By Lauren Bennett
Special to the Gazette
The City Council Committee on Planning, Development, and Transportation, chaired by Councilor Michelle Wu, held a hearing last month regarding dockless mobility and electric scooters in the City of Boston. As these new technologies become more rapidly available, the City is always looking for ways to have a greener footprint and help people get around more quickly, efficiently, and safely.
Three different panels presented information at the hearing, including administration representatives, people in the dockless mobility industry, and advocates.
“I’m excited to explore all angles of this rapidly evolving field with you,” Councilor Matt O’Malley said. “The field is so new that it’s popularized a new term: micromobility, which refers to a category of small vehicles for shorter, more flexible trips around the city.”
O’Malley mentioned BlueBikes (formerly Hubway), the area’s public bike share system, and said that Boston has never been able to keep up with the demand for the bikes. From the first subway at Park Street to one of the first bike share programs in the country, O’Malley said that Boston has always tried to keep up with the latest innovations in transportation.
Councilor Ed Flynn said that while he is not opposed to the idea of dockless mobility and electric scooters, questions of public safety are at the forefront of his mind. He wanted to make sure things like speed limits, helmets, and minimum age requirements are things that are addressed as this process moves forward.
“This seems like a great idea,” said Councilor Josh Zakim. He said his main concerns were around accessibility and where these vehicles are going to be left, which were major topics of conversation throughout the hearing.
As someone who does not own a car herself, Councilor Kim Janey said “I’m someone who believes deeply in making sure that we have equitable transit opportunities.”
Chief of Streets Chief Osgood said that he echoed the sentiments put forth by the councilors, and said that by the end of this year, they hope to onboard a transportation planner who will guide innovation and decide how the City can move people in ways that are safer and better for the environment, as well as decide how these new modes of transportation will work in conjunction with the existing MBTA and BlueBikes systems that are already in place.
As Councilor O’Malley mentioned, BlueBikes have been immensely popular. Osgood said that there were up to 1.5 million rides with the service in 2018, and by 2019, they expect to have 3000 bikes at 300 stations across Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, and Somerville.
“We are putting together a regional framework that would allow for the piloting of e-scooters on our streets as early as spring 2019,” Osgood said.
Gina Fiandaca, commissioner of the Boston Transportation Department, said that they have been in conversation with surrounding municipalities about what the best approach is to have a conversation at the state level. They would like to create overall guidelines that these municipalities have agreed upon.
It is illegal for motorized scooters to be ridden on the sidewalks in Massachusetts, and they currently must follow other state rules as well, including having brake lights, turn signals, helmet usage, and abiding by specific operating hours.
Kristen McCosh from the Mayor’s Office of Persons With Disabilities said that part of her role is to make sure the path of travel on the sidewalks remain unobstructed.
“Sidewalks are the most common mode of travel for people with disabilities,” McCosh said. She said she was concerned about accessibility of the scooters themselves as well as their speed, and where they might be left in the way of someone who is blind or low vision.
“People with disabilities are not in a position to move them or even go around them,” she said.
Osgood said that they are working through the best places for the scooters to be stored at the end of a trip.
Councilor Lydia Edwards asked McCosh what her thoughts were on an advisory committee with people from the disability community to have conversations with private companies who would be providing the scooters, as well as in what ways could the City be better than it was with Uber and Airbnb in terms of including people from the disability community.
McCosh said that some sort of advisory committee would be her “biggest recommendation” so regulations could be discussed and accessibility ensured.
Olivia Richard, a member of MassADAPT, provided public testimony from the perspective of someone in the disability community.
“No one is a fan of this technology in my community,” Richard said. “It’s another piece of technology that we are getting left behind on.”
She said she saw the Lime scooters while visiting Denver. “Rider behavior is different than what you think you can ordinance and legislate,” she said. She said that people were “riding anywhere and everywhere” with very little helmet usage. Richard also expressed concern for how quiet the scooters are. She said that someone who was blind or low vision would not even know they are there, which could be dangerous.
The second panel involved representatives from Bird, Lyft, and Lime to discuss how each respective company looks at the deckles mobility industry, and what it could offer Boston.
Scott Mullen, director of expansion for Lime in the Northeast, said that micromobility does not have the same infrastructure that something like BlueBikes does, so it can immediately serve communities in a transportation desert.
Hannah Smith, government relations manager for Bird, said that vehicles would be removed when they are underused, and that the fewer cars on the road, the better. She said that research has proven that there is safety in numbers when it comes to these new forms of transportation; the more bikes and scooters on the road, the safer it will be for everyone.
In the third panel, Stacy Thompson, executive director of the Livable Streets Organization, and Brendan Kearney from WalkBoston, made suggestions about the implementation of the new scooters. Thompson told the City Council that she hopes they will meet their excitement about the prospect with “increased funding for the infrastructure that will be required to support this.” She also said that regulating the speed of the scooters is just a small portion of the conversation that needs to be had about regulating the speed of all vehicles. Redesigning streets and curbside management were things that Kearney said needed to be thought about.
O’Malley said this was one of the most substantive hearings they have had about this topic, and added that “as a city, we need to do a tremendously better effort going forward as it relates to the safety of pedestrians and cyclists.”
He called this a “complex issue,” but one that needs to be discussed, and he said he feels strongly about implementing a pilot program in the spring of next year.
South End resident Michael Messina said that he would like to see electric scooters in Boston. He said that they would make his commute to Back Bay “a lot easier,” and praised Councilor Wu on her words about the most recent UN Climate Report, saying that cities have to take the lead in fighting climate change. “To me, this is the easiest step we can take to fight climate change,” Messina said. “If we can’t do this, I’ll be pretty disheartened.”