Mopeds' uncharted ground
Nichole Burton of Somerville rode her moped to work at the Chestnut Hill Mall on Thursday. But where to park it? (Travis Dove for The Boston Globe)
By Peter DeMarco
July 20, 2008
Nichole Burton's new $2,800 Piaggio Fly 50 moped - the economy version of a Vespa - is saving her hundreds on gasoline, exactly as advertised. But owning a moped comes with its share of problems - foremost being, where the heck are you supposed to park it?
At first Burton left it on the sidewalk, chained like a bicycle to a street sign. But her landlady warned her that it was illegal to park mopeds on the sidewalk in Somerville, and if she did it again, the police said they'd tow it away.
The street was the next likely option, but Somerville doesn't issue residential parking stickers to moped owners. Without a residential sticker, Burton figured she'd get ticketed.
"If I can't legally park it on the sidewalk and I can't park it on my street, what does that mean?" she asked. "It should be one or the other."
Long thought of as nifty toys that happened to get you from Point A to Point B, mopeds are finally getting their due respect as gas-saving wunderkinds that motor up to 100 miles on a single gallon. But as more and more mopeds hit Boston's streets, it's becoming clear that the majority of owners don't know all there is to know about driving them.
Police say that moped owners routinely break driving laws such as speeding (mopeds aren't supposed to exceed 25 miles per hour), passing illegally and not wearing appropriate helmets. Parking is a huge conundrum, as cities and towns, unprepared for the recent explosion in moped popularity, almost uniformly fail to mention them in parking rules and regulations. And as for safety training, it's virtually nonexistent.
"Salesmen are just selling these things as fast as they can," Sergeant Michael Maffei, of the Cambridge Police, told me. "I guarantee that if you walked into a store and said, 'What do I have to do to own one?' the answer would be, 'Nothing.' "
Indeed, most moped owners aren't getting all the information they need. I took Maffei at his word and walked into a local moped store posing as Joe Driver. The salesman said there were no special rules for driving a moped, which is absolutely false. "Just get on it and go," he said with a smile.
But irresponsible dealers aren't the only ones at fault. The Registry of Motor Vehicles has been a latecomer to the craze, with barely a mention of mopeds in the state drivers manual and not a word about them on its website home page (though that's expected to change this very week.) Likewise, local traffic and police departments have been slow to promote moped rules, in part because they haven't quite figured them out themselves.
"Naturally, we want to be accommodating. But sidewalks are made for pedestrians," said Thomas Tinlin, commissioner of the Boston Transportation Department, when asked whether moped owners can park on the sidewalk. "What we want to do is see if we can find appropriate locations for them. We understand we have to find some solution because we're going to be seeing more and more of these in the summer and fall."
When the Globe published a story about a Vespa-driving reporter navigating Boston's harrowing streets, some readers and traffic officials expressed alarm about her apparent violation of at least four traffic rules.
So, amid all this confusion, what should moped owners know before they start driving? We'll start with the basics.
Mopeds and "motorized bicycles," which is what they're often called in state law, don't require license plates. But owners must register them with the Registry of Motor Vehicles (a $40 fee every two years) and must carry their registration with them when they ride, even if there's no glove box to keep it in.
The registration form, which you can print out on your home computer and take to RMV, doubles as the moped's official registration and is, without question, the best source of information for any owner about moped driving rules.
Citing Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 90, Section 1, the form lists the differences between a moped and a motorcycle. A moped shouldn't be able go faster than 30 miles per hour. If it can, it should be considered a motorcycle. The engine's cylinder capacity also can't be greater than 50 cubic centimeters, or it should be considered a motorcycle.
Motorcycles are just like cars, requiring a standard vehicle registration, insurance, and a license plate. Motorcycle drivers need a special motorcycle driver's license, which can be obtained after completing several hours of motorcycle training.
Moped owners don't need to insure their vehicles. They don't need any training. They don't even need a driver's license: you can drive a moped so long as you have a learner's permit. Instead of license plates, the Registry issues small, numbered stickers to identify motorized bicycles.
The registration states that moped drivers must obey the same rules of the road that motorists obey, but there are some exceptions.
As mentioned, it's illegal for moped drivers to go faster than 25 miles per hour, no matter what the posted speed limit is. (The fine is $25.) Moped owners are allowed to drive in bicycle lanes, but they must wear motorcycle helmets. Bike helmets don't cut it.
However, the registration form leaves a lot out.
Maffei, of the Cambridge Police, said that moped riders often zip to the front of the line at a red light by riding between two lanes of cars. But riding between cars is illegal - motorcyclists and bicyclists aren't supposed to do it, either - and carries a $25 fine.
Many mopeds, including the one I sat on at the dealership, have speedometers that reach 40 miles per hour, which would seem to imply they should be classified as motorcycles. But police can't assume that a particular moped goes that fast unless the maximum speed is printed somewhere on the moped, and usually, it's not.
