Are we letting our sidewalks be turned into giant scooter rental lots?
What do you do with a couple of dead Birds?
In late May, I noticed a dead electric scooter from Bird, the California startup company, in a Brookline park. Bird is one of two companies running a pilot test in Brookline until mid-November. Both of them — the other is called Lime — offer mobile apps that let you “unlock” a scooter, buzz around town, and pay for your rental by the minute. You can leave the scooter at your destination, digitally lock it until someone else rents it, and go about your day.
In an earlier column, I wrote about how easy it is to flout the rules laid out by the scooter companies and the Town of Brookline: You can ride on the sidewalks, you can take Lime scooters over the town line into Boston, and you can leave them parked in some pretty obnoxious places.
The pilot test started in April, but it wasn’t until May that I realized Birds could also go “off the grid” when they were damaged or when the battery got too low. That is, they were no longer visible to the company, which relies on GPS to keep tabs on its scooter inventory. (Bird pays regular people — it calls them “chargers” — to collect scooters at night, recharge them at home, and return them to the street.)
First, one dead scooter was laying around the park. Kids would occasionally play with it, since you can ride the scooter in “manual mode” without renting it — you just don’t get the benefit of the electric motor’s boost. Then I noticed a second dead scooter. On June 4, I tried to rent one of them, but the message on Bird’s app said it was damaged, and that the company had been notified. A few days later, I tried to rent the other, but it reported a low battery.
Lots of parents will leave toys in this particular neighborhood park for communal use, usually when a child outgrows them. Some of them eventually break and get pitched out. But what do you do when a private company, pumped full of hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital funding, starts leaving its nonworking equipment in your neighborhood park? Can you throw it out? What would happen if a child got injured riding one of these dead scooters, without renting it and agreeing to the company’s terms of service — which state that no one under 18 is permitted to ride them?
I connected with two attorneys who have been following the roll-out of e-scooter fleets in other states. One question I asked was whether I’d be justified in scrapping a broken scooter that sat around for weeks in a park or other public space.
“I have never heard of anyone being sued after removing a broken scooter,” wrote Neil Anapol, an attorney in Burbank, Calif., by e-mail. But Anapol added that “it might be better to call city services first.” (The same day that I reached out to two Brookline officials to talk to them for this column, the two scooters vanished. The officials contacted Bird, and Bird promptly removed them.)
What if a child got hurt while playing on a broken scooter? Lenore Shefman, a personal injury attorney in Austin, Texas, said that could be viewed as negligence on the part of the scooter company. “Will the scooter company fight the claim? Sure,” she said. We don’t yet know how a jury would decide such a case — though there is already a class-action lawsuit in California seeking to hold scooter companies and manufacturers liable for injuries that riders cause to pedestrians, calling the conveyances a “public nuisance.”
What’s new about these free-range rental scooters, as well as the free-range bikes showing up in some communities in Eastern Massachusetts, is that we’re essentially turning our sidewalks, parks, and other public spaces into giant outdoor rental shops. The hope is that we’re getting people out of cars and onto a vehicle that produces less pollution. (A survey conducted last year in Portland, Ore., found that about one-third of residents using e-scooters were doing so instead of driving, taking a cab, or summoning an Uber. A recent Bird survey of nearly 200 Brookline riders pegged it at 21 percent.) But a side effect could be that we get to deal with broken or abandoned scooters and bikes — and figure out what to do if the company’s systems can’t find them.
Heather Hamilton, a Brookline Select Board member who has been helping to manage the e-scooter pilot test, saw it as a good thing that Bird removed the two scooters from the park after I e-mailed her, and she relayed the message to the company. There hadn’t been other calls or complaints about them, Hamilton said. The bigger issues that the town has been hearing about scooters parked in hazardous spots on the sidewalk and people riding on the sidewalk instead of in the street. (A no-no, according to the rules laid out by Brookline and the scooter companies — but I haven’t seen it being enforced.)
After several requests for comment, I finally got word from Bird. A representative, Mackenzie Long, said that the company allows people to report damaged or badly parker scooters via its app, e-mail, or phone. “We have a support team dedicated to safety that is available around the clock to address questions and reports we receive,” Long wrote in an e-mail.
I’m not anti-scooter, but I believe we should think carefully about how many we want scattered around our cities and towns. The Brookline test involves about 200 e-scooters; I’m not sure we want to follow Washington, D.C.’s lead, where thousands of free-range bikes and e-scooters can be found scattered around sidewalks and on the National Mall.
In the Boston area, would designated parking areas on most blocks be a bad idea? The ability to ticket a rider or scooter company for parking one in a handicap ramp, or in front of someone’s front steps? Let’s scoot slowly into this new terrain.