By Lauren Bennett
Boston may not see electric scooters as early as originally thought. The City Council Committee on Government Operations held a hearing on February 26 regarding an ordinance establishing the Boston Transportation Department (BTD) to regulate shared mobility businesses. There was previous discussion of a pilot program for e-scooters or other technologies starting this spring, but it doesn’t look like that is happening any time soon. This ordinance is not a pilot of scooters or other technologies, but rather would allow BTD to have the power to regulate such technology should it be allowed to come to the city.
The City Council held a hearing in October 2018 regarding dockless mobility, which was very well attended and began the conversation regarding shared mobility services in the City of Boston It is “critical for the city to have effective regulation,” said Councilor Michael Flaherty, Chair of the Committee on Government Operations.
“I am enormously supportive of micromobility,” Councilor Matt O’Malley said, saying that he wants to remove more cars fro the road and move people around the city “as safely as possible.”
Chief of Streets Chris Osgood talked about the broad context of this emerging business. He said that there is “immense innovation happening” with these shared mobility services. “All these innovations are focused on ‘how do we move people in cities?’” he said. These types of vehicles cost less and cause fewer emissions than cars, and are a “reliable way of getting around town,” Osgood said.
However, Osgood also said that the City of Boston “currently does not have that regulatory clarity” for managing and monitoring those types of vehicles, so this ordinance is a first step in that process. Osgood reiterated several times throughout the hearing that this ordinance is not a pilot of scooters or similar technology, and “does not set caps, license terms, dictate geographies,” or other specifics related to the devices.
The ordinance does, though, “give authority to BTD to be able to manage any shared mobility services,” Osgood said, as well as the power to issue licenses, ensure that the licenses are operating at set standards, ensuring that use of storage of the devices would happen in “ways that are appropriate,” and “sets common sense provisions around what any shared micro mobility could do,” such as speed limits, etc.
Osgood made clear that “the city is still “a ways off from change on the street,” he said. “We are many steps away from a pilot.” He said the precursors to a pilot would be a change in state law (these kinds of devices are currently prohibited by state law), and the ability to manage the program. He said that the ordinance would allow BTD to “use those criteria if and when we would have a pilot.”
Councilor Flaherty asked what the difference between vehicle sharing and small vehicle sharing is, as small vehicle is only listed one time in the ordinance as it is written now. Michelle Sohn, Program Director for the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, said that the main difference is that small vehicles do not need to be registered—these are the types of vehicles that this ordinance focuses on.
Flaherty was also concerned about whose responsibility if would be if scooters were left strewn all over the streets and sidewalks. He said there needs to be language in the ordinance regarding this, and thinks it should be the scooter companies’ responsibility to pick up the scooters, similar to the shopping cart ordinance that was passed to put pressure on stores to retrieve carts in a similar fashion.
Councilor Lydia Edwards said she wants to see a commitment for a pilot in the language of this ordinance, as it would create a sense of urgency to actually go through with a pilot program. She said she would also like to see a youth appointee on the advisory group that will be formed around this topic, as a lot of young people would be interested in riding these.
Additionally, Edwards said that having some sort of training/education and road etiquette program would be a great idea. “I think it’s really important that you’re not just changing the rules, but the culture” surrounding the streets, she said. Edwards said that education for car drivers as well as people on the scooters is necessary. She thinks this ordinance as written is “a great first step,” but she’d like to see the education component be written in.
BTD Gina Fiandaca said that any applicant for a shared mobility business would need to submit a safety plan and an outreach plan before a license would be granted.
There was also discussion around the fee structure for these companies. Councilor Mark Ciommo suggested that “whatever fee structure there is that it pays for whatever staff there is to administer this program and sustain it over time.” He said this has not been done for things in the past, and the money to sustain programs has been taken out of the BTD budget.
Councilor Josh Zakim said that he’s a “fan” of shared mobility, and thinks it’s “an important aspect of our transit infrastructure, especially when it comes to climate change and doing what we can to address that.”
