WEST SPRINGFIELD – The scooters have come to West Springfield. In late July, a number of rental scooters offered by Bird Rides Global Inc., a Santa Monica based micro-mobility rideshare company appeared seemingly overnight, parked in pairs on street corners throughout the downtown area.
West Springfield is the second community in Western Massachusetts to have rideshare scooters available, following Pittsfield, where Bird set up shop in June. In 2018, Bird briefly operated in Cambridge and Somerville, where it set out dozens of its electric scooters without the permission of city officials. In response Somerville sent the company a cease-and-desist letter, and both cities began impounding the scooters until Bird shut down Boston area operations. Bird also ran a pilot program in Brookline in 2019, but the city did not opt to renew its contract, citing a lack of clarity in state regulations.
Massachusetts has seen slower adoption of scooter rental businesses than other states. Under current laws, battery powered scooters such as the type offered by Bird fit the definition of a “motorized scooter,” The law requires that motorized scooters meet certain safety standards, such as having brake lights and turn signals. Additionally, it says that riders must wear a helmet and possess a driver’s license or learner’s permit.
Bird’s scooters have brake lights, but not turn signals. Its rental agreement says drivers may not be under the age of 18, but it does not require nor verify a valid driver’s license. Under its contract with the town of West Springfield, the scooter-share service is allowed to operate daily from 5 am to midnight.
Adoption of electric bicycles and electric scooters has been slower than elsewhere in the country because the state has not passed any updates to its regulations on motorized bikes and scooters since 2004. Advocates claim that these regulations were intended for more traditional gasoline powered mopeds and did not anticipate the advances in battery and motor technology used in modern machines.
The Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) has seemingly carved out an exemption for electric-assist bicycles, but the legitimacy of it is murky. On a form for registering regular bicycles that have been converted to mopeds with the addition of a motor, it states that bicycles meet Federal guidelines for functional low-speed electric bikes – pedals, and a motor that does not consume more than 750 watts or is capable of exceeding 20 mph – do not need to be registered with the state. Nowhere in Chapter 90 of Massachusetts General Law, however, is any reference made to a “low speed” electric bicycle.
The legality of motorized scooters is also a gray area. While they are classified under Massachusetts law as a type of motor vehicle, the RMV does not register them. In 2019 the Baker-Polito administration introduced proposed legislation that would treat electric bikes and scooters no different from their human-powered predecessors, but as of July 2022 no such legislation has become law.
Gov. Charlie Baker’s office did not respond to a request for comment before Reminder Publishing’s deadline.
Kristen Pennuci, communications Director for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) said the MassDOT “supports the Baker-Polito Administration’s proposed safety legislation which would, in part, regulate electric scooters. Currently, the Commonwealth does not regulate electric scooters.”
MassDOT did not respond to a follow up email asking for clarification about the difference between an electric scooter and a motorized scooter prior to The Reminder’s deadline.
“We have any communication from DOT not received indicating that our e-scooters are in conflict with the intent of the current statute and municipalities across the commonwealth, after significant scrutiny, have determined that it is appropriate to host Bird scooters. In addition, multiple pieces of legislation have been filed to clarify existing law around electric foot scooters,” said Lily Gordon, public relations manager for Bird.
Mayor William Reichelt said he didn’t know what the legal status of the scooters was under state regulations.
In order to rent a Bird Scooter, you need to install Bird’s app on an Android or iOS device. It uses your phone’s Bluetooth, GPS and cellular connection to determine your location and display a map of the closest available scooters. A small icon shows the remaining battery life of each scooter, so that riders can avoid rentals without the range for their needs.
It costs $1 to unlock a scooter, then $0.49/minute until the ride is ended via the app. Riders will continue to be charged if they lock the scooter via the app, venture into a geofenced “no ride” area, or otherwise do something other than the scooter without ending the ride with the app. Only ending the ride stops the clock on charges, and money is automatically added to a rider’s account in preselected intervals of either $5, $20, or $50. Riders must snap a photo of the parked scooter to complete this process.
