Last fall, Boston and neighboring municipalities loosely committed to allowing motorized scooters on city streets, in a joint pilot program slated to begin this spring.
It’s spring — and that project isn’t happening, though Brookline is about to start a seven-month test on its own. Meanwhile, cities around the world have already held pilot programs to figure out how to integrate the exceedingly popular “micro-mobility” vehicles on their streets and in the motor vehicle code. They’re discovering that scooters do indeed attract people who would otherwise be in their cars — yet also that some users persist in riding on sidewalks. And, as with dockless bikes, some riders still leave them strewn about instead of parking them properly, creating a hazard for people with disabilities.
So what’s the hold-up with the joint pilot program in Massachusetts? It was contingent on changing outdated state laws that defined the scooters as mopeds, requiring them to have turn signals and brake lights. That didn’t happen in last year’s legislative session, and Beacon Hill only this week is taking up several scooter-related bills.
Studies and pilots for scooters, Segways, electric skateboards, and other low-speed devices are fine to a point, but there’s no need to reinvent the wheel here. State laws covering the vehicles have been or are being rewritten across the country. They’re hardly a secret; groups like the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures regularly make available draft legislation to share best practices. Likewise, the National Association of City Transportation Officials nearly a year ago released its guidelines for scooter-sharing programs.
The result is a growing body of information to cover nearly every imaginable situation, including rare, but concerning, scooter fatalities. Municipal officials who spoke with the Globe acknowledged that pilot programs already undertaken can contribute to their knowledge.
Granted, if any city has a patent on road idiosyncrasies, it’s Boston, which is all the more reason the testing should have been done here first. As any Bay State driver knows, if you can drive in Boston, you can drive anywhere. But the inner suburbs are a close second to Boston traffic and, to its credit, Brookline is taking the lead. Weather permitting, the town will begin its scooter pilot program on April 1.
Also at play is a difference between traditional motor vehicle laws governing individual driver behavior and proposed micro-mobility rules directed at fleets of scooters owned by ride-hailing companies, some with dismal records of skirting municipal ordinances. Indeed, Cambridge and Somerville were thrust into the debate overnight when Bird last summer deployed dozens of its scooters with no warning. The company was told to remove them. Of lesser concern are scooters that individuals have bought,with several local officials telling the Globe that police won’t likely interfere with owners so long as they’re not riding irresponsibility.
What’s the next step? Massachusetts needs to pass legislation incorporating best practices from other states. Boston and other municipalities should watch Brookline’s test, as well as the plethora of pilot programs nationwide.
And when it’s done, enough with pilots, already. Enforce the new laws and add local tweaks as necessary — such as location-specific signs saying “scooters stay in bike lane.” Hold scooter-sharing companies responsible for abiding by rules, such as removing scooters at night and discouraging riding on sidewalks.
The benefit? A new and popular mode of transportation that can truly reduce road congestion — but not if it’s bogged down in endless pilot programs.