Editorial, Opinion

EDITORIAL: Boston’s terrain isn’t fit for electric scooters

In a few months, it may not be unusual to see electric scooters littering the sidewalk on Commonwealth Avenue, discarded and waiting to be rented again.

The Boston City Council held a hearing Tuesday about bringing dockless electric scooters to Boston, doing away with Boston’s “no ride zone” the City introduced after scooters debuted in the Greater Boston area. The City will most likely introduce a pilot program next spring.

Scooters from the company Bird showed up in Cambridge and Somerville this July. Mayor Martin Walsh said at the time that he couldn’t allow scooters to “just show up” in Boston — the City would put them through a thorough vetting process to ensure regulations would be in place.

Boston shouldn’t fall to the pressure of trying to introduce these scooters before we know how we’ll do it. The streets of Boston aren’t exactly the same as the streets of San Francisco and Santa Monica, where Bird was first launched. Narrow sidewalks and cobblestone pavement could make riding a motor-powered scooter bumpy and dangerous, and snowy winters will render small wheels useless.

Even with San Francisco’s more accessible grid, the City is having its share of difficulties with its electric scooter pilot program. When Bird, Lime and Spin — three e-scooter companies — brought their product to the city without permission, San Francisco ran into trouble with where they should go as riders left scooters haphazardly strewn about, blocking sidewalks and bike lanes.

Think about shopping at the grocery store. You know you’re supposed to return your cart to the designated cart corral, but it’s easier to leave it at the curb near your car and drive away. Even with designated spaces to return scooters, riders won’t.

Boston is one of the most congested urban areas in the country, partly because Boston residents can’t rely on the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority for public transit that can reliably take the place of a private vehicle. The city’s infrastructure is simply not built to accommodate its increasing population.  

Considering the city’s public transit trials, anything that gets people traveling by individual means — without releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere — should be a good thing. But the benefits seem unlikely to outweigh the costs.

Investing in an electric scooter pilot program is not the same thing as devoting city resources to make public transportation accomodating to a greater population. The City will be dedicating sidewalk space and the time of City officials to a project that’s unlikely to decrease traffic, given that Boston, as a city, simply isn’t conducive to scooters.

Riding on sidewalks is dangerous, but at the same time, protected biking infrastructure is lacking. Bike lanes on major roads are sometimes not connected to bike lanes on other roads, and the level of road congestion causes aggressive drivers to invade bike lanes. If the City can’t implement adequate bike infrastructure, it certainly won’t be able to do so for scooters.

Once Boston allows one company, like Bird, to set up shop in the city, more companies will come in — all trying to compete for sidewalk space. The problem isn’t that people can’t be trusted to responsibly ride scooters. People who choose to get on a scooter should be trusted to know what they’re getting into, just like people who ride bikes or drive cars are.

The problem is that people can’t be trusted to leave their scooters in an orderly fashion, preserving the city’s appearance and ensuring pedestrian safety. At the least, it will take years to properly implement regulations preventing riders from abusing electric scooters. Multiple cities — Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston — will have to learn from their mistakes and learn from each other.

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