Weekend News Editor and Columnist

Mitchell Chapman is The Eagle’s weekend news editor, as well as a columnist. Mitchell Chapman has been with The Eagle since 2016. He is a former editor of The MCLA Beacon and was a Berkshires Week intern in 2017.

Women examine e-scooters (copy)

Two women assess a row of Bird e-scooters on North Street in Pittsfield shortly after they were first introduced in the city back in May. 

PITTSFIELD — Since April, Bird e-scooters have become another link in the city’s public transportation system, one in which Berkshire Regional Transit Authority bus service routinely faces a shortage of drivers that results in temporary loss of service for some routes, and being able to find an Uber or Lyft is hit or miss.

In the context of the county’s overall transportation woes, Bird e-scooters function as another way the city has tried to fill in the gaps of its public transit coverage, though it is noteworthy that they are strictly for intra-city travel in Pittsfield. Even some areas on the outskirts of city are “out of bounds,” meaning that the scooters will gradually slow down to the point where they aren’t very useful if you try to take them to these areas.

“The focus is really commuting and we want that to be the goal: to improve access between places,” Public Services and Utilities Commissioner Ricardo Morales told The Eagle shortly after the scooters landed in the city.

My girlfriend and I have tried them out a few times, and our rides have been a generally pleasant experience, though we’ve only been able to reliably use them recreationally on our days off. In order for them to be a feasible option for commuting, you need to be able to reliably locate one at least near where you live on a consistent basis. If you live in or near an area where Bird scooters are consistently dropped off and used — like North Street — you might be able to rely on them for commuting. If not, you’re going to have to be lucky that the ones nearest to you have enough charge to get you to where you need to be.

You’re least likely to find a Bird scooter at night. In most cities where the Birds have landed, subcontractors start collecting the scooters for charging at 9 p.m., after which they are returned to their designated “nests” early in the morning. After a certain point — I’ve found this to be at approximately 10 p.m. — the app won’t let you seek scooters out. You can ride at night and while the scooters are equipped with headlights for this purpose, it’s not something I recommend doing, especially if you’re going to be riding through poor road conditions or bad weather.

Underage riders are an issue — and a legal gray area

Bird requires riders to be 18 and have a valid form of ID, but that hasn’t stopped underage riders both in Pittsfield and nationally from using their scooters. The 2018 Verge article “The secret life of teen scooter outlaws” illustrates this youth subculture of illicit scooter usage by interviewing teens who both broke their local helmet laws and who rode Bird and Lime scooters while underage. Some riders got around the ID requirement by using their siblings’ and parents’ ID — one was even able to get around Bird’s ID verification system with a fake ID. The article details the consequences of underage e-scooter use: injuries from reckless operation and tickets in areas where age requirements and helmet laws are enforced.

When I signed up, it asked for my ID once, and the verification process was incredibly quick (a few minutes). Once the system confirms your ID, your account can purchase rides for virtually anyone — it has no way to confirm that the ID holder is actually using the scooter in service with the account, though its rental agreement does prohibit riders from letting others ride scooters they’ve activated. (If you activate a scooter, you must be the sole operator, per the agreement.)

Bird has said that it wants to crack down on underage usage, though I am not sure there is a cost-effective way to do this. While underage usage is a nuisance and danger to the communities Bird serves, it’s important to note that it does not negate the public good the company does especially for those looking to ditch their cars for short commutes.

Bird and companies like it, however, face challenges both financially and in Massachusetts, where they float in a legal gray area. In June, Bird laid off 23 percent of its staff, and given that it is still a relatively young tech startup, it is unclear if the company can be sustainable long-term.

In Massachusetts, other cities have been reluctant to welcome e-scooters because it is unclear if they fall under the state’s motorized scooter laws, which require operators to have a valid driver’s license or learner’s permit (which Bird does not require) and to have “operational stop and turn signals so that the operator can keep both hands on the handlebars at all times” (which Bird scooters do not have). It also states “No person shall operate a motor scooter upon any way at any time after sunset or before sunrise,” both of which Bird allows.

In August, Bird told The Reminder’s Jonathan Gerhardson that they “have not received any communication from [the Massachusetts Department of Transportation] indicating that our e-scooters are in conflict with the intent of the current statute and municipalities across the commonwealth.” A spokesperson for the DOT also told him “Currently, the commonwealth does not regulate electric scooters” and did not clarify the difference between an electric scooter and a motorized scooter.

Mitchell Chapman is The Eagle’s weekend news editor, as well as a columnist.