Just shy of the halfway mark in its pilot program allowing motorized ride-share scooters on its streets, Brookline is working out the kinks and creating a template for other Massachusetts cities to follow.
Beginning in April, the town authorized two companies, Bird and Lime, to offer up to 275 electric scooters for short-term rentals. Users just park the scooter at the end of their trip, leaving it for the next rider to unlock using a smartphone app. Helmet use is required, the vehicles travel only 15 miles per hour, and riders aren’t supposed to intrude on sidewalks.
The pilot program has sparked excitement in Brookline and beyond, and it’s easy to see why: Appropriately regulated, scooter-sharing could be a great new urban amenity, and a useful complement to public transit, ridesharing, bicycling, and walking. Electric-powered scooters don’t burn gas, don’t make noise, and make city living more attractive.
The challenge comes from knitting scooter-sharing into the existing streetscape. Scooters left on sidewalks have been one of the biggest complaints so far. Brookline also had one high-profile accident on the scooter program’s first day, and at least one more since, according to town officials.
“There are two types of scooter accidents: [between] scooter drivers and motor vehicles, and between scooters and pedestrians,” says Heather Hamilton, a member of Brookline’s Select Board intimately involved in the pilot program.
Accidents should be taken seriously — but also in perspective. Since the pilot launched, more than 52,000 e-scooter trips have been reported in Brookline.
At least part of the problem appears to be simple inexperience — something that will fade as scooters become more common. A study of scooter accidents in Austin, Texas, released in April by the Centers for Disease Control found that in just over 936,000 scooter trips over roughly three months, 271 persons were injured in incidents attributed to scooters. Of those, 160 were linked to rented dockless scooters and 32 to electric scooters generically. The rest were less-identifiable as scooter-related. Significantly, 33 percent of those injured reported being first-time riders, and another 30 percent reported having made less than 10 scooter trips.
A complementary observation was found in Minneapolis, which is continuing to allow scooters on streets after completing its pilot program last winter. A third of scooter users were found to be inexperienced in riding in bike lanes.
The other problem is bad behavior — intentional or not. Officials in Minneapolis reported sidewalk riding as the most serious problem. In Brookline, Globe correspondent Scott Kirsner deliberately flouted Brookline’s scooter rules to illustrate the holes in the system. Officials have responded by cracking down on scooter rental companies to enforce bans against scooters left haphazardly on sidewalks. (It’s significant to note that such a devil-may-care attitude exists almost entirely among shared-scooter users; few who buy a $200-$400 device are likely to leave it unattended on a sidewalk.)
But most scooter riders just want to get to their destination safely, and will park scooters appropriately if they know the rules. One potential strategy: Minneapolis and other cities are hosting scooter “rodeos” to teach first-time riders basic safety tips.
It’s no surprise that a new technology is encountering growing pains, and no doubt it’ll take time for riders to learn the ropes and for regulations to catch up. But scooters should be welcomed in Massachusetts municipalities, and experiments like Brookline’s should help cities figure out what they need to do to get it right.