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New England cities scramble to regulate electric scooters

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    In this photo, Vatic Kuumba, of Providence, R.I. rides a BIRD electric scooter on Tuesday in downtown Providence.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. >> One New England city is ordering a California company’s electric stand-up scooters off its streets and another is scrambling to craft new scooter rules since the rental vehicles began appearing last week with no warning.

Cambridge, Massachusetts, sent a letter to Los Angeles-based startup Bird Rides Inc. on Tuesday, warning that it’s illegal to operate its rental scooter business in the city without prior authorization.

Bird’s approach of introducing its rental business unannounced caught officials by surprise when dozens of the dockless scooters appeared before dawn last Friday parked on sidewalks in Cambridge, in neighboring Somerville and in Providence, Rhode Island.

A day later, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said that the scooters would be sent to the tow yard if they arrived in his city without permission.

The company’s smartphone app for finding and booking the scooters now shades Boston red, labeling it a “no ride or park zone,” but the scooters are still being placed each morning in Cambridge, Somerville and Providence after overnight charging.

Cambridge Vice Mayor Jan Devereux said Bird seems to use stealth launches and then lets city officials scramble for how they want to permit and regulate the scooters.

“It certainly got them a seat at the table,” Devereux said. “How they proceed from there is a question of what kind of attitude they bring to that table.”

Bird said in a statement on today that “the people of Cambridge have enthusiastically adopted our affordable, environmentally friendly transportation option.” It said it looks forward to meeting with city officials.

The company hasn’t said how many scooters it has in each city. It has told some contract employees that it plans to uproot the scooters when the weather gets colder and migrate them to warmer climates for the winter.

Devereux, a bicyclist and public transit advocate, said most Cambridge residents are supportive of transportation alternatives that get people out of cars. At the same time, she said, “we want to have some measure of control” so the scooters don’t become a safety hazard or chaotic nuisance.

Cambridge City Manager Louis DePasquale, in his Tuesday letter to Bird, said he would meet with company officials on Monday “to assess whether your business may safely operate in the city, and under what conditions.”

As of now, he said, the scooters aren’t allowed.

“The city will not permit Bird’s electric scooters to be parked and used on city-owned streets, sidewalks and other public property without all required authorizations and permissions having first been obtained,” he wrote.

Somerville also said this week its officials will meet with Bird but there “is no contract, license or agreement in place to allow them to operate” at this time.

Providence officials said they’re consulting with police and other city officials to craft new rules.

“We’re working on a policy that fits the city,” said Victor Morente, a spokesman for Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza.

Morente declined to say what that policy might look like.

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