Boston takes step towards allowing electric scooters on streets

The Massachusetts Statehouse. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Kalina Newman
BU News Service

BOSTON – Dockless electric scooters are on their way to eventually hitting Boston streets after the City Council unanimously approved a proposal to place companies that specialize in the rentable vehicles under a “flexible” licensing structure. The city’s transportation department is tasked with creating the regulations governing the vehicles.

“I’m a big supporter of micro-mobility for three key reasons: They help remove cars from the road, they help lower greenhouse gas emissions, and if done right, can generate some real revenue for the city of Boston,” said Matt O’Malley, a councilor who represents the neighborhoods of West Roxbury and Jamaica Plain. “I can’t wait to see all of us on scooters on the not-so distant future.”

For residents of neighboring Brookline, that’ll be next week. Beginning April 1, they will be able pay to ride rentable electric scooters as part of a six-month pilot through popular micro-mobility companies Bird Rides Inc. and Lime.

But when riders reach the Boston-Brookline border, they’ll need to turn around. Once a rider crosses into Boston, the scooter will go into “maintenance mode” and the rider will be advised to turn back, according to Scott Mullen, Lime’s director of northeast expansion.

The process of establishing a pilot micro-mobility program relies in individual city’s interpretations of the state’s formal definition of a “motorized scooter,” which is listed as “any 2 wheeled tandem of 3 wheeled device…powered by an electric or gas powered motor.”

Scooter companies have struggled in the Boston area. Bird Rides Inc. last summer placed scooters across the area without warning, prompting Cambridge and Somerville officials to send cease-and-desist letters to the company. The scooters were later impounded.

“The state’s role is to define what these [scooters] are and what they should be, and the city’s role is to manage fleets within their own jurisdiction,” Mullen said in an interview after Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

Mullen said the company is excited for future opportunities in Boston and sees the unanimous passage of the proposal, first filed by Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, as a good sign.

“We’re working closely [in Boston] and are hoping we can operate there soon,” Mullen said in an interview.

From an environmental point of view, scooters are “crucial” to sustainability, according to Mullen. “We don’t need to be wrapping ourselves in 200 square feet of metal in order to go three blocks,” he said, referring to the cars that still dominate roads. “We can do so in a way that’s more sustainable.”

Under the now-approved proposal that Walsh filed in January, the city’s transportation commissioner will set requirements for shared scooter distribution.

The measure establishes a Small Vehicle Sharing Business Advisory Committee, which will consist of members from the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, the Disabilities Commission and the city’s Environment Department.

The council’s approval comes just weeks Bird Rides Inc. and Lyft, a popular San Francisco-based ride-sharing company with investments in micro-mobility, announced layoffs in their bike and scooter departments. Lyft reportedly laid off 50 people from the division shortly after announcing their historic decision to become the first public ride-sharing company.

Chris Osgood, the city’s chief of streets, said during an October council hearing that electric scooters would be on Boston streets “as soon as the spring of 2019,” but that was pushed back as councilors worked on the mayor’s proposal.

Osgood stressed the ordinance would not be a pilot, telling councilors that it would instead give “clear authority to the Boston Department of Transportation to be able to manage any shared micro-mobility services … such as the ability for BPD to be able to issue licenses and set a standard of certain geographies.”

O’Malley voiced his enthusiasm for the Walsh proposal earlier this year after initially pushing for a spring 2019 rollout. He said it would be best for Boston to step back and make sure the process is done carefully and efficiently.

“Obviously it seems at this time that a pilot program is not feasible, and I support what Mayor Walsh is trying to do in terms of having a comprehensive group that will come up with guidelines and regulations for electric scooters specifically,” O’Malley told the Business Journal.

“We’ve seen cities with [scooter] roll-outs that had been successful, and we’ve seen others where they have been disasters,” O’Malley said. “I’m grateful for this opportunity to really convene all the relevant stakeholders and come up with a plan that works for the citizens of Boston.”

This article was previously published in the Boston Business Journal.

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