SALEM — Electric scooters are coming.
The City Council voted 7-3 Thursday night on a one-year program that will bring as many as 250 motorized scooters to Salem in the coming months. Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll said an initial launch of 150 scooters is expected to kick off in mid-July.
Zagster, a micro-mobility company, will run and maintain the program. The business has run a bike-share network in the city since 2017.
Still, many councilors on Thursday were cautious about the scooters and concerned about how to make sure riders have access to helmets.
"I have a lot of reservations but am open-minded and will at least try it, to see if it works," said Ward 1 Councilor Bob McCarthy. "With the (police) chief having ultimate authority of saying 'no,' it isn't going to be rolled out by the Fourth of July... I can't see them working during any large event like that. I'm willing to try, and if it doesn't work, I'll be the first one to call Chief Butler's office."
The e-scooter program will put rechargeable motorized scooters in designated parking areas around Salem. They come equipped with GPS, which will allow the city to prohibit their use or slow their speed at specific streets and areas.
The scooters hit a top speed of 15 mph, can travel about 15 miles on a single charge and weigh "just under 40 pounds," said Chad Jacobs, a sales director with Zagster. The scooters would also be activated only through a smartphone app, and riders must be at least 18 years old. Trips cost $1 plus 15 cents for every minute of use. The program doesn't cost the city anything in its first year, and 10 cents from each ride goes back to the city.
"We've been spending roughly the last month or two working with the city to create a customized service for the community," Jacobs said Thursday night. "What that means is establishing all kinds of guidelines and rules for how we will operate."
The program operates at the mercy of police Chief Mary Butler, who can shut it down at any time.
There's also the issue of helmets.
"We're working with the city on what we think is a pretty neat helmet distribution strategy," Jacobs said. "It could be a community center or City Hall. In addition to that, for regular users, we expect a large majority of users in the program are going to be commuters getting to the train, the ferry. We provide helmets to those riders at a discount."
Opponents of the plan criticized the lack of an established helmet distribution program.
"The CDC did a study — it was published this year — about the safety of e-scooters," said Robert Kennedy, a Carlton Street resident. "The most common (injuries) were head injuries at 45 percent. Since these rentals don't come with any helmets, the vast majority don't have helmets on — and I don't know how enthused they'll be about going to City Hall to get a used helmet."
During a committee meeting on the topic, Kennedy demonstrated the tight turning radius of the scooter's front wheel and handlebars on a prototype Zagster had brought to the meeting. By hitting a pothole or imperfection in a sidewalk, he argued, the wheel would suddenly snap to the left or the right. The scooter would come to an instant stop, he said, and the rider would be propelled forward.
"The design is not great. And actually, because of this, it invites injury," Kennedy said. "We're inviting something into this city that's flawed, physically flawed."
Polly Wilbert, a Cedar Street resident, pointed out that North Shore Medical Center is busy enough without scooter crash victims coming in for treatment.
"Has anyone been to the ER at Salem Hospital recently?" she asked. "I know the last time I was there, I waited for three hours and left. I think putting any burden on our hospital already is an issue."
Councilor-at-large Arthur Sargent agreed.
"We don't find too many people riding the bicycle and it's their first time riding it," Sargent said. "With scooters, you'll find a lot of people where it'll be their first time riding it. And with bicycles, they're providing their own power. But with these, you're going 15 miles per hour."
Ward 4 Councilor Tim Flynn said helmet use is his biggest concern.
"It's totally ludicrous, in this day and age, that people would be on these without a helmet," he said.
'It's worth a try'
Others were concerned about scooters ending up in the wrong place or, in some cases, driving the wrong way. Ward 5 Councilor Josh Turiel was concerned about people on scooters going the wrong direction on a one-way street downtown. Jacobs said the built-in GPS won't prevent that.
"If there's a street that's really dangerous," Jacobs said, "my recommendation is to shut the street off completely."
Still, Turiel signed on.
"We're at the point where this isn't a massive, long-term commitment on the part of the city," Turiel said. "It's worth a try, and the fact that our chief of police can shut it down if she deems it to be a problem... there's no one I trust in the city more to make that decision."
Christine Madore, who represents Ward 2 and downtown Salem, said she wished that people "placed as much scrutiny and caution on cars. Cars killed at least one person a day in Massachusetts alone in 2018."
Being said, there's no harm in trying something, according to Madore.
"I think we could give this a try, see if it works," she said. "And if it doesn't? Then it doesn't work."
In the end the council approved the program, which modifies the final year of the city's three-year contract with Zagster. Councilors Steve Dibble, Flynn and Sargent voted against the plan. Councilor-at-large Elaine Milo recused herself from voting.