Monday, July 22, 2024

Motorized scooter meets SUV on the Cambridge-Somerville line June 21. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Setting the rules of the road gets more complicated the more things share that road, Cambridge leaders are finding. The complications were made abundantly clear at a Tuesday meeting of a City Council committee to discuss regulating micromobility devices such as e-scooters and e-bikes, particularly as they have an impact on pedestrians and people riding non-electric bicycles.

“There is some lack of clarity,” said Joan Pickett, chair of the council’s Transportation and Public Utilities Committee. The most likely course for the members, she said, is to fill “deficiencies in the regulations” about which modes of transportation belong where – in the streets, along a path or on a sidewalk – and at what speeds.

Other cities have become concerned by overly fast e-bikes, and e-scooters have been banned on some college campuses, though not at Harvard or MIT. In Massachusetts, laws limit e-bikes to 20 mph, and the rental system Bluebikes caps its devices at 18 mph.

But Brooke McKenna, Cambridge’s transportation commissioner, noted that speed restrictions elsewhere have led to more sidewalk riding. “There’s a fine balance between making sure you’re keeping the speeds low enough to be safe, but not so artificially low that you’re forcing people onto the sidewalk,” she said. She later said she doesn’t yet know precisely how enforcement policies for speeding would work for these devices.

Another issue is defining what, precisely, an e-bike is. In 2022, the state separated out “electric bicycles” from “motorized bicycles.” Motorized bicycles are considered motor vehicles that must be registered and are not permitted on paths and sidewalks; e-bikes are not. E-bikes must have functional pedals, and there is a 2004 law banning “motorized scooters” – which lack them – from being ridden at night, yet it’s not clear if current e-scooters fall under that law. Assistant city solicitor Evan Bjorklund said it can be hard to know what laws the city is and is not permitted to set for micromobility devices.

Even the city’s presentation had conflicting messages, saying in one place that motorized bikes are allowed in bike lanes and on another page citing a state law that a city is “likely preempted from permitting motorized bicycles on bike paths or bike lanes.”

“I learned a lot, and I’m also confused,” councillor Patty Nolan said. “And I recognize why –because the state definitions and the laws have not really kept up with the scene we’re seeing on the ground in the city.”

Residents expressed their support for the devices. “Micro-mobility is an extremely equitable, sustainable and accessible way to get around the city,” said Cambridge resident Clyve Lawrence, who said he has begun biking significantly more after e-bikes became available to rent from Bluebikes.

McKenna said “There are a lot of people who only feel comfortable on an off-street path, and we want to make cycling or micromobility accessible to them as well.” Those paths make regional long-distance connections safe, assistant city manager for community development Iram Farooq added, suggesting it’s important that e-mobility be allowed in them.

City councillor Burhan Azeem pointed out that some paths are extremely narrow, such as the community path that goes through Somerville, and there’s no safe way for a pedestrian walking at 3 mph to share it safely with an e-bike going 20 mph.

Widening bike lanes to allow for passing, so e-bike riders “and regular bike riders can coexist peacefully,” is part of having “a less car-dependent town,” resident Cari Cesarotti said.

The deaths this month of bicyclists Minh-Thi Nguyen – a 24-year-old in Cesarotti’s department at MIT – and Kim Staley, 55, meant the question of “how do we regulate e-bikes and scooters is a little bit tangential to the main issue,” which is one of safety for those choosing not to use cars.

Resident Carolyn Fuller said, “It is not the electric bikes or scooters that I fear when I walk,” as she did to get to work in Cambridge every day for 35 years. “It is distracted car drivers and our increasingly dangerous intersections that I fear. If you’re concerned for my safety, you should start talking about how to enforce the traffic rules that are already on the books.”