Debate over E-Scooters Rekindled in Brookline, Mass.

The end of a seven-month pilot has the future of the scooter fleet being deliberated. Some consider the devices dangerous for pedestrians and others see them as a breakthrough in urban micro-mobility.

by Christina Constantine, Wicked Local Metro / January 7, 2020
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(TNS) — In the heart of Coolidge Corner, Beacon Street is bustling. On a typical Saturday, some hurry down the sidewalk, while others speed in cars or peddle up the bike lane. Many hop on the T to avoid the chaos.

On a recent fall day, a group of college students opted for a quicker way of getting around. "Let's take scooters instead," one announced, pointing to a stack of e-scooters. They scurry over and whip out their smartphones, open the app, scan their scooter, confirm their age and payment information, and unlock the device.

On April 1, 2019, Brookline welcomed a fleet of dockless e-scooters from vendors BirdLime and, later, Spin. Traveling up to 15 mph, the scooters peppered Brookline's streets for a seven-month pilot program, which ended Nov. 15.

Now the return of the fleet is being deliberated, with some considering the scooters dangerous for pedestrians and others seeing a breakthrough in micro-mobility.

Responding to concerns

Select Board member Heather Hamilton, a transportation professional by day and a driving force behind the pilot, remains intrigued by the concept.

She became inspired when her roommate, who was mugged in Boston, adopted the use of a Razor scooter to commute.

"I said to myself, I bet she's not alone," Hamilton said. "I bet there are other people that don't feel safe walking by themselves and would be inclined to take a device like this."

E-scooters first turned up in the Boston area in 2018, when a vendor dropped 100 of them in Cambridge and Somerville (a cease and desist letter soon followed). The move sparked conversation on whether Massachusetts was ready to welcome this technology and Brookline moved forward, in the form of a town-approved pilot.

"The demand far exceeded my expectations," Hamilton said. "We're talking about an isolated region within the Boston area, with roughly 25,000 unique riders."

The town, just six miles across and home to 58,000 residents, saw more than 180,000 trips.

While the numbers were strong, Hamilton admits there were challenges.

"Any pilot needs at least three months," she said. "So you have that initial period wear-off, where everyone is treating it like a toy, and then you are able to make tweaks and see the results of those tweaks."

Based on user surveys and public listening sessions, those tweaks included geo-fenced parking corrals, automatic slow zones around the senior center and dedicated police enforcement. The changes came in response to complaints from residents, many of whom worried about dangerous interactions between pedestrians and sidewalk scooter riders.

The Pedestrian Advisory Committee of Brookline took particular interest in the issue. Frank Caro, a member of the committee and chair of Brookline's Community Aging Network (CAN), believes this discussion is at the forefront of livability issues.

"There has been no issue that has sparked the concern of older people to this extent," says Caro. "It has really galvanized older people and almost in an entirely negative fashion."

Moving quickly and quietly, scooters are hazardous to vulnerable sidewalk users, he said, adding there would be less concern if all riders complied with regulations prohibiting sidewalk riding.

"One of the sentiments I heard again and again through initial feedback was 'I was almost hit,'" Hamilton said. "I don't want to take away from that, but if you look at pedestrian and car statistics in Brookline, a car hits a pedestrian once a week." In all, the pilot had a total of seven serious injuries. Hamilton added, "I dare you to find similar statistics around vehicles with that low rate."

The program also demonstrated the demand for micro-mobility, she said, adding, "Coupled with that, because there is such a demand, we need to build the appropriate infrastructure to make sure everyone is safe while traveling the way they intend to do so."

Waiting on regulations

For Brookline, that work began at the special Town Meeting this fall. Hamilton and Town Meeting member Paul Warren put forth Article 16, a proposal to place a hold on extending the program until further scooter regulation at the state level. The article passed.

"I would rather see us go a little slower and get the foundation in place — where can they be used, how can they be used — so the police can understand what they're doing and we can get commonality between communities," Warren said.

Warren believes data alone cannot settle the e-scooter debate. "It's important at the state level to be worked out," he said. "This isn't a Brookline problem, it's a regional transportation issue."

Planning for the long run

While the pilot may have ended, some are taking electric scooting into their own hands, purchasing scooters similar to those offered by the vendors.

Town Meeting member Hugh Mattison purchased a seated scooter, designed for longer distances and older people. A proponent of micro-mobility, Mattison believes e-scooters are the future of transportation and are "too practical to not become popular."

"We are talking about moving away from fossil fuels, so why wouldn't we want to do this?" Mattison said.

Scott Mullen, Lime's northeast expansion director, has remained involved on the ground level, from working with Town Meeting to hosting demo sessions. "I first started talking about scooters in this region a year and a half ago, and this is a very old part of the country with a specific way of doing things," Mullen said. "I thank Brookline for taking the lead on this, I hope everyone else is watching."

On Lime's end, collecting data through user surveys has been beneficial to understanding the "robust" ridership in Brookline.

"Our rider survey is showing that almost 31 percent of riders would have been in an Uber if they didn't have this option," Mullen said.

He added he believes the issues opponents have raised stem not from the devices, but the infrastructure.

©2020 Wicked Local Metro, Needham, Mass. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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