Residents, commuters, and tourists already zip around major cities including Los Angeles, D.C., Miami, and Austin on electric scooters. Cambridge might join the shared e-scooter craze soon, but not without establishing regulations and permitting requirements.
“I subscribe to a Google alert for electric scooters, and every day I get an email that has six or eight or 10 headlines of what’s going on with scooters in other markets,” Vice Mayor Jan Devereux says. “It’s certainly a trend, and it’s gotten a tremendous amount of publicity and interest in the cities where they’ve been piloted or adopted.”
Devereux and the Transportation and Public Utilities Committee discussed a pilot program of shared electric scooters during a public hearing on July 15, with a presentation of preliminary permitting and safety regulations from Director of Environmental and Transportation Planning Susanne Rasmussen and brief comments from the public.
“I think the city feels obligated to give it serious consideration,” Devereux says. “I think the consensus at the hearing certainly was that most of us are open to doing it, but we want to make sure that we’re doing it the right way, and we want to make sure that we’re doing it for the right reasons.”
The hearing followed persistent requests from shared scooter companies vying to operate in the city and from residents who have enjoyed e-scooters elsewhere, according to Devereux. But rather than rushing to bring shared scooters to the city, Cambridge officials are holding off on any pilot programs until a bill outlining and enforcing electric scooter regulations and permitting is approved by the city and state.
The recent pilot proposal includes permitting three different electric scooter companies to operate in the city with a starting fleet of 250 scooters each, which could be supplemented with additional scooters depending on usage. City officials have also developed a preliminary set of rules and regulations, including a maximum speed of 15 miles per hour, sidewalk guidelines that mimic those for bikes, an “equitable distribution” of scooters across the city for equal access rather than placement based on rider concentration, and discounted rates for income-eligible users.
Rider safety is among the highest priorities moving forward with the pilot proposal, according to Devereux. The final scooter vendors selected for the pilot would be chosen at random from a larger pool of companies, all of which would have to meet yet-to-be-determined safety requirements.
“There’s sort of three ways that you could be unsafe: It could be because the equipment isn’t particularly durable and has a problem, it could be because the user is inexperienced or irresponsible, or it could be because there’s a road defect, and somebody doesn’t see a pothole,” she explains. “There’s a lot of ways that you could fall off your scooter, and the companies don’t have control over all those things, but they do have control over the devices and the user education.”
“We want to only permit companies that are operating at a high level of safety,” Devereux adds. “They should all be comparable in terms of having the same features and offering the same level of confidence that they are durable and as safe as possible, and then it’s up to you as the user to operate them safely.”
Despite the flurry of interest in nearby cities and even other countries, Cambridge officials are tackling the process slowly and deliberately, learning by watching the success of scooters elsewhere.
“It’s been pretty hard to escape the fact that cities all over the country and the world are doing e-scooters,” Devereux says. “I think because we’ve held back, we’re able to kind of learn from other people’s mistakes. I think we’re all now, with the benefit of a year’s experience in terms of what’s going on in other cities, going in with our eyes open.”
Along with avid scooter supporters and enthusiasts, there are people in the city—particularly among older communities—who are hesitant to share the streets and sidewalks with electric scooters.
“I think there’s sort of two camps, there’s one camp which probably skews younger, who say ‘bring it on, they’re fun, they’re flexible, they’re modern,’” Devereux explains. “And then, predictably, there are people who are older who may be walkers who are a little bit terrified that scooters are going to invade the sidewalks. The landscape is just changing really fast, and I think change is hard for people, and it’s hard for cities.”
The scooters do, however, have the potential to expand the accessibility and quality of public transportation in the city and beyond.
“In an ideal world, you want these trips to replace car trips, whether they’re trips in the car that you drive yourself or trips in a TNC,” Devereux says. “We would like them to perhaps help people get to transit, so that maybe transit use goes up. We do try to promote active transportation because it’s healthy, but at the same time there are times when somebody may not have the time to walk that distance, or they have a sore foot, or maybe it’s 99 degrees and they’re wearing heels. It’s a good, flexible mode of travel that doesn’t pollute.”