I have surfed the Pacific a few feet above spiky coral reefs and cycled solo from Boston to Provincetown, but neither act made me as anxious as riding down Commonwealth Avenue on an electric scooter, inches from rush-hour traffic.
I was scooting to work last week to test out e-scooters from the startup companies Lime and Bird now being piloted in Brookline. There are about 200 scattered around town. I thought it would be fun to see what the rules were, if anyone was enforcing them, and if I could beat my typical Green Line commute by renting a scooter with a top speed of 15 miles per hour.
Much of my anxiety was caused by the fact that I have never been a scooter or skateboard kind of person. If we’re talking about human-powered transport, I’d rather be astride a bike. But some of the worry stemmed from a rather unfortunate accident that took place April 1, the day the e-scooters showed up in Brookline. A 62-year-old woman took a spill 15 minutes into the launch event outside Town Hall and was carted off to the hospital.
Not exactly a great advertisement for this new pay-by-the-minute form of “micro-mobility,” as the advocates call it.
To rent a scooter, you download a mobile app, enter a credit card number, and use the app to find a nearby vehicle on a map. (There are several screens of instructions — don’t ride on the sidewalk, don’t let kids use it — plus an injury waiver.) Press a button on the app, and the scooter beeps to let you know it’s yours. My first six-minute test ride on a Lime scooter cost $1.90.
The Lime scooter is a really nice piece of equipment. On the left side of the handlebar is a brake lever like you’d find on a bike; on the right is a throttle that is fairly sensitive. There’s a brake light on the back, and a small headlight in front.
The Bird scooter, made by Ninebot of China, is not nearly as enjoyable. The throttle feels like it has two positions: on or off. The braking is abrupt. And there’s no brake light visible to a car behind you. The only reason I rented a Bird a second time was to make sure my bad experience on the first one wasn’t a fluke. (It wasn’t.)
Both of the scooter companies’ apps encourage you to park out of the way of pedestrians when you’re done, but I’ve spotted plenty left smack in the middle of sidewalks and near handicap ramps.
The laws around e-scooters are really unclear. A state law governing “motorized scooters” seems to mandate helmet usage and require that the scooters have turn signals. (Neither Bird nor Lime scooters do.) But the Massachusetts Department of Transportation issued statements in 2018 saying that law applies only to moped and Vespa-type scooters, and that when it came to these battery-powered e-scooters, “they were leaving the enforcement and pilots up to each municipality,” said Heather Hamilton, a Brookline selectman who is overseeing the scooter pilot.
Is it legal to ride these e-scooters on the sidewalk? Also a bit hazy, according to Brendan Kearney of the pedestrian advocacy group WalkBoston.
One thing is clear, however: These scooters are only supposed to be used in Brookline. If they are taken into Boston or Cambridge and left there, the scooter companies are expected to pick them up and return them to Brookline — within two hours. (A Bird I rented one evening slowed down and then stopped working when I crossed from Brookline into Boston. It beeped incessantly, its wheels locked, and I had to carry it back across the town line.)
Last Thursday, I decided to try taking a Lime to work. My best time on the Green Line is about 30 minutes. Could I beat that?
I picked up a scooter on Harvard Street at 7:54 a.m., and set off on back roads to try to avoid Beacon Street. But before long, I wound up on the sidewalk of Beacon. It wasn’t crowded, but I did weave in and out of some senior citizens and young professionals on their way to work or the gym.
With the scooter’s small wheels, I worried about every sidewalk bump, metal plate, asphalt divot, and sewer grate I crossed. I especially worried about transiting MBTA tracks. While on the sidewalk, I passed one police officer working a traffic detail and another in a squad car. After about a mile of riding on the sidewalk, eventually a man walking his corgi suggested loudly that I “get off the sidewalk,” and I did.
Shortly after, I crossed into the forbidden land of Boston, and the Lime kept rolling. On Commonwealth Avenue, I really missed my bike’s side-view mirror, which I mounted on the left handlebar to keep an eye on traffic behind me. Cars whizzing past were an unpleasant surprise.
“You get any exercise on that thing?” a snarky cyclist asked me at a stoplight. “None,” I said, “but I’m really a cyclist. I’m just testing this out.” He acknowledged that it’s pretty fast — and that it looks like fun.
Rolling over brick sidewalks in Back Bay made my head vibrate. Did I dare go into the Public Garden, where anything wheeled is forbidden? I dared, and then headed up Beacon Hill. I parked the scooter in front of the State House, pulled out my phone, and used the app to wrap up my ride: 24 minutes in total. I beat the T by about six minutes but also spent $4.60 (versus $2.25) getting to work. At 33 degrees, it was also rather chilly.
One last thing to check: You’re not supposed to be able to rent a Bird or Lime once it is in Boston. But a minute later, I re-rented the same scooter and rode it a few dozen yards down the sidewalk.
“That’s not allowed. That shouldn’t happen,” said Scott Mullen, Lime’s director of Northeast expansion. His best hypothesis? The scooter hadn’t yet communicated with Lime’s servers to update its location. To Lime’s credit, when I went back two hours later to look for the scooter, it had already been whisked away back to Brookline. (I took the T home.)
I don’t intend to remain a scooter scofflaw, or really to use them much at all. But as the scooter fleets expand around Boston, it will be a real positive if they can play a role in making the case for safer, more separated bike lanes on the road. But I also think it’s vital that cities and towns realize that without any penalties for parking these vehicles in the middle of sidewalks or zooming past pedestrians — as I did to make a point — e-scooters may not represent the kind of progress we want.Scott Kirsner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.