Positively Fourth Street
What’s the future of the main bicycle thoroughfare from Reno to Sparks?
Somehow, I ended up biking down Fourth Street on a Wednesday afternoon with a miniature Critical Mass of nearly a dozen cyclists. The group included volunteers from the Reno Bike Project, an urban planner, and a Reno City Council member. The bike ride was a rolling roundtable discussion about a proposal to add bike lanes to Fourth Street, bicycle culture in general, and the future of Fourth Street, one of Reno’s major thoroughfares.
The ride was organized and led by Scott Hall, a public health specialist who’s on the board of RBP, and Jeff Mitchell, RBP’s programming director. Riders included Reno City Council member Dave Aiazzi, RBP volunteers Meagan O’Farrell and Justin Zabriskie, and RBP executive director Noah Silverman. Also along for the ride was Andy Durling, an urban planner from Wood Rodgers, the consulting firm contracted by the Regional Transportation Commission to analyze and make recommendations about the future of Fourth Street and, as the street is known is Sparks, Prater Way, and Andy TenBrink, a geologist and alternate member of RTC’s Bicycle/Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC). Representing RN&R was me and photographer Allison Young. And, last but not least, there was Shoki, Scott Hall’s 7-year-old son.
For the Reno Bike Project, the purpose of the ride was to raise awareness and support of the Fourth Street-Prater Way Complete Streets Project, and, more to the point, their contention that, as the primary east-west cycling route though the Truckee Meadows, Fourth Street is ideally suited for bike lanes.
Fourth and Vine
The 4th Street/Prater Way Corridor Study, currently being conducted by RTC and Wood Rodgers, is examining Fourth Street for problems and solutions in regard to “multimodal” transportation—that is, autos, mass transit, pedestrian and bicycle traffic. The findings and recommendations that come out of the study will be implemented in renovations either incrementally over the next 25 years or, if a recent federal grant application is approved, much more quickly beginning next year.
The area covered by the study follows the corridor from Keystone Avenue in the west about seven miles to Northern Nevada Medical Center, near the eastern terminus of Prater Way. Our ride began in the parking lot of Gold-N-Silver, at the corner of Fourth and Vine streets, just one block from Keystone and, incidentally, less than six blocks from my house. My quick ride to the Gold-N-Silver was a nice warm-up.
I’m a lapsed bicycle commuter. I rode every day, or at least most days, for about seven years in my late teens and early 20s, including a 10-mile, round-trip work commute and a cross-country bike tour. But in recent years, I got a driver’s license, fell out of the cycling habit, and got fat. In fact, that quick ride over to Gold-N-Silver was the first time I’d been on a bike in over a year.
As the group gathered outside the Gold-N-Silver, I chatted with some of the other cyclists.
“More bike lanes equals more bike ridership,” Hall told me. “If you can visually designate, or separate them by space or elevation, then people will know what it is and people will ride on it. Then they have their space for little kids, fast commuters, whatever. … Increasing bike ridership, and the slowing of the traffic, creates more of a community atmosphere, and it increases business.”
The closest thing to a current east-west bicycle route is the Truckee River bike path, which runs through the southern end of downtown Reno and eventually follows the river to the southeast.
“It’s more natural, friendly, slower paced. It follows the river,” said Hall. “The river path is great for nature-watching or calmer cycling. For efficiency of commuting, directly east-west, with more speed and less stops, bikers can make a lot faster trip. The river path has multi-use, so that’s pedestrians, dogs. More accidents happen on multi-use, so if it’s a dedicated cycle track or bike facility, then that’s more efficient. Also, you know, there’s bikers riding around here all the time right now.”
After a few minutes of chatting, we mounted up and rode out. As we pulled out of the Gold-N-Silver lot, there was in incoming rush of traffic as the signal light changed. We had a large enough group that, riding en masse, we had some security in numbers and took up the whole right lane.
Fourth and Ralston
“It is a lot different for one, because you have to stay in the gutter,” said Aiazzi, after we had stopped near the corner of Fourth and Ralston streets. “And this street has been overlaid so many times, there’s a big lip to where if you have to move over some of the grates, like if you have a 10-speed, the wheels fall off. So you can’t just speed up, because you’re worried your tires are going to slip out, because you have a curb on both sides, because it’s been overlaid so many times.”
The safest option in that section of Fourth Street is currently to ride in the gutter, not a romantic notion, nor a comfortable one.
“What we’re looking at is five lanes of traffic: a center turn lane, and two lanes on either side [and bike lanes],” said Mitchell. “I guess the big question is, is this the kind of transportation that we want in Reno? It’s a question we have to answer as a community. Do we want the kind of city that facilitates all these massive car populations moving through the city? Or do we want to slow it down and get people to get out of their cars and actually experience the downtown area?”
