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Downtown pilot project has bittersweet sides (opinion)


Submitted by Ky Plaskon

We are hearing that the City getting a ton of comments on the Virginia Street micro-mobility pilot project through the survey. While Virginia Street is getting a ton of public scrutiny, there is another part of the pilot project on Fifth Street that is getting no attention at all and is a success.

What’s the difference? The protected bike path on Fifth Street is supported by Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) studies. Businesses and drivers now see that a protected path can work, bringing families, kids and students downtown every day. It’s a win-win.

Virginia Street is different.

We proposed a similar pilot project from the University of Nevada, Reno campus to Midtown via Center Street in 2018, not on Virginia Street.

Just like Fifth Street, RTC studies show a Center Street protected path will work for drivers – simple, no drama. But this downtown pilot project experiment took a sure thing on Center and applied it to Virginia Street where an RTC study showed it might not work.

The result is what we see downtown now and the intense scrutiny. Bicyclists have been torn by this for good reason. We like protected paths, but there is something really risky — the potential to shift public opinion away from safe, protected bike paths.

Sabotage of the Virginia street portion of the bike path is common with barriers being moved into the bike path. Image: Ky Plaskon

If the Virginia Street portion of this is not successful, people and businesses might oppose protected paths not just from UNR to Midtown, but everywhere.

We want leaders who take risks, but turning public opinion against proven safety measures for kids is really risky for the future of our community. No matter which way this Virginia Street pilot goes, hopefully, our leaders will be brave enough to finish what we know will work on Center Street for the safety of UNR students as they try to get to downtown and Midtown.

Center Street is already at 30% design and it would be done by now if it weren’t for this downtown experiment. The city and RTC should finish what they started on Center Street as a commitment to safety for everyone, drivers and riders alike. 

Reno can have both, a bike path that doesn’t impact traffic and businesses on Virginia Street, and an alternative direct path on Center Street. But it will take time to work out the kinks on Virginia.

Meanwhile, student safety should be a top priority for our City as it is for UNR President Brian Sandoval. He issued a statement in August supporting our efforts to bring national bike experts to Reno in late August. International experts are coming in September, too.

The challenge downtown right now demonstrates our need for more input on how to do things right. The experts coming to Reno have dealt with public opinion challenges just like this for more than 50 years in cities around the world.

A portion of the Virginia Street micro-mobility project at First and Virginia Streets in downtown Reno, Nev. Image: Ty O’Neil / This Is Reno

Thankfully, local and state engineers from our cities, county, and state have committed to attending, keeping an open mind, and staying humble. One of the topics will be public opinion.

Another topic, new statistics from Nevada Department of Transportation show a quarter of Washoe County residents don’t have a driver’s license. As we cater to this growing population of people who choose alternative transportation, with a little help, we won’t need to reinvent the wheel and make all the same public opinion mistakes along the way.

The Dutch Cycling Embassy event is coming at a significant cost to the all-volunteer Truckee Meadows Bicycle Alliance ($17,000). Contributions at any level help tremendously.

Bottom line: micro-modal users deserve a permanent, safe, and direct route to get from UNR to Midtown. At the very least, please advocate for safety downtown for all road users before time runs out by completing the micro-mobility survey.

Ky Plaskon is a beekeeper and president of the Truckee Meadows Bicycle Alliance, BikeWashoe.org.

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