With an uneven start, Brookline launches an electric scooter pilot program
BROOKLINE — Scooters are riding free in Brookline. But where to?
The town made Massachusetts history Monday as the first municipality to sanction an electric-powered scooter rental program on its streets.
About 200 vehicles from the California-based companies Lime and Bird have been deployed on sidewalks and other public spaces across town, where riders can use smartphone apps to start riding a scooter for $1, with additional charges based on the length of the trip.
The start of Brookline’s pilot program, which will run into the fall, was not entirely auspicious; at a launch event, a woman testing the scooter in the Town Hall parking lot fell and was injured. She was taken away in an ambulance in the backdrop of a news conference marking the occasion.
The woman, Kim Smith, a member of Brookline’s Town Meeting, was brought to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and received four stitches but suffered no broken bones, according to her partner, Dan Weiner.
“She feels like she was beaten up on the street,” he said. “It’s non-trivial. She’ll miss work this week. But in terms of long-lasting injury or further treatment? No.”
Despite the injury, officials celebrated the advent of the scooters as an important moment for regional transportation.
“If we are to make a dent in carbon emissions reductions, we need to change transportation behavior away from single occupancy vehicles,” said Heather Hamilton, a member of the town’s select board who led the charge for the eight-month scooter test.
But in a town that directly neighbors Boston, in some areas almost bleeding into it, riders aren’t supposed to cross the border.
Boston is waiting until the state clears up some confusion in state law that may render the vehicles illegal because they do not have blinkers. Brookline essentially shrugged off those concerns as it launched its pilot program.
So what happens if a rider crosses into the forbidden land?
Bird and Lime officials on hand at Monday’s event indicated there would be little immediate consequence: riders can finish their trip into Boston, but won’t be able to start a new trip from within the city. The companies’ crews will monitor the location of the scooters using a GPS system to collect stranded vehicles.
But that didn’t seem to be the case Monday morning, at least on the Bird model.
A Globe reporter rode a scooter, which can travel up to 15 miles per hour, through Brookline toward Boston. Shortly after crossing the border near the Longwood Medical Area, the scooter beeped and stopped accelerating. The app said the reporter was being slowed because he had entered a restricted area, and that he could not park there, either. He dutifully kick-pushed the scooter back over the border to park it.
That may have just been a “glitch,” said Hannah Smith, a government relations official with Bird. She said that the company intends for rides to continue into Boston, because it would be safer not to slow riders in the middle of a trip just because they cross the border.
“It is bad transportation policy to have scooters screech to a halt when you cross a physical barrier,” she said.
Scott Mullen, Lime’s northeast expansion director, said his company has a similar outlook, though added riders may be suspended if they habitually enter Boston.
Hamilton, the Brookline official, said the town had been in touch with Boston ahead of the launch. Boston’s transportation department indicated that it expects some scooters will come into the city, but they will not be rentable in city limits. Bird and Lime will be automatically notified of any scooter parked in Boston, and the companies will be expected to collect them within four hours, officials said.
Chris Osgood, the city’s chief of streets, said Boston will “keep in contact” with Brookline as the program progresses.
Smith and Mullen each seemed optimistic that this may become a moot issue, if the scooters soon debut in Boston. While the city is awaiting the state’s go-ahead before allowing a rental program, the city council recently approved regulations for the companies once that date comes.
In the meantime, Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said it is up to individual cities and towns to decide whether they want to allow scooters to operate while lawmakers debate the issue.
“I totally understand why communities like Brookline want to move ahead. There’s demand among their constituents for these technologies,” she said. “We just need to get the safety piece right.”
Safety was top of mind in Brookline after Smith’s injury. Weiner, her partner, said the accident convinced him the scooters are a safety hazard.
“I’m not going to crusade, but this changed my mind if ever it needed changing,” he said, though he emphasized that she was not speaking for Smith.
With potholes covering the roads as the region defrosts from winter, Hamilton said Smith’s injury is a reminder that riders must take precautions. They should wear helmets and practice using the devices in a parking lot or other open space before taking to the streets, she said — though Smith was doing both.