Both Devereux and Barr say the state law appears to be intended for gas-powered mopeds and Vespa-style motor scooters, rather than electric, standing kick scooters that can’t go more than 15 mph.
The Massachusetts Department of Transportation, which has been reviewing the subject of electric scooters since their recent arrival, actually agrees. In a statement Tuesday, spokesman Patrick Marvin said that, after an initial review, the department concluded that those laws “likely were not intended to address and regulate these specific types of vehicles.”
And yet, according to the current language of the law, Barr says it’s hard to argue that the statute doesn’t apply to these scooters as well. According to MassDOT, the power to make and enforce policies lies with municipalities and law enforcement. But without the issue getting resolved at the state level, Cambridge officials aren’t willing to push it.
“Our City Solicitor [Nancy Glowa] has consistently indicated that her opinion is that these devices are captured by state law, regardless of what the intent might have been,” Barr told Boston.com.
During last week’s hearing, some officials questioned if the scooters could be retrofitted to include brake lights and turn signals. However, neither Mullen nor Hannah Smith, Bird’s government relations manager, said either of the companies had plans to do so. In a statement, a Bird spokesperson said the company is working with Cambridge and MassDOT to “develop a framework that works for everyone and allows Birds to get back on the road soon.”
“We’re having conversations both around retrofitting vehicles, but also around retrofitting the laws,” Mullen told Boston.com this week.
With the state legislature out of session until January, such changes don’t appear possible until at least early 2019. Devereux says she feels “pretty certain” that a local state legislator will push the issue once the new session begins, though she hasn’t gotten any specific indications.
“We appear to be in a sort of limbo,” she said.
What would a local scooter system look like?
Despite their initial clash with Bird, Cambridge officials are “generally supportive” of trying out a local dockless electric scooter sharing program, once the conflicts with state law are worked out. Devereux says that Bird, Lime, and another unnamed third company have all indicated interest in obtaining a license to operate under such a program, which she says would begin as a temporary pilot.
“I certainly want to give them an opportunity to prove that they can be a successful alternative, particularly for driving, ” she said. “I would certainly rather people ride a scooter than hail an Uber or a Lyft. As much as they can replace ride-hail use, I think it’s great.”
Costing $1 per ride, plus 15 cents for each minute of the trip (with discounts for low-income riders), scooter companies say they offer cities an equitable and sustainable way of getting cars off the road to reduce traffic and carbon emissions. During the hearing last week, Devereux said she had hoped that they could provide an option for so-called “last mile” trips and make commuting “easier, more flexible, and even perhaps more fun.”
“I share some of these concerns, but I also share the hope,” she said.
During the hearing, some residents expressed concerns about issues like safety and parking. Improperly parked scooters blocking sidewalks can be dangerous for elderly or disabled residents. And riders frequently disregard directions (by both companies and local laws) to wear helmets and ride only on the streets. However, other residents noted that these issues are hardly exclusive to scooters.
“My wife … is legally blind, and I don’t want her to trip over scooters,” Cambridge resident Frederick Hill testified. “But I feel like with the right sort of enforcement and socialization and fines, the city and the companies can deal with that issue. I mean, if Cambridge can cite people for not bringing in their trash cans, I think this is a solvable problem.”
Lime also requires riders to take a photo of their scooter when they finish their ride to confirm they parked properly. Still, Devereux says she expects sidewalks to be the “battleground” of the biggest conflicts when it comes to developing a framework to govern scooters.
“Pedestrians already feel a little bit besieged by the way people use sidewalks,” she said, noting how bicycles — including Blue Bikes, which are often docked on sidewalks — also get ridden on sidewalks. Both state law and scooter companies direct riders that they should remain on the street.
Any local policy framework would also have to address how many scooters are allowed — as well as when and where. Compared to the few dozen to 100 deployed in Bird’s summer launch, Devereux says the companies have indicated they would have to have significantly more. Other cities have set a cap on scooters from anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand. Barr says there’s a balance to be found between providing enough so that scooter sharing is a reliable option and financially sustainable business, but not so many that sidewalks are overcrowded.
“Part of the challenge for us is this is a new technology and a new business model,” he said. “We don’t want to create an overly restrictive regulatory framework.”
This being New England, another big issue is winter operations. Lime and Bird, which were both launched in Southern California, haven’t operated through any snowy seasons yet, though they did expand to Detroit and Minnesota this summer. Mullen says that unless it’s “really cold,” low temperatures shouldn’t be a barrier. However, they would pull scooters from the streets on a case-by-case basis during snowfall. Barr says that Cambridge will be watching those cities to determine the best approach.
Another inevitable issue is where they would be allowed. Despite rolling out solely in Cambridge and Somerville, Bird scooters inevitably ended up in Boston against the city and the company’s wishes. Considering the interconnectedness of Boston and the surrounding suburbs, Barr says “there’s definitely a need for some sort of regional coordination.”
The Metropolitan Area Planning Council already oversees a 15-community bike share system in Boston’s suburbs with thousands of dockless bikes, including electric bikes. During last week’s hearing in Cambridge, Eric Bourassa, the transportation director for MAPC, said the planning agency “would be more than happy to help” with any such regional effort for scooters.
“Delaying any pilot until early 2019 I think makes a lot of sense, and I think those municipalities are very eager to work together,” he said.
Bourassa added that he’s heard interest from Newton and Arlington, if scooters return to Cambridge. And according to the city’s presentation at the hearing, Boston, Brookline, and Somerville have all expressed a desire to be involved in developing regulations.
Mayor Marty Walsh warned Bird in July not to show up without warning in Boston, and the city’s transportation director, Gina Fiandaca, says it’s “important for municipalities to have a role when introducing shared transportation options” so that the system is safe, reliable, and geographically equitable.
“If a shared scooter company wants to do business in Boston, they will be expected to comply with all legal requirements and to work with appropriate City of Boston agencies to introduce their transportation option to the general public safely and in a cooperative manner,” Fiandaca told Boston.com in a statement Tuesday.
The Boston City Council is also planning to hold a hearing on electric scooters this fall.
Though Cambridge officials disagree with Bird’s tactics, they tacitly agree that the company somewhat forced their hand to start considering the issue.
“Quite honestly, until Bird did its surprise launch, it wasn’t something we were saying we need to do this fall. We knew that it was coming, but it wasn’t like top 10 priority,” Devereux said.”Now, it is on our agenda and it is a higher priority and we’ll have the time hopefully to get it right, because if we were to launch a sort of half-baked pilot and didn’t have all of the rules about parking and sidewalks and data well thought through, it really could backfire.”
“I’d rather do it right, and doing public policy takes time,” she said.