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Cities grappling with scooter outbreak

Dockless scooters have appeared under the brands of various companies, including Bird, Spin, and Lime.
Dockless scooters have appeared under the brands of various companies, including Bird, Spin, and Lime.(Jim Davis/Globe Staff)

Nearly a decade ago, a new form of two-wheeled transportation threatened to overrun city sidewalks.

The Segway became popular with tour companies, but not so with some neighborhoods. The city levied fines on one operator who had outraged North End residents, and a city councilor let himself get run over by one Segway to demonstrate their perceived dangers. They were ultimately barred from sidewalks and parks, and limited to routes approved by the city.

Now, Boston and other cities are confronting another perplexing innovation in two-wheeled travel: the decades-old scooter, gussied up with an electric motor and technology that lets urban millennials use their smartphones to find and rent them right off the sidewalk.

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Seemingly overnight, so-called dockless scooters from companies such as Bird, Spin, and Lime have cropped up in cities across the country. Worried about sidewalk clutter and rider safety, Somerville, Cambridge, and other municipalities are digging into old regulations governing public spaces and obscure state laws on motorized vehicles to exert some form of control over a suddenly ascendant mode of travel.

“There needs to be a concerted effort to establish regulations,” said Eric Bourassa, transportation director for the regional Metropolitan Area Planning Council. “I think it’s a gray area, without a doubt.”

Boston-area leaders probably should have seen it coming. First popularized by the techie set, the new type of rental scooters stormed cities on the West Coast early in 2018 and marched inexorably east. With little warning, California-based Bird deployed about 100 scooters in Cambridge and Somerville in July.

The company did not notify or request permission from the cities, and officials responded with cease and desist letters demanding the scooters be removed this week.

Bird hasn’t yet breached Boston’s borders, but Mayor Martin J. Walsh has warned the company that its scooters will be impounded if they show up in the city.

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A spokeswoman for Bird said the company is “in contact with city officials in Cambridge and Somerville respectively, and we look forward to continuing our productive conversations with them so that Bird’s service can continue in each of the cities.”

The scooters, which reach up to 15 miles per hour, are geared to commuters rather than tourists, and state law already requires them to operate on the road rather than sidewalks. But for some, the scooter blow-up is enough to recall the Segway wars of yesteryear.

“Instead of being this whole hub of the universe and city of innovation, and believing something new can start and prosper here, it just seems people with influence still want to say, ‘no,’ ” said Allan Danley, a former tour operator who feuded with Boston for years over Segways. “I hope the scooter guys at least get the opportunity to bring their product.”

But Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville all say they’re open to allowing the scooter companies to operate — just not yet.

The cities say the scooters violate various local rules about blocking sidewalks or displaying and selling merchandise without a permit. While Cambridge is demanding Bird remove its scooters by Friday night, Transportation Director Joe Barr said the city is “cautiously” open to letting them back in.

“We’re interested in having them come in — in a controlled way,” Barr said.

Because Bird scooters can be rented and picked up anywhere using a smartphone app, the company needs a permit to display merchandise on the sidewalk, Barr said. But the company also has to deal with another issue: a state law that requires electric scooters to have brake lights and blinkers, which Bird vehicles do not.

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Neither do most privately owned electric scooters, which some commuters already use on local roads. But Barr said there’s a difference between an individual owner flouting the law, and the city issuing a permit to a company that is in violation of state rules.

“Until we get some info from the state to the contrary, it seems they need that equipment,” Barr said. “We’re in a challenge to issue a permit to somebody who may be violating state law.”

That could require a change to state law — unlikely any time soon, since the Legislature has ended its formal session — or a directive from the state Department of Transportation. State officials would say only they are “reviewing this new mobility option.”

Somerville spokeswoman Jackie Rossetti said the city will develop policies for scooter companies that want to operate in the city “in the coming months.” For now, the city has warned Bird that it will begin impounding scooters; indeed, as of Thursday evening, the Bird app showed more than a dozen scooters located at a Somerville public works facility.

In Boston, Walsh has struck a deeply skeptical tone. But a spokeswoman for the city’s transportation department, Tracey Ganiatsos, did not rule out allowing dockless scooter rentals. First, though, Ganiatsos said companies must work with city officials “to introduce their transportation option to the general public safely and in a cooperative manner.”

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Riders are taking spins on dockless scooters that have popped up in Somerville, Cambridge, and elsewhere.
Riders are taking spins on dockless scooters that have popped up in Somerville, Cambridge, and elsewhere.(Jim Davis/Globe Staff)

City Councilor Matt O’Malley has called for a hearing on scooters and similar station-free bike-rental systems this fall.

The scooter standoff echoes a battle Boston and its neighbors are waging against so-called dockless bike rentals. Companies such as Ant Bicycles compete against station-based Blue Bikes, which is owned by Boston, Somerville, Cambridge, and Brookline. Because they have an exclusive deal with the hired operator of Blue Bikes, the communities have banned dockless bike companies.

Across the country, cities have taken different approaches to scooters, which have had a swift rise in popularity.

“Six months ago we weren’t even talking about scooters, and now they’re here,” said Nicole Payne, program manager at the National Association of City Transportation Officials. “This is the number one topic going around in our network right now.”

Her organization encouraged cities to establish regulations and permits for scooter and bike rentals to prevent sidewalk clutter, ensure vehicle safety, and allow officials to collect data about usage and traffic patterns.

Based on what’s going on across the country, Boston should expect Bird to be soon followed by other scooter rentals: Spin, which has abandoned a plan to bring dockless bikes to Greater Boston to focus only on scooters; and Lime, which already has dockless bikes in several Boston suburbs.

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Those three companies all use scooters built by Ninebot, a Chinese manufacturer that also owns . . . Segway.


Steve Annear of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.