I asked the RMV whether your car insurance premium would go up (assuming you owned a car) if you got a speeding ticket while driving your new moped. Ann Dufresne, spokeswoman for the Registry, gave me three answers.
If you're guilty of breaking the 25 miles per hour speed limit for mopeds - a limit it appears everyone is exceeding - then all you'll get is a $25 fine. Your insurance and driving record won't be affected because you've broken a moped-specific law.
However, if you're guilty of exceeding the posted speed limit - say, you go 30 miles per hour in a school zone - you should be issued a standard speeding ticket, and that should go on your driving record.
At that point, Dufresne said, it's up to your insurance company to decide whether it will up your rates.
The same logic applies to any moving violation - running a red light, driving drunk, failure to stay within marked lanes - you incur on your moped.
"Case law supports that it should go on your driving record," Dufresne said. "But the insurance companies, a lot of them will forgive certain citations. That's what we've seen with the [statewide] changes with insurance."
There's no state rule for where you can park your moped, which means it might be legal to park on the sidewalk in one city, and illegal in the next.
I pored over Somerville's traffic regulations to answer Burton's parking dilemma. Mopeds aren't specifically mentioned, so the best I could come up with was this line: "No driver shall allow, permit or suffer any vehicle registered in his name to stand or park . . . upon any sidewalk."
Since you have to register your moped with the RMV, it appeared to me that she couldn't park on the sidewalk.
I called Tom Champion of the mayor's office to double-check. After inquiring with Somerville's legal department, he called back to say that moped owners, including Burton, actually can park on the sidewalk.
"Traffic and Parking personnel may only issue a violation to vehicles that have a license plate. So, as a practical matter, Traffic and Parking Director Jim Kotzuba says that 'mopeds' as defined under state regs - including the smaller Vespas - won't be ticketed for parking on the sidewalk," Champion told me. "The city solicitor and the mayor's office concur. If a parking control officer said anything about ticketing or towing under municipal parking regs, then he or she spoke in error, and Traffic and Parking will ensure that everybody understands the policy."
Champion said Burton could even chain her moped to a pole. His only caveat was that if a moped were blocking a sidewalk, preventing handicapped access, it could be removed by the city.
Could Burton park her moped in the street? "You can't park your moped in a residential street because you don't have a residential permit. But could you park it in a metered space? Yes you could," Champion said.
Tinlin, Boston's transportation commissioner, also said his staff can't issue parking tickets to mopeds parked on sidewalks. However, Boston has rules against chaining bicycles to posts and parking meters. If a moped owner chains her vehicle, parking officials might cut the chain and tow the vehicle.
As for parking a moped on the street in Boston, even in a spot requiring a resident sticker, Tinlin said, "there's nothing on the books that says you can't do that."
Were you to park your moped in front of a fire hydrant, or illegally, it would be towed, of course, he added. In Cambridge, the traffic regulations are fairly clear that it's illegal to park your Vespa on the sidewalk, said Susan Clippinger, director of traffic, parking and transportation.
Still, Cambridge isn't issuing tickets because the majority of moped owners aren't creating problems, and because the city wants to encourage alternative forms of transportation.
"There's a law, and there's what we're actually doing. They're not exactly the same," Clippinger said. "I think, in reality, that if more and more people get these vehicles and start parking them on the sidewalk in a real irresponsible way so you can't get into a store or you can't get a wheelchair down a sidewalk or you can't get out of your car because a Vespa is parked there, we're going to become more aggressive. Otherwise, it's let sleeping dogs lie."
For sure, though, no one is ignoring the rise in mopeds and their effect on city traffic. Boston officials are conferring with major cities from across the country about how they're addressing the sudden increase in two-wheelers. Tinlin said he's also working with Boston's new bicycle coordinator, Nicole Freedman, on moped parking issues.
"Right now we're promoting a program of installing bicycle racks where appropriate around the city for traditional bikes. One of the big questions is, can these racks accommodate something that is motorized," he said.
While nothing's on the books that would stop moped owners from parking on the street, as more mopeds join the commute, "We're going to hear from businesses or other vehicle owners who need that parking space," Tinlin said.
Dufresne, spokeswoman for the Registry, said her office is preparing to release a consumer alert within the next few days warning moped buyers to get the facts before buying. The RMV is also about to post a feature on its website clarifying moped rules and regulations.
Will mopeds ever have license plates? Most traffic officials agree that would help tremendously, as the state doesn't have an electronic database of moped registration numbers that's accessible to law enforcement officials. (Copies of the paper registration forms are kept on file in a drawer at the RMV.)
The Registry isn't ready to take such a leap yet. But as with all things moped these days, Dufresne said, if their popularity keeps soaring, "it's something we'd have to look at."
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