Matt O’Malley talks Boston’s future with e-scooters and micro-mobility

"I'd rather we do it right than do it quickly because otherwise, we could set ourselves up for failure."

City Councilor Matt O'Malley.
City Councilor Matt O'Malley. –Jessica Rinaldi / The Boston Globe, File

Last year, City Councilor Matt O’Malley was optimistic: By this spring — hopefully — Boston would have a pilot program for dockless electric-scooters.

While the city is certainly closer to letting residents zip around, the two-wheelers that have descended on the streets of cities across the country have yet to arrive in the Hub.

O’Malley says he’s not disappointed, though does he wish Boston officials got the trendy vehicles rolling before their neighbors in Brookline did?

“Part of me does,” he said in a recent interview. “But more than that, I’d rather we do it right than do it quickly because otherwise, we could set ourselves up for failure.”

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In October, the District 6 councilor led the council charge for getting regulations in place, a couple of months after the scooter company Bird made an unannounced appearance in Cambridge and Somerville last summer.

Officials took the first step toward any pilot possibility in March, passing an ordinance backed by Mayor Marty Walsh and hailed by O’Malley that allows the Transportation Department to lay some ground rules for micro-mobility companies looking to start business in Boston.

Still, as the city develops guidelines, a red light remains. Any program, city officials have said, would only come after state lawmakers tweak current Massachusetts regulations, which require brake lights and turn signals on motorized scooters — features not on models usually offered by rental companies. (In January, Gov. Charlie Baker filed a bill seeking to exempt the electric vehicles.)

These days, O’Malley’s enthusiasm hasn’t diminished. He sees a lot to like about e-scooters. In a city of notorious traffic jams, the sleek machines would offer a new way to get around, minus the gas-guzzling and air pollution.

There’s also potential for scooters to connect neighborhoods cemented in “transit deserts,” areas lacking access to public transportation, while generating new revenue for the city, O’Malley’s office says.

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Last week, the West Roxbury councilor sat down with Boston.com to talk over where things stand and what a new age of micro-mobility could mean for Boston.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Boston.com: You’ve kind of become the scooter’s biggest advocate on the council in a way.

O’Malley: I think that’s a fair characterization because I think it’s a really exciting, new, innovative technology. We have been dealing with traffic and gridlock in this city for generations. It seems to be greater than before because of the population growth that we’ve had in the city, so this is something that, it’s sort of a technological and an innovative solution to a longstanding problem, and that’s moving people around, dealing with traffic, dealing with congestion. And I’m excited about how, you know, multimodal transportation models could really fit into the way people get around the city of Boston.

Boston.com: Is that what drove you to pick this up last fall? Was there a personal interest?

O’Malley: Yeah … I’ve been talking about this. I’ve seen them pop up. I’ve traveled to a fair number of cities and I’ve seen them grow with popularity and I’ve really sort of seen that this is something that can be a great help to any city — in particular Boston — mindful of the fact that if done poorly, this is going to be a self-defeating prophecy from day one. So we need to be strategic with implementation and rollout.

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Boston.com: Back in February, you said some cities have been very successful with this, others not so much. How do you think Boston becomes one of those places that really nails it?

O’Malley: It’s a great question, and I would liken it to work we did (before).

I authored the plastic bag (ban) ordinance a couple of years ago, and I would say that’s another example where some cities did it exceptionally well and it worked, others did it with sort of a clumsy, hand-fisted rollout and it didn’t necessarily work, meaning it didn’t achieve the results that it was sort of designed to have done. Boston was sort of late to that conversation in many ways, but that’s OK — we did it the right way. We looked at other cities, saw what made sense, and we also saw what pitfalls to avoid. So I think the same can be true as it relates to scooters and e-scooters and sort of new multimodal transportation.

It’s still new and innovative enough that you’ve got, you know, Seattle and Portland that have I think done some interesting things. You know, (Washington) D.C. seems to be grappling with it now. Closer to home, Brookline has now, at this point, a two-month-old pilot program, some would say has been successful, others, it’s still hard to get used to. I have some friends in Brookline, and it’s almost split to a person: Some love it, others are sort of rolling their eyes.

Boston.com: I feel that’s the concern I’ve heard or read the most about this: Are these things just going to be all over the sidewalk? Is that a legitimate concern?

O’Malley: Of course it is. So to answer your question of so how does Boston do it right, I think we have an opportunity now to come up with a framework of rules, regulations, guidelines, as well as some oversight mechanism that we can actually implement them.

So what does that mean?

That means we want sort of a dynamic number in the number of scooters so we can be nimble as it relates to use. There’s certain times of the year they’re going to be used more — you know, the summer months are nicer and we have higher tourism, fewer college students, so that’s who presumably will be using (them) a lot. So I want us to be able to be nimble in terms of … the number of scooters out there.

