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Editorial

Let Boston try e-bikes and scooters

Shared e-scooter startups Bird and Lime have rapidly expanded in Los Angeles.
Shared e-scooter startups Bird and Lime have rapidly expanded in Los Angeles. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

If you’re riding an electric bike around Boston, you may have found the ultimate alternative to sitting in traffic without breaking a sweat.

But you may also be breaking a law — albeit an outdated one that’s not enforced — and the same for riding an electric scooter. Or motorized skateboard. Or any yet-to-be-invented contraption. (Electric unicycles are already on the market.)

An explosion in personal motorized transportation has transformed human-powered vehicles faster than laws can catch up with them. And legality aside, there’s no general agreement by other users of streets and sidewalks over who should be allowed to ride what, where, and when.

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Cambridge and Somerville have been grappling with what to do after the electric-scooter-sharing company Bird showed up unannounced over the summer to deploy a fleet of scooters, then quickly fled. Last week, the city of Boston signaled it wants to launch a pilot in the spring allowing motorized scooter use, contingent on clarity from the state.

Why? Because in Massachusetts, the prevailing law for motorized bikes was written with mopeds in mind, requiring them to be registered and users to hold a driver’s license. Powered scooters don’t have to be registered but must have brake lights and turn signals, which are not standard on many models. Users also have to have a driver’s license.

Here’s what should happen: Officials should welcome disruptive ways of getting around cities. Like Uber and Lyft, motorized e-bikes and scooters will need regulations for sure. But the goal should be to accommodate, not reinvent, the wheels, and to encourage people to get out of their cars by making it as easy as possible to complete the last mile of trips not served by public transit.

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State transportation officials need to provide guidance on how a pilot should proceed within the spirit of the current law. There’s no need to be a stickler when the law was never intended to account for electric scooters. At some point, the Legislature may need to amend regulations: It’s not practical to expect turn signals on a scooter.

Boston, Cambridge, Brookline, and Somerville should develop a regional approach to regulate this new class of vehicles so that users can seamlessly travel from one locale to another without trying to remember the intricacies of each municipality’s law.

Innovation created a new class of transportation somewhere between a child’s kick-scooter and a full-fledged motor vehicle, with no clear guide for how to regulate them. Yet some things are clear:

Electric bikes and powered scooters should obviously have a speed limit. Both Bird and Lime — shared-ride scooter companies that were present at the Boston council hearing — limit their scooters to less than 15 mph. There’s little need to go faster.

It’s less clear, though, that a driver’s license should be required to ride them. Why prohibit a long-time cyclist who never drives from using a new form of travel?

Requiring helmets is also a no-brainer.

And can everyone agree these motor-propelled scooters should not be driven on sidewalks? Maybe the rise of such devices will spur municipalities to further invest in their bike lanes.

A major concern of disability rights groups is where the scooters will be parked, with dockless bikes already posing a hazard for the visually impaired and others. Here’s a solution: Cities could reserve a spot on the sidewalk or street every block or so for parking all shared vehicles.

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One more thing: Any legislation should include a sunset clause, so that it’d have to be reexamined in five years. Given the speed of innovation, something yet uninvented will surely be here by then — like, where do you park your flying hoverboard?