Some may recall the brief kerfuffle during the summer of 2018 when Bird dropped about a hundred of its electric scooters on Cambridge and Somerville streets without seeking permission from either city. The stealth launch got them a lot of publicity but ruffled feathers in both City Halls, and they were asked to leave after a few chaotic days. Bird’s response was to add a form email to their app so that Bird riders in other cities could email us “I love Bird in Cambridge.” Our inboxes swelled for a few weeks. The Boston Globe covered the story and quoted me (misspelling my last name and calling the council a “chamber”…we do meet in a big room called the Sullivan Chamber):
“They are a good idea, I think,” said Councilor Jan Devereaux (sic), who leads the chamber’s (sic) transportation initiatives. “The devil is in the details in terms of wanting them to be used safely. They are not toys.”
A year later my opinion hasn’t changed. Nor have the email campaigns waged to sway us. Bird and now Lime continue to prompt their users to send us one-click form emails asking us to allow e-scooters in Cambridge.
We are listening and learning from the experiences, both good and bad, in other cities around the US and the world that have implemented scooter sharing programs in the past year or so. For the past several months I have subscribed to a Google alert that sends me daily headlines from all over about the introduction of shared electric scooters. I also subscribe to two excellent blogs that cover micromobility and sharing platforms (Oversharing and Micromobility.io).
Cambridge wants to support micromobility as one part of our effort to transition more people away from cars. The potential for electric devices like scooters to reduce emissions and congestion and to improve connections to transit is aligned with our environmental goals. We also are committed to Vision Zero, and scooters, when operated responsibly, can contribute to reducing car-dominance and overall travel speed on our streets, a proven pathway to safer streets overall.
With these goals in mind, we discussed a number of options for a shared e-scooter pilot program during a Transportation Committee hearing that I chaired on July 15. A brief recap follows.
First, we won’t do anything until the state legislature votes on several scooter/micromobility bills that are still under review in their joint transportation committee. With the legislature going into informal session on July 31 until after Labor Day, it doesn’t seem likely that there will be a vote on micromobility regulations until sometime this fall. City and state laws differ on how fast scooters may travel and the hours the devices may be operated, and on the requirements for helmets and turn indicators. We want any regulations to be clear and consistent across jurisdictions.
Thus, a future pilot would be implemented across the metro area with the same rules for operation and the same scooter companies participating. At present the cities interested are Cambridge, Boston, Somerville, Watertown and Brookline, which went ahead with a pilot of its own in April that will be concluding on November 15. Brookline limited its program to people ages 18 and up, but we are told that some parents have asked to lower the age to 16 so that older teens can legally rent scooters. All the cities are working closely with the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission.
One option is for the participating cities to agree on a set of minimum (but uniformly high) standards for any vendor who wishes to participate and then to chose three companies by lottery. Some of us asked why we wouldn’t chose based on the operator’s performance record especially as it relates to the safety and durability of their equipment and customer service. Each vendor would be expected to provide at least 250 devices in Cambridge and could increase their fleet based on user demand. Picking more than one vendor helps ensure market competition and provides a backup if one vendor drops out. The scooter market is evolving quickly and there may be more mergers and acquisitions.
The maximum speed would be 15 mph. For the most part scooters would be expected to travel on the street and in bike lanes if they exist. If they were allowed on sidewalks the rules would be the same as for bikes — stay off sidewalks in business districts, ride at walking speed, and yield to pedestrians. The potential for conflict with pedestrians raised concerns during the hearing. Most of us were also skeptical that allowing scooters on sidewalks anywhere is wise because sidewalks are bumpier and the small wheels on scooters don’t handle surface defects or even small changes in pavement levels well.
Vendors would be required to offer discounts for income-eligible riders and to re-charge and redistribute their fleets daily, so that all neighborhoods are equally well served.
Parking scooters out of the way of pedestrians may be more problematic in busy commercial areas and where sidewalks are narrow, so on-street parking may need to be offered (a corral for scooters like we have in some areas for bikes).
We did not discuss the details of data sharing or privacy policies, but like other cities we would expect that anonymous data on ridership would be used not only to help operate the sharing programs efficiently but in helping us plan street design and parking improvements and transit connections.
During the pilot, scooter vendors would be licensed under the city’s existing sidewalk merchandise display permit, but ultimately we would need new municipal regulations and some minor zoning changes specifically for commercially operated micromobility devices.
If you have comments you’d like us to consider as we develop a possible scooter pilot, please leave them below.
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Jan Devereux City Councillor Cambridge, MA