For Mitchell and other cyclists, bike lanes are key for a strong, community-oriented downtown Reno.
“This is happening in Detroit, Chicago, all around the country, all these cities with a lot of urban sprawl are starting to come back to the urban core,” he said. “It has to do with a lot of stuff—the housing economy, gas prices is another, just wanting to be closer to your job. With moving back to the urban core, people realize they don’t need their cars.”
Or, at the very least, they don’t need them as much or as often. Even dedicated cyclists might want to drive the car to the grocery store, if they plan to stock up, or take the car for a daytrip out of town, but the bicycle might serve just as well for a short work commute or, even better, riding out to eat, drink, or see a movie, play or baseball game.
“With the regional plan, we’re planning for transit-oriented development,” said Aiazzi. “And that’s along Virginia Street and along Fourth Street, and the purpose of transit-oriented development is to have higher density by bus stops, so people don’t have to drive a car. What people have to understand is that transit is not just car or walk. It could be a bike. It could be a motorcycle. It could be a scooter. It could be anything. It’s not just, ‘I either walk or I drive my car.’”
Fourth and West
We rolled down Fourth Street for a couple of more blocks, but because of the current street renovations on and around Virginia Street, we took a right and headed south down West Street for half a block before regrouping.
We had to avoid the area of Fourth Street from Sierra Street to Center Street, particularly the block beneath the Silver Legacy walkway between Sierra and Virginia streets, which could be an obstacle to the possibility of having a continuous bike lane for the corridor. That area is very heavily trafficked with pedestrians, casino shuttles and other traffic.
“There’s not a lot we can do there,” said Durling. “Besides taking out center turn lanes. … It’s a challenge.”
An important concept in planning bike lanes is connectivity, ensuring that bike paths link up and that bicycle commuters can plan the routes safely. A block or two here and there with no connectivity doesn’t much help cyclists, and it would be a major problem if the bike lanes on a major commuter route were to suddenly disappear for three or four blocks in the most congested portion of the route. Durling suggested that another option for the downtown area would be to route cyclists through bike facilities on Sixth Street.
“Sixth Street could be another option,” said Durling. “It just hasn’t been analyzed real in-depth, but Sixth Street is viable because it spans the entire downtown. … One of our recommendations in the long run would be to look at Sixth Street as an alternate route through downtown for bikes.”
This option didn’t sit well with many of the other cyclists present.
“It’s an industrial wasteland,” said TenBrink. “No one wants to ride there. There, I said it.”
He added that many destinations like Lincoln Lounge, a bar that’s popular with cyclists, and the Reno Bike Project itself, are already on Fourth Street. “We realize the constraints, but we just don’t like it any better than a car driver would if you rerouted them.”
Cutting center turn lanes could slow down traffic enough to force car drivers to change their habits, possibly take an alternate route, like Sixth Street.
“If you look at Virginia Street, they went down to two lanes, and people went down Sierra and Center,” said Hall. “So they’ve created a traffic pattern that doesn’t put all the impact on the … main street.”
“They’ll take the path of least resistance,” said Durling. “So they could conceivably [change driving routes], but will they? That’s behavior modification at that point.”
Hall pointed out that I-80 is a continuous east-west route for drivers, but not for cyclists.
Because of the street closures, we took West Street to Commercial Row, crossed Virginia Street near the Reno arch, and continued down Commercial Row to Aces Ballpark.
“If you want to rebuild the city to be what everyone wants it to be—where it’s fun to be downtown, and you want to be in downtown Reno,” said TenBrink. “You have to have things like this that are draws for the masses.”
And though everyone in the group seemed to agree that the ballpark was a great addition to Reno, a fun community attraction, there’s a problem with it: no bike lane access.
“You have to build the infrastructure and build the attractions,” said TenBrink. “It’s not just one or the other. We have to just keep pushing so that they follow through with the … non-vehicular infrastructure.”
“The owners … saw the development potential around the stadium as much as they saw the stadium, and then the market collapsed,” said Aiazzi. “And that’s what happened.”
“If you look at real estate values downtown, they’ve gone down, but they’ve been very moderate,” said Hall. “Whereas in the fringes, the suburbs and whatnot, it’s been catastrophic. In our lifetimes probably, some places won’t come back. And they don’t have any of the cultural resources. We have the museum, downtown theater. We have everything here. If you were to buy a house or a condo here, you could basically do whatever you want as well as work, and only travel by foot or by bike.”
