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Disentangling plans for Virginia Street (commentary)


The Barber Brief is an independent e-newsletter and blog written by Dr. Alicia Barber on the Substack platform. It is reposted by This Is Reno with her permission.

By Alicia Barber

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 RenoReno News & ReviewNews4Reno, 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. Read more.

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