Disentangling Plans for Virginia Street
Scooters, lane closures, and the Placemaking Study are all set to converge this spring.
NOTE: This Brief concerns (in part) an item on Wednesday’s (4/13) City Council agenda. I was writing on a different topic last week when news arrived of some imminent developments affecting Virginia Street, so I’ve been playing a bit of catch-up. If e-scooters, bicycles, or Virginia Street interest you, be sure to at least skim what follows prior to April 13.
At the core of Reno’s identity is its status as a crossroads, both literally and figuratively. From a transportation perspective, the story of Reno is one of converging paths: indigenous routes, overland trails, railroad lines, streetcars, highways, and interstates. It’s also a crossroads of different types of people, of industries, of ideas.
A crossroads is an exciting and dynamic space where people simultaneously pass through and gather. It’s a tourist destination, but it’s also a home. And balancing the often-competing demands of various entities passing through, meeting, or living at the crossroads has been one of Reno’s major challenges for decades.
It’s a complicated balance to achieve, and on February 23, the City hired one of the most experienced placemaking firms in the world, Gehl Studio, to help us figure it out. As I discussed in my September 6 Brief, “What’s the Future of Virginia Street?”, the Urban Placemaking Study, which is projected to take six months, will strive to formulate an “overall vision for the function and character of Virginia Street.”
As befits a crossroads, a major contributor to the function and character of downtown Virginia Street is the role of transportation. Accordingly, the study’s scope (you can access the draft here) also states, “This vision will also seek to define how the inclusion, or exclusion, of vehicles, buses, bicycles, and pedestrians, at a minimum, may enhance or detract from achieving the desired outcomes.”
That transportation component was a little fraught to begin with, since the RTC decided to pause the design of the approved Center Street Cycle Track—a two-way protected bike lane from UNR to Midtown that would replace one lane of auto traffic—until the Placemaking Study is complete. Frank Mullen just wrote about that for the Reno News & Review on March 29 in a comprehensive piece, "Center Street Cycle Track remains in limbo as ‘placemaking’ study begins."
Adding to the tension is the fact that Caesars Entertainment, owners of the tri-casino resort complex known as The ROW, wants the RTC to move the cycle track to Virginia Street, which their attorney called “a more appropriate corridor.”
With time ticking away, I’ve been greatly anticipating an announcement from the City and Gehl Studio of public events intended to gain insight into the community’s “vision” for how various transportation modes might enhance Virginia Street’s sense of place. What I was not expecting was an announcement by the City that a “pilot project” to reconfigure traffic on part of Virginia Street would be implemented in May and remain in place for the entire duration of the Placemaking Study.
The micromobility “pilot project”: what and why
Last Wednesday in a press release titled “City of Reno paving the road for a more vibrant downtown," the City announced a “pilot project” to “introduce micromobility-specific infrastructure to Reno’s downtown,” specifically along Fifth Street from Keystone to Evans, and along Virginia Street from 5th Street “to Midtown.”
I took a video the other day driving south on Virginia Street from 6th Street to the bridge to check out its current configuration, as you can view here.
If you’re not familiar with the term “micromobility,” the release explains that it “refers to a range of small, lightweight vehicles such as bicycles or scooters that typically operate at speeds of about 10-20 mph and are driven by the user.” The project would incorporate “facilities such as bike rails, reduced lane widths, cycle tracks, lane closures, restriping, protected intersections and more” on these two corridors.
This was the first public mention of the project, which hadn’t even appeared as an informational item on any public agenda. And it came as a surprise not just to me, but to the bicycling community, as reported by This is Reno, Reno News & Review, News4Reno, and the Reno Gazette-Journal, among others.
In a media event on Thursday morning, Kerrie Koski of the City’s Public Works department said that data from the project would be fed into the Placemaking Study to help “see what makes the most sense” for bike lanes downtown. But how can the results be “fed into” the Placemaking Study if the micromobility pilot project is underway at the exact same time? How can various alternatives for configuring the street be evaluated if new micromobility lanes are in place for the study’s duration?
The Bird is the word.