Fourth and Valley
We rode from the ballpark down Evans Avenue back to Fourth Street. The main downtown Reno RTC bus station is there at Fourth Street between Lake Street and Evans Avenue. The proximity to the bus station is another reason that Fourth Street could be ideal for an emphasis on multimodal transportation. Bikes can be clamped onto buses for long routes. We then rode down Fourth Street a few busy, action-packed blocks to the Reno Bike Project’s shop, a few doors down from the intersection of Fourth Street and Valley Road.
“That’s why we care about this street,” said Mitchell. “One is that we have the time and resources now to finally dedicate to some legitimate advocacy work, so that’s what we’re doing, but ultimately we have a vested interest in this street. … We own a bike shop in front of a road that has no bike lanes. So it’s dangerous for our clientele to be riding bikes down here.”
Standing outside of the Reno Bike Project, Durling and I talked about possible funding sources for Fourth Street renovations. RTC has applied for a Transportation Investment Grant for Economic Recovery (TIGER).
“It’s a federal highways grant,” he said. “There’s a few billion dollars out there, and obviously it’s very competitive. … They have a very compelling grant. ”
In addition to extensive bike lanes along Fourth Street, the grant also calls for eight new RAPID bus stations, as well as revamped sidewalks, lighting, trees and other amenities. The grant lists the total cost for the Fourth Street/Prater Way Complete Streets Project as $26.3 million. Local fuel tax funds will account for $10 million of that, and the TIGER request is $16.3 million.
“We have a really strong project, I think, because of all the community input that we’ve received and the community support that we have for the project,” Amy McAbee Cummings, RTC’s director of planning, told me a few days later. “I guess the downside is that for that program—the funding requests—I think there were 700 or 800 submittals that were made across the country. I think they had about 40 times more requests for funding than they actually had funding available, so it’s really competitive.”
The grant application, which Cummings emailed me, includes letters of support from various local organizations, including the Reno Bike Project, the University of Nevada, Reno, the mayors of Reno and Sparks, and a letter from U.S. Sen. Harry Reid to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in support of the grant. According to Cummings, they’ll know if the grant has been approved by June or July.
“If we don’t get the funding from this [TIGER grant], it will be incorporated into our long-range plan, and we’re going to do a funding analysis as part of that long-range plan, and that’s something that we’re going to be working on through this fall,” said Cummings. “There is some local funding available, but it would have to be phased incrementally. Most likely, we wouldn’t expect to be able to fund the entire project without the grant at this time. If we do receive the grant, we would be able to start construction next year.”
“This kind of redevelopment project can do a lot for Reno,” said Mitchell. “We all kind of remember what Wells Avenue was before they started that redevelopment project. It looked a lot like this. There was no interest in bringing new business there. Now, there’s all kind of cool stuff happening.”
“That really changed Wells,” said TenBrink. “It was more like this”—he gestured toward the traffic on Fourth Street. “Four lanes, kind of fast going, and now it’s mellow. You can ride on it, it’s not sketchy. You’re not pushed off the road.”
Though he acknowledged most local motorists still don’t know how to use the roundabouts.
Fourth and Sixth
From the Reno Bike Project, we rode down a few more blocks to where Sixth Street merges with Fourth Street. At this point, the pedestrians and businesses are fewer, and the blocks are longer.
“Here we are at Sixth Street, going back a couple of decades,” said Hall. “Maybe the ’50s? Maybe the 1850s? But there’s so much that could be approved here, even a sidewalk could be nice. A bike lane would be nice. There’s so little truck traffic. It’s mostly just straight through.”
Wood Rodgers and RTC have conducted open house forums, to address public concerns about the future of the corridor.
“There’s definitely a sentiment for bike lanes,” said Durling.
The TIGER application mentions “The addition of bike lanes … has been the most frequently raised need at community meetings for the project study.”
Is anyone actually anti-bike lane?
“The general public can be if you tell them you’re going to take away a lane of traffic,” said TenBrink. “But if it’s done properly and goes through the open house process, what you find is that they’re often not really against it.”
“If we keep doing the same thing, then this place is not going to change,” said Hall. “If people see it as changed, then they’re like, yeah, I went to live down there. I want to build a building down there. It’s wide open. You could do whatever you wanted on this corridor. For the future, it would just show how much more impact we could have. We have Virginia Street and Wells, but there is no great east-west corridor.”
“What we’ve heard, general consensus,” Durling said, “is not to necessarily make it a real polished corridor, a glitz and glamour kind of thing, but still a little pretty and much nicer place to be, where the sidewalks are nice, we have street trees, bike facilities—a complete street.”