‘A wild ride’: Brookline grapples with high demand, headaches as electric scooter pilot zips along
BROOKLINE — As he zoomed along Washington Street, Christopher Vukas stopped for a moment to appreciate his lime-green wheels.
“This makes it so much easier to just get around the city, and it’s also pretty cheap,” said Vukas, 22, who’s been riding a rented electric scooter three times a week.
Days earlier, Jeremy Hutner recalled a close encounter with a scooter rider who zipped by him on the sidewalk.
“I nearly fell over,”said Hutner, 61. “I could see other people [potentially] getting hit or falling.”
Brookline’s electric scooter rental program — the first of its kind in Massachusetts — has been embraced by riders like Vukas for its ease of use and environmental benefits, but has become a frequent source of irritation for many others since it began in April.
Other cities are paying attention to the pilot program, which ends in November, as they decide whether to allow electric scooters — and some are encouraged by the high demand from commuters.
But Brookline is also grappling with a series of headaches caused by the scooters, which detractors say are being ridden and parked on sidewalks, clogging up walkways, and threatening pedestrians. Seniors and those with disabilities in particular said they don’t feel safe walking down the street, according to Brookline Select Board member Heather Hamilton.
“It’s been a wild ride, kind of literally,” Hamilton said at a board meeting earlier this month.
“I didn’t realize that they were going to be this popular,” Hamilton told the Globe. “We’re going to have some real decisions to make about what kind of infrastructure investments we’re going to make longterm.”
Lime and Bird, the first two companies in the pilot, have a combined 300 scooters in Brookline. This week, the board allowed a third company, Spin, to add 100 of their own. But board members also approved a series of restrictions, including ordering companies to implement a three-strike policy punishing riders who fail to operate the vehicles correctly, and adding a police patrol to chastise users riding on sidewalks and without helmets.
The city is also working to identify areas that could become designated corrals around town, and will require scooter companies to force riders to park in the corrals. One of the main attractions of the dockless scooters, though, is the freedom for users to end their rides just about anywhere.
“Everything is a tradeoff,” Hamilton acknowledged. “So we experimented with kind of a free market style. . . . [Now], we’re trying to find that equilibrium where scooter riders can use scooters and pedestrians can feel safe on the sidewalk.”
Scott Mullen, a director at Lime, said the company is working to address complaints, and has already updated its app to prohibit users from parking scooters near Brookline’s senior center. Lime has also started a series of free scooter safety training courses.
Bird’s app offers a tool for people to report poorly parked scooters, and the company says it’s planning its own safe riding events in town.
Most companies offering scooter rentals charge $1 to unlock the vehicle, which is done through an app, with additional charges based on trip length. The scooters are limited to about 15 miles per hour.
Because Brookline’s scooters aren’t supposed to be ridden in Boston, the scooters — or at least, the Bird models — usually stop accelerating upon crossing the border, and the app will not allow riders to end their trips outside a designated area, meaning the meter would keep running if they do.
Some cities are hesitant to start their own scooter programs because of Massachusetts’ motorized scooter law. The law has been interpreted as prohibiting electric scooters, which generally lack brake lights and turn signals.
Others contend the law was aimed at gas-powered mopeds and Vespa-style motor scooters, rather than slower, electric versions. And the Massachusetts Department of Transportation concluded in 2018 that the motorized scooter law was likely “not intended to address and regulate these specific types of vehicles.”
Bills that would clarify the law are pending in the state Legislature. But some cities, chasing reductions in fossil fuel emissions and traffic congestion, are already moving ahead.
Salem is working with a company called Zagster to bring 150 scooters — and eventually up to 250 — to the historic town, starting last week. Mayor Kim Driscoll has been warily watching Brookline’s pilot, and was “cautiously optimistic” about Salem’s launch.
“We’re hoping to give people options and alternatives to a car,” Driscoll said. “We’re choking on congestion.”
In Winchester, town officials are negotiating with Spin; a pilot program is expected to begin in the fall or spring.
“I think that the demand is there,” town manager Lisa Wong said. “However, the public safety concerns will always remain when we have a transportation infrastructure that is really built around cars.”
Boston is also making incremental progress toward a pilot program. In March, the city council passed an ordinance creating regulations for the electric scooter industry.
City Councilor Matt O’Malley said other steps still need to be completed, but hopes Boston will soon join the list of cities with electric scooter fleets.
Brookline’s pilot “seems to be very successful, and I think it’s been helpful for us to see it with our close neighbors,” he said.
And despite Brookline’s problems, Hamilton is glad the town’s test is providing useful data as e-scooters continue to arrive around the region.
“Has it been a bumpy ride? Yes,” she said. But “I’m glad that we experimented.”