The context for this announcement became a bit clearer with the publication of the agenda for the Wednesday, April 13 City Council meeting. Under item D.4, Council will decide whether to finalize an agreement with the company Bird to introduce a fleet of electric scooters to Reno. This arrangement was last presented to Council on December 8, 2021 by Suzanne Groneman, Sustainability Program Manager. You can watch that discussion here and read some coverage of it from News4 Reno here.
The Exclusive Franchise Agreement with Bird up for review in Wednesday’s meeting indicates that the e-scooters would be allowed to operate in a circumscribed area in the center of Reno (excluding the UNR campus), extending roughly from McCarran Boulevard on the north to the Convention Center on the south. East and west boundaries include Highway 395 and an irregular line on the west starting at Keystone and narrowing as it extends southward. You can view the area in yellow on this map.
According to the Staff Report, Bird submitted an application for a business license from the City of Reno in June 2021, and from June through December, the City worked to develop a “Franchise Agreement for a System of Dockless Bicycles, Electric Bicycles, and/or Electric Scooters within City limits.”
You might recall that the City had a bad experience with Lime bikes and scooters in 2019. This time, Councilmembers wanted a lot of reassurances about tracking the equipment, and keeping them from being parked on sidewalks or, say, thrown in the river. Back in December, Councilwoman Neoma Jardon expressed her reservations and directed the representative from Bird to conduct a public meeting or meetings with different stakeholder groups on their own “dime and time” to explain the project and address any concerns, then bring those details brought back to City Council.
The company did hold a meeting on January 26 intended primarily for business owners, but it was reportedly sparsely attended, and I found no recording of it. You can watch Bird’s presentation to the Senior Citizen Advisory Committee meeting on February 8, 2022—it’s just over 20 minutes long and starts here. They also presented to the Reno Access Advisory Committee. The company will ostensibly be reporting back to Council this Wednesday about how those discussions went, so if you’re interested in the subject and didn’t talk to Bird or see one of these meetings, you might want to consider watching one of the recorded presentations in advance and provide your comments to Council as soon as possible.
In the Senior Citizen Advisory Committee meeting, Bird representative Robert Singleton indicated that he had been working very closely with Public Works and also speaking with local businesses including what he called “anchor establishments” (which he defined as “some of the larger casinos and the Convention Center, etc.”) to make sure they have scooters on site.
E-scooters are not allowed on sidewalks, for the safety of pedestrians, which means they operate in the street. If there is a bike lane, they ride in the bike lane. If there’s no bike lane, they ride on the right side of the traffic lane with bicycles. And if there are lanes that are shared by bicycles and all vehicular traffic, as in the narrowest section of Midtown, they’d be sharing the regular traffic lanes with everyone.
The imminent introduction of e-scooters makes The ROW’s interest in moving a protected downtown bike lane to Virginia Street a little clearer. I have to admit, I never really understood why casinos would be so interested in having bike lanes running directly past them. Most of those who ride bicycles through downtown are interested in just that: passing through. When asked in a recent survey of bicycle riders conducted by the Truckee Meadows Bicycle Alliance what the “most important aspect” of a route through downtown would be, 82% of respondents said “directness” was their chief concern. But it’s much easier to understand why The ROW would want proximity to e-scooters, as an amenity for their guests.
If City Council approves the agreement this Wednesday, Bird would be introducing 400 e-scooters to Reno at the end of April, gradually increasing to the full fleet of 1,000 by mid-June. And that prospect makes the current absence of a designated and protected north-south bike (or micromobility) route through downtown Reno, that connection between UNR and Midtown, a problem.
Of course, that absence is precisely what the Center Street Cycle Track was intended to fix. But Center Street wasn’t announced as the site of this “pilot project”; Virginia Street was. And that seems to make this a good time to review why Virginia Street wasn’t selected as the site of the cycle track in the first place.
Giving Virginia Street (yet) another try
Anyone who rides a bike through downtown knows that a safer route from north to south is needed. So at the City’s request and with its participation, the RTC conducted an extensive analysis of various options and presented the results to City Council in January 2021. Its final 2050 Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) recommended that north-south bicycle infrastructure be implemented on two north-south streets—Vine Street and Center Street—with east-west infrastructure added on 5th Street and 3rd Street. You can find the Downtown Reno Circulation Study in Appendix G of the RTP (it starts on page 291 of the document) here. The full RTP was adopted in March 2021. Here’s a detail of the planned and proposed bike lane improvements the study recommended for downtown.
