BOSTON — Electric scooters are gliding around cities and towns as a cheap, environmentally friendly means of transportation, but the devices are technically illegal under state law.
Massachusetts requires that all motorized scooters — whether they be sitting or standing, electric or gas powered — be equipped with brake lights and turning signals like mopeds.
Some communities, like Salem, have allowed high-tech companies such as Zagster, Lime and Bird to rent out scooters as part of pilot projects, but there are no statewide rules or guidelines.
Lawmakers are considering several proposals to legalize e-scooters by setting rules for how and where they can be used in cities and towns that want them.
The proposals would limit locations of use, set minimum ages for riders from 16 to 18, and set speed limits from 12 to 15 mph. Some would require riders to wear helmets if under age 16, and require companies that own them to carry liability insurance and pay state excise taxes on rides.
Local governments would be allowed to set their own rules.
Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, said she supports giving people more micro-mobility options but wants statewide regulations to ensure the safety of riders and the general public.
"While the health of our economy and our environment depends on increasing the number of carbon-free transit options, I believe that we need to put in place smart regulations for electronic scooters that protect the safety of users and pedestrians alike," she said. "Ultimately, we need to promote new technologies in a thoughtful and balanced way."
Rep. Christina Minicucci, D-North Andover, said she is concerned about safety as the unregulated industry takes off. She wants to see rules for the use of e-scooters.
"You see people zipping around on these things, dodging traffic and riding in bike lanes without helmets," she said. "We need clearly defined rules of the road to ensure safety."
Popular commuting option
Gov. Charlie Baker has proposed regulating e-scooters like regular bicycles as part of a wide-ranging road safety bill his administration rolled out earlier this year.
E-scooters, which are powered by electric motors, have become popular in major cities for short commutes and to connect to public transport networks.
Rental companies have tested them in several communities including Boston, Brookline and Salem as part of pilot projects that allow them to be used on local roadways.
Spin, a subsidiary of automobile giant Ford Motor Co., operates around 250 e-scooters in Salem with Zagster, the company that also operates that city’s bike-share program.
California-based Lime recently concluded a pilot project in Brookline where it deployed about 200 e-scooters.
Scott Mullen, Lime's director of Northeast expansion, said the industry supports statewide regulations and has been working with lawmakers on rules that "promote safety and greater transportation access without stifling innovation or consumer choice."
He said e-scooters have to potential to "revolutionize mobility by empowering cities with greener, more efficient, and affordable transportation options."
"This really has the potential to help reduce vehicle emissions and mitigate the state's congestion crisis," he said. "Anything that gets people out of their cars is a good thing."
How it works
The GPS-equipped scooters can be rented through apps acting in the same way as bike-share programs. Riders pick them up, pay by the minute, then drop them off at their destination.
Most companies charge $1 per ride, plus 15 cents for each minute of the trip.
Scooter sharing programs have popped up in at least 100 cities, and Americans took 38.5 million trips on them in 2018, according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials.
The new technology isn't without controversy.
E-scooters have drawn criticism in some communities where rentals are left scattered, and riders have had dangerous encounters with bikes, pedestrians and vehicles.
There have been reports of serious injuries and even deaths in some cities. Overseas the scooters have proliferated amid a lack of rules and regulation.
Some companies have been hit with cease-and-desist letters and lawsuits, while some cities have impounded scooters when companies deploy them without local approval.
Last year, Somerville and Cambridge officials ordered Bird to remove scooters from their streets after the company dropped off dozens of the devices without getting permission.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Eagle-Tribune and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com.