Reminder Publishing assessed the speed, handling, range, and general experience of the scooter by riding it from in front of the Majestic Theater to Route 5, then to the intersection of Elm Street and Amostown Road before turning around. For the nine-minute, 1.9- mile cruise Bird charged $5.74, but because the lowest increment of payment Bird accepts is $5, it was impossible to take this ride without paying for $10 in ride credits.
At these prices, Bird is competitive with rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft, but much more expensive than public transportation, or electric assist bikes available from Valley Bike Share. An UberX from the Majestic Theater to Riverdale Plaza, about 2 miles, would have been $7.98, while a Valley Bike rental is priced at $2 for 30 minutes, then $0.18/minute afterwards.
Valley Bike Share’s prices are lower because, similarly to public transit, it operates at a loss for municipalities. The cities and towns in which it operates own the bikes and docking stations, while Valley Bikes, a private company owned by the Quebecois electric bike company Bewegen, handles operations, maintenance, and logistical considerations of the program under contract with the consortium of local communities where Valley Bike operates. Bewegen gets to keep the fares it collects for their trouble, and also sells the bikes and docks. A docking station and enough bikes to fill it costs local communities about $50,000.
Bird, it should be noted, also operates at a loss. The micro mobility unicorn (a company that has reached $1 billion in worth) had a pre-IPO valuation of $2.3 billion in 2021, but has not yet become profitable. While this is common for tech companies (Uber has not yet become profitable either, and Amazon did not report a profit for 14 years after its founding) whether Bird’s business model will be successful has yet to be proven, and its stock price is currently down 93 percent since its debut on the NYSE last November.
Bird does not pay anything to West Springfield, according to Reichelt, but the town will receive money from the state from taxes paid by Bird. In Pittsfield, Bird pays the city $0.15 for every ride taken. Elsewhere in the country, larger cities charge scooter rental companies tens of thousands of dollars for a permit to operate in the city.
Riding the scooter is admitted pretty fun. The brushless motor built into the rear wheel accelerates quickly and is capable of propelling a large reporter and his backpack at a max speed of 18 mph on flat ground and did not drop below 10mph climbing a steep hill as Elm Street approaches Amostown Road. Going down this hill at full throttle, the scooter’s speedometer briefly hit 28mph.
The small puncture proof tires do not provide very much shock absorption, so riders should pay close attention for potholes and obstacles. While both the app and signage on the scooter say it is not to be ridden on the sidewalks, the scooter does not cut out or slow down on the sidewalks. While a page on Bird’s website claims their vehicles have “smart sidewalk protection,” that “will give riders traveling on a sidewalk an audible alert and mobile notification before the vehicle is brought safely and smoothly to a stop by reducing throttle,” attempts by Reminder Publishing to trigger this function on a deserted stretch of sidewalk were unsuccessful.
Attempts to drive the scooter beyond its geofenced area did however cause the motor to slow to a stop, fortunately preventing it from being ridden into heavy traffic on Route 5 near the bridge to Springfield. Route 5 along the Connecticut river, Morgan Road and the Westfield River are the natural boundaries of this GPS defined operational zone. While it is technically possible to utilize the scooter as if it was an unpowered kick scooter, this is likely a violation of the company’s rental agreement and is also impractical due to drag caused by the motor.
A fully charged scooter tested by Reminder Publishing advertised a range of 13 miles, and a label on the underside of it claimed a battery capacity of 756-watt hours. If these numbers were accurate, the scooter’s efficiency would be about 58-watt hours/mile. For comparison, an average electric assist bicycle of similar speed and power is about three times more efficient in terms of battery drain, while a stock 2021 Tesla Model S will drain its battery about five times as fast under normal use. (20-watt hours/miles; 300-watt hours/miles, respectively)
The actual usable range of the scooter appears to be much lower than advertised. By the end of a two-mile trip, with an average moving speed of 11.5 mph, the estimated remaining range had dropped from 13 miles to 5, meaning the battery lost power four times faster than expected. It’s possible that this battery was somehow defective, as the alternative would mean that the scooter used up 230-watt hours per mile, which is comparable to the power draw of an electric car.
Bird’s pilot program in West Springfield will end in October, at which time the town will assess whether it will renew a contract with the scooter company.