He said he has heard “serious concerns” about this from his constituents in the Back Bay and Beacon Hill regarding issues with ADA access not just to the vehicles themselves but also the use of them on sidewalks. He said this is a “continuing issue, particularly along Newbury St.”
He said that whatever program that may potentially get chosen to operate in Boston needs to have a “real system in place” for managing the pickup and parking of the devices. “I look forward to hearing from some operators about this about just how precise we can be,” Zakim said.
The City Council heard from two different potential scooter companies, Lime and Bird. Scott Mullen, Director for Expansion in the Northeast for Lime, a transportation sharing company. “What we want is a mode shift,” Mullen said, to enable people to get around in a different way.
“Micromobility is a real thing,” Mullen said. “Our vision is to revolutionize mobility in cities.” Mullen had a few comments regarding the ordinance as it is currently written. He said it currently places limits on small vehicles, and Lime suggests demand caps, as they are able to monitor the demand of their vehicles at any given point. “If we’re hitting operational guidelines…we should be able to scale up or down with it,” he said. He said they wouldn’t put out as many vehicles if the weather is cold or bad.
Mullen added that Lime shares its tip data with cities for free. “What we want are better conditions,” he said. He said they are trying to reconfigure streets so they do not remain 95 percent for cars and allow a larger percentage of them for other modes of transportation.
Edwards said she was “happy to know” that they would be receiving the data for free, because when the City Council asked Airbnb for similar data, Airbnb sued.
Hannah Smith, Government Relations Manager in the Northeast for Bird, another transportation sharing company, said that she has seen “tremendous vision and leadership” from the City of Boston. She said they have a vision for what launching Bird in Boston would look like, including people called “Bird Watchers,” who would inspect each vehicle to make sure it is parked properly and issues are addressed.
Smith also said that Bird is “deeply committed to ensuring that our service is rooted in equity,” offering discounts to people on public assistance. The Bird app can also be viewed in 14 different languages and dialects, she said.
She said that Bird requires all users to take photos of their scooter to complete their ride, or they will continue to get charged. She said that for parking, there could be something designated on a sidewalk denoting a parking area for the scooters, or potentially geofencing capabilities.
According to their representatives, Neither Lime nor Bird sells customer data to third parties, which was a concern brought up by the council.
During the public testimony portion of the hearing, Martin Roetter, a Back Bay resident and member of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay, said that these scooters “give us an opportunity to tackle what is already a problem.” He cited the new bike lane on Beacon St., saying that some cyclists use the lane, but others continue to use the roadway or sidewalk for cycling.
“It’s a sidewalk, not side bike, not side scoot,” he said. He said he does not want to see scooters use sidewalks and wondered how that is going to be enforced in the future. Additionally, he was concerned about who would be liable when accidents “inevitably occur,” and said that he would like to see insurance companies involved in the process moving forward.
“I look forward on behalf of NABB to making sure that we use…knowledge of residents in formulating rules and regulations that will be established,” Roetter said.
On a similar note, Councilor Fred Baker was concerned with people suing the city for accidents. Sohn said that the ordinance is written that applicants will agree to hold the city harmless for what happens with their products, “but the details still need to be filled in,” she said.
Olivia Baker, a member of the Boston Disability Commission advisory board, said that the board has a few issues with the scooters, mainly that they are not accessible to the disability community. Baker said that she has concerns as well about them being used on sidewalks, noting potential collisions with people who cannot hear or see the devices. She applauded the fact that a person from the Disability Commission is going to be on the advisory board.
She also said she was concerned about head injury, and said she has the same complaint with BlueBikes, as there is “no enforceable ordinance requiring folks to wear helmets when using these vehicles in the city.”
There is much left to be discussed surrounding this issue before any scooters will be available across the city, but “we have an opportunity to set the standard,” O’Malley said. He said the city can study how other cities have handled this type of transportation to see what the shortcomings were, so Boston can “make sure we do this right.”