We want to make sure they’re obviously picked up at night as most of them are to be charged. We want to make sure they don’t litter the sidewalks or prevent or inhibit ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) guidelines that we’re proud of in this city to make sure there’s sidewalks everyone can use safely.

So I think we can come up with some of these, we can anticipate what the problems are going to be. We know what they are: safety, infrastructure, education, and everything that it entails there, and put sort of policies in place that’s going to anticipate that and make sure that we’re able to make this both a pleasurable and effective mode of transportation for folks, while not causing a detriment in another area.

Boston.com: There was a letter (state Rep. Aaron Michlewitz) sent to the mayor’s office about not wanting scooters on North End streets because they’re too narrow, and (the neighborhood) had the Segway debacle over there a couple of years ago. What’s your take on that?

O’Malley: My take is every neighborhood is indeed different and unique and one of the reasons why this ordinance I think allows for oversight from the Transportation Department is to take that into consideration when they come up with rules. Again, though, we are not individual neighborhoods that are a federation. We are one city. We do want to be able to have some opportunities.

But Aaron’s right. When I talk about micro-mobility, Segways were a part of that.

Boston.com: In general, what have you heard from some of your constituents about this?

O’Malley: I think curiosity. People are really interested in this. They don’t quite understand this. It’s funny, I think the issue people often get is, ‘Oh, they’re going to litter the streets.’ That’s been the biggest complaint or concern I’ve heard. When I explain to all of these people that almost all of these companies have a model in place where they’re collected at night so they can be charged, people go, ‘Oh, I never thought of that.’

It’s funny: There are certain dockless bikes — I won’t get into naming them — you see them occasionally around Boston. They’ll be left on the sidewalk, and it could be days or a week or a month in some cases.

Boston.com: Or in a river. People were throwing them into the water.

O’Malley: That’s exactly right. People just think, ‘Oh, there’s going to be litter on the sidewalks.’ Well, (e-scooters are) a little bit different because they are electric and they need to be charged so they will be collected.

I think some people have had some concerns, others have been really intrigued by it. More others have said, ‘I want to try this, I’m concerned about, you know, safety for using the streets.’ So I think it also underscores that we need to really invest in better cycling infrastructure and more protected bike lanes, because … more people would use bikes or e-bikes or e-scooters or any sort of micro-mobility options if they felt safer. That’s one thing we need to work on regardless of what happens or what our timeline is. That should be happening now and is happening now.

Boston.com: Is it safe to say that when these things do come to Boston you’ll be, maybe, one of the first people on one?

O’Malley: I hope so, absolutely. Again, my typical mode of transportation is the car. I’m not going to lie about that. I drive. I live in West Roxbury, I drive. It’s an electric car so I do try to do my part. … But I think that it’s important that all elected officials … both embrace innovation and technology and use innovation and technology. So once these happen, I’ll absolutely be.

Boston.com: Looking ahead, and again, I know it’s on the state right now, but since you did have a hope for a pilot program last year, do you have a new hope on the horizon?

O’Malley: Yeah. I don’t want to give a timeline, not because I’m being evasive, (but) because we haven’t even met yet, the committee. … We want to make sure we have a good group impaneled and that we are working together and coming up with some good ideas and have a transparent process, which we will, in terms of soliciting feedback from stakeholders and community members, and then come up with a plan, and come up with the pilot after that.

I mean, the good news is you probably wouldn’t do a pilot program in the winter months, but you could do it in the fall, in the spring, in the summertime. So we’ve got a lot of options here.

Boston.com: Looking at micro-mobility as a larger thing than just these scooters, I’m curious what you see as the future of micro-mobility in Boston. What does, when we use that term and we look at a year like, 2030 — the year everybody likes to talk about — what do you see?

O’Malley: It’s a great question. E-scooters are part of it. E-bikes, or the bikes with the electric assist. You know, maybe, the autonomous cars are coming. That wouldn’t necessarily be micro-mobility. … It would be more sort of shared vehicles and (transportation network companies, or ride-sharing businesses). Some have suggested a gondola sort of system. I’m not a fan of gondolas, certainly in the Seaport District, necessarily.

But I think there are some things that we can’t even conceive of right now, and that’s what’s so exciting about this. That’s why I want Boston to be on the cutting edge, because we’re talking about an age-old problem — moving people around, getting people from point A to point B — yet we’re doing it with sort of sleeker, faster, smaller, you know, non-gasoline-chugging vehicles that can serve a purpose and do it well and do it safely.

So I think 10, 15, 20, 30 years from now there’s going to be a new city councilor and new reporter talking about jet packs or something we couldn’t even conceive of right now, you know?