So why select Center Street over Virginia Street for the protected bike lanes? It wasn’t just that Center Street was determined to be a viable location; it was that Virginia Street was deemed particularly unsuitable, for two major reasons:
You’d have to detour any through traffic whenever the street was closed for a special event.
You’d have to permanently remove one lane of vehicular traffic to make the bike lanes fit, causing persistent gridlock.
(A third reason repeatedly brought up by bicycle advocates is the need for bike lanes to be continuous and connected, rather than suddenly coming to an end, as they would on southbound Virginia Street once hitting Midtown.)
The special events issue is something we’re all familiar with. Virginia Street is closed multiple times a year for events including the Italian Festival, Hot August Nights, Street Vibrations, the Eldorado BBQ, Brews and Blues Festival, and various parades. Bird can employ an electronic “lock” to prevent its scooters from functioning on a closed street. But anyone interested in traveling through downtown at the time—whether on a scooter or bicycle or in a vehicle—would have to detour to another street for the duration of the closure. That’s one of the reasons, after all, why the Bus Rapid Transit line doesn’t run on Virginia Street through downtown.
The impact of reducing traffic lanes to accommodate a bike lane was fully analyzed a few times, with the same findings: gridlock, traffic snarls, and backups. The RTC’s 2050 Regional Transportation Plan (p. 298-300) indicated that the RTC would conduct more analysis of Virginia Street and share the results with the City. And that’s what they did, conducting a new study in the late summer and fall with a stated purpose “to provide objective information regarding the suggested concept [of directional cycle tracks on Virginia Street] and potentially serve to inform the Downtown Placemaking Study in process by the City of Reno.”
The Nevada Current reported on that study a few months ago in an article titled “Traffic study says bike path in front of Reno casinos would snarl traffic for blocks” with a link to the study itself. Not surprisingly, the study confirmed the RTC’s prior findings, concluding, “Under existing traffic volumes, vehicle delay and queuing would significantly increase in the Virginia Street corridor,” even under normal circumstances. Heightened traffic, it stated, would make the problem even worse.
And yet the City wants to implement these lanes on Virginia Street anyway. Why? Do they already have strategies in mind to concurrently reduce the inevitable gridlock on Virginia Street that every single study of this option has predicted? Bird does provide statistics showing that some e-scooter rides are direct replacements for car trips, but it’s hard to say whether that would be true here, or whether it would appreciably decrease auto traffic in this specific corridor.
Another strategy to reduce gridlock would be to discourage cars from driving on Virginia Street, which echoes something expressed by Jacobs Entertainment CEO Jeff Jacobs in a recent interview, when he expressed interest in redirecting interstate traffic to enter downtown via his “Neon Line.” My last Brief, “Putting the Pieces Together," featured a quote from a recent interview with Jacobs, where he said, “Virginia used to be the front door, and that’s changing, You have more influence from the university coming up Virginia and Center, more student housing, more pedestrians…and then the vehicular coming over from California, we think that Keystone will be the new entrance, people coming off of Keystone.”
So is that what City officials have in mind, a coordinated redirection that would vanquish the evil spectre of gridlock on Virginia Street, leaving the e-scooters free to scoot in peace (and without being fumigated by exhaust fumes from idling cars)?
Still another way to reduce the number of cars on a street, of course, is to ban them entirely. RTC Director Bill Thomas seemed to raise that possibility in the News and Review article when he suggested that one possible outcome of the placemaking study may be to turn the downtown area into a pedestrian plaza, saying, “That wasn’t a scenario (under consideration) when the Center Street project was planned.’”
Is that a scenario under consideration now? And if so, how would that be reconciled with the simultaneous introduction of a micromobility lane on Virginia Street, when pedestrian plazas from Boulder’s Pearl Street to Denver’s 16th Street Mall prohibit the operation of wheeled vehicles, including bicycles and e-scooters, in order to ensure pedestrian safety? (Not only that, but the general consensus is that pedestrian plazas, or pedestrian malls, may enable foot traffic, but they don’t generate it, so if that idea is seriously floated, I’ll have much more to say on that.)
