Boston Considers Reshaping Relationship with ‘Micromobility’

City officials are considering an ordinance that would create a broad regulatory framework for on-demand electric scooters, bikes and whatever else might come next for the mobility industry.

by Kristin LaFratta, MassLive.com / February 27, 2019
Boston City Hall Shutterstock/Kit Leong

(TNS) — As Boston looks ahead to the new “micromobility" frontier of urban transportation, the city council continues to wrestle with the logistics of what that vision looks like.

The Boston City Council held a hearing on Tuesday to discuss an ordinance that would provide a regulatory framework for how Boston would manage companies operating “small vehicles” like electronic scooters and bikes, and whatever new mode of transportation could come next.

“Truly, who knows what is next on the horizon,” said Chris Osgood, Boston’s chief of streets, transportation and sanitation, who answered questions on the ordinance for the Boston City Council. Osgood said Boston is currently “many steps away from a pilot” of e-scooters, dismissing previous reports of a scooter pilot in the spring.

Spearheaded by Councilor Matt O’Malley, who represents West Roxbury, Jamaica Plain and parts of other neighborhoods, the ordinance received support by other councilors. The micromobility industry is described as a greener alternative to driving, and has come into the forefront as Boston shares plans to become carbon-neutral by 2050.

There were a number of reservations by councilors, however, on how to regulate private companies, safety and costs associated with the new industry.

The problems associated with a rising, popular form of transportation became obvious last summer, when e-scooter company Bird abruptly parked fleets of scooters around Greater Boston without notice. Residents in Boston, Cambridge and Somerville quickly began to pay to use the scooters before city officials could step in and order the company to remove its vehicles.

The ordinance introduced to city councilors on Tuesday would give broad control to the city of Boston on how it does business with private companies like Bird.

Should an unlicensed company enter Boston with a fleet of vehicles ever again, the ordinance says the city has the right to impound those vehicles. The proposal, as written, requires a private company to submit plans for safety, education and public engagement. The ordinance would also establish an advisory committee with members from various offices, including the mayor’s office, the environmental department, the Boston Disability Commission and more.

The proposed ordinance is also a way for the city of Boston to get ahead of any changes to state law, as a number of bills introduced already by state legislators on Beacon Hill tackle regulations for the budding micromobility industry.

“Part of the impetus for this proposal is so that we are ready if state law changes and the devices are granted approval to operate within the commonwealth,” said Gina N. Fiandaca, commissioner of the city’s transportation department.

City leaders debated on Tuesday whether the city should charge private micromobility companies for doing business in Boston.

Councilor Frank Baker, who represents the third district neighborhoods of Dorchester, South Boston and the South End, proposed the city charge future micromobility companies, saying the city failed to do so with Uber in the past.

“I would advocate we’re charging a daily fee,” Baker added. “Because it’s going to add to the chaos in the streets. People are just getting used to a bike showing up next to them on the street.”

Baker inquired about the existing Bluebikes system in Boston and neighboring cities, which Osgood said is considered as a publicly-owned biking system that is run by Motivate, a bike share company acquired by Lyft last year.

Osgood said funds generated by Bluebikes, which now cost $8 to rent for a day, $20 to rent for a month or $99 to rent for a year, go directly back into operating and expanding Bluebikes.

Councilor Josh Zakim, who represents District 8 and the Beacon Hill and Back Bay neighborhoods, said he worried fees could discourage companies that would otherwise offer clean-energy transportation from doing business in Boston.

The proposed ordinance for future transportation calls for a $500 application fee for private transportation businesses, and allows flexibility for city officials to determine whether they want to include additional fees.

“They’re not coming here because it’s a public good. They are making tons of money on it,” Baker said, posing whether the companies were mining and selling data to third parties, which was denied on Tuesday by representatives of both Bird and Lime, which has also forayed in to the e-scooter realm.

Hannah Smith, the northeast government relations manager for Bird and a former staffer for O’Malley, said Bird does not sell data to any third-party. Smith also said that the company has the ability to use technology to prevent scooters from piling up on sidewalks and roadways, which Beacon Hill residents and Zakim brought up as a major concern.

“As you know, Boston is one of the most congested cities in the country,” Smith began in her testimony. “E-scooters offer a unique opportunity for Boston to tackle that problem head-on, providing a solution at no cost to the city that can improve those metrics and put this city on the path to being safer, and more car-free.”

She said the app requires users to “close out” their trip by taking a photo of an e-scooter, showing that it is properly parked. If a person repeatedly parks incorrectly, they can be suspended from using Bird scooters, she added.

Smith also touched on “geofencing,” which would show users on a map, in-app, where they are able to park a scooter. She said some cities have also swapped metered parking spaces once reserved for cars for scooter or bike parking areas.

Scott Mullen, director of expansion in the northeast for Lime, also voiced support for the ordinance but said the city should ensure regulatory fees are “consistent and predictable.” He added that councilors should not limit the amount of vehicles any one company can offer, but instead enforce “dynamic caps” that can change with the season.

“We know what the demand is and how we can serve that,” Mullen said, adding that the company can “scale up and down with it in real time.”

Olivia Richard, a member of the Boston Disability Commission advisory board, raised concerns of accessibility and safety, and was the only person to flag the issue of helmet-use.

“Helmet usage, we know from Bluebikes, doesn’t happen automatically. Sometimes these rides are spur of the moment,” Richard said. “There’s no enforceable ordinance requiring folks to wear helmets while utilizing these.”

The ordinance was not put up for a vote, and the city council has until March 27 to take action on the proposal.

©2019 MassLive.com, Springfield, Mass. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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