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Hopes For An Electric Scooter Pilot Program Stall In Cambridge

Bird scooters were available to rent in Cambridge last month, until the company pulled out because of a citywide ban. Now Cambridge is working toward a pilot program that would allow scooter companies to operate legally. (Callum Borchers/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
Bird scooters were available to rent in Cambridge last month, until the company pulled out because of a citywide ban. Now Cambridge is working toward a pilot program that would allow scooter companies to operate legally. (Callum Borchers/WBUR)

A pilot program that would bring rentable, electric scooters back to Cambridge hit a roadblock Wednesday, and a city-sanctioned test drive for the tiny vehicles now appears unlikely to happen this year.

Jan Devereux, who chairs the City Council's Transportation and Public Utilities Committee, had told WBUR on Tuesday that the scooters — briefly deployed without permits by Bird Rides, Inc. over the summer — could return as soon as October. Devereux suggested Bird and chief rival Lime could receive street vendor permits that would allow them to operate temporarily, even as the Massachusetts Department of Transportation conducted a review of scooter sharing systems.

Cambridge officials had hoped the review would include a ruling on whether a state law requiring turn signals and brake lights applies to the kinds of scooters managed by Bird and Lime, which have neither. Devereux had said she believed the law was meant for mopeds, not stand-on devices that top out at 15 miles per hour.

But at a transportation committee meeting Wednesday afternoon, Cambridge Traffic, Parking and Transportation Director Joseph Barr said MassDOT had notified the city that it would not rule on the law’s applicability, leaving city attorneys to make the call. The attorneys’ interpretation is that the law does apply to Bird and Lime scooters.

“Because the scooters don’t currently comply … we would have to wait until the legislative session starts back up in January, in 2019, for them to change the state law in order for us to move forward,” said City Councilor Alanna Mallon.

Susanne Rasmussen, the city’s director of environmental and transportation planning, agreed that the state Legislature would have to change the law or scooter companies would have to add the required safety features. Neither Bird nor Lime, which sent representatives to Wednesday’s meeting, committed to the necessary equipment changes.

Lime’s Northeast general manager, Scott Mullen, said in an interview that the company’s new model does have brake lights but added, “The directionals are a tougher fix.”

“There’s a few issues with it, potentially,” he said. “You’ve got a brake in the left hand, you’ve got an accelerator throttle in the right hand; how do you control those directionals? If we’re going to get a legislative change that would likely remove those restrictions, do we do that work now, before the snow flies, if it’s going to be irrelevant anyway? Lots to think about after today.”

Bird’s government relations manager, Hannah Smith, declined an interview request.

In July, Cambridge ordered Bird off city streets after the California-based startup deployed its scooters in the city without seeking permission. Bird initially ignored the demand but ultimately complied in August, as public works crews impounded the company's fleet.

Meanwhile, Lime won praise from Cambridge Mayor Marc McGovern for holding its rollout until the development of a permit system.

McGovern and other city officials have cited safety concerns among their reasons to pump the brakes on electric scooters. Riders often forego helmets, despite warnings in the mobile apps used to rent them.

The scooters also lack designated pickup and drop-off spots.

Officials in Cambridge, and the dozens of other U.S. cities where scooter companies operate, say they have heard praise for the dockless system's convenience but also complaints about blocked sidewalks and other hazards.

Related:

Callum Borchers Twitter Reporter
Callum covers the Greater Boston business community for Bostonomix.

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