More questions than answers
These are very consequential considerations, and they’re all brand new (at least to the public), meaning they haven’t been subject to any public explanation, deliberation or scrutiny. Adding a micromobility lane to Virginia Street wasn’t recommended by the Downtown Circulation Study. It wasn’t part of the RTC’s 2050 Regional Transportation Plan (and therefore couldn’t be funded by the RTC if the City wants one there permanently). It wasn’t part of the City’s Master Plan or its Downtown Action Plan. It would invariably worsen automobile congestion. And yet here we are.
There would no doubt be additional repercussions—both positive and negative—beyond the rosy outcomes touted by its advocates and the dire outcomes predicted by existing traffic studies. I don’t have the time or space to think that through now, but I would like to, and I’m sure a lot of other residents would, too.
And listen, I understand that some might say that this “pilot project” offers precisely that, an opportunity for the public to weigh in on how they feel about the new lane configuration once they’ve seen it in place. But this project as conceived seems to be stacking the deck. The point of hiring an internationally-renowned firm to conduct a Placemaking Study of the downtown portion of Reno’s primary north-south thoroughfare is to allow them to lead the City and its citizens through an evaluation of multiple options for the public spaces in the identified project area. Those public spaces include sidewalks, plazas, public buildings, and yes, the street itself.
Installing micromobility lanes on Virginia Street at the very same time that e-scooters are introduced to the City and the Placemaking Study begins will inevitably establish those lanes as not just existing but expected infrastructure, establishing an artificial baseline for evaluating the street. If approved this Wednesday, Bird would introduce its first round of e-scooters at the end of April. By the end of May, the City would have reconfigured the lanes on Virginia Street from 5th Street southward to give those e-scooters (and bikes) a lane of their own, to be used all spring and summer. The Placemaking Study would be reckoning with Virginia Street not as currently configured, but with a brand new micromobility lane, brand new traffic pattern, and brand new e-scooters. That’s an awful lot of variables to introduce all at once.
And at the end of the pilot program and Placemaking Study, what then? Repaint the lanes on Virginia Street and restore the lanes to their original configuration? That would be sure to cause an uproar from riders, who would be left with no north-south bike lane through downtown, after having had a “temporary” one in place for months. And if the Center Street Cycle Track remains paused for that entire duration, then obviously it would be no closer to completion, either. Would the City then find it more convenient to just keep the lanes on Virginia Street, by a sort of default?
I don’t have the answers to these questions. But I would really like to see them discussed in a public forum, because these decisions have the potential to impact far more than just those who are often consulted as the downtown “stakeholders” and who have likely known of the micromobility “pilot project” for quite some time. Including it as an informational item on a Council agenda with a full staff presentation, rather than announcing it in a press release, would have enabled staff to provide a full explanation of its justification, intent, and planned duration—for City Council and residents alike—and clarify its relationship to the Placemaking Study. It would also have allowed the bicycling community and other interested parties to raise any concerns about it before the City already made firm plans to get it underway.
Obviously, that didn’t happen, but if you’d still like City Council to know what you think about it, you can always contribute to the general public comment at the beginning of their meetings. The e-scooter agreement with Bird is item D.4 on this Wednesday’s (tomorrow’s) agenda (commenting on the micromobility infrastructure would make sense there, too) and instructions for contributing public comment to City Council can be found at the top. If you want to comment in advance, try to submit it by 4pm on Tuesday, 4/12 to be included in the record before the meeting, but it’s also a hybrid meeting so you can register to participate live in person or via Zoom. You can also contact your Councilmember or the Mayor directly via the contact information on this page.
If you’re interested in commenting on the Center Street Cycle Track or anything else related to RTC operations, the RTC Board next meets on April 15, and the agenda and materials can be found here. Stay warm and look out for each other, my friends.
As always, you can view this and prior newsletters on my Substack site and follow the Brief (and contribute to the ongoing conversation) on Twitter, Facebook & Instagram. If you feel inspired to contribute to my efforts, my Venmo account is @Dr-Alicia-Barber. Thanks so much for reading, and have a great week.