Flocks of new e-scooters are perched at spots along Reno’s downtown and Midtown sidewalks like rows of birds on wires.
The spring winds had calmed down; it was a warm, sunny day. It was the perfect opportunity for a novice rider like me to take flight on a Bird e-scooter — and at the same time ask Renoites what they think about the new program, billed as a way to reduce fossil fuel emissions and increase what officials call “micromobilty.”
The scooters are part of Reno’s Sustainability Plan, a vision of the future in which expanded mass transit, human-propelled vehicles like bicycles and scooters, and other measures are designed to transform the city’s transportation options and help clear the air while pushing back against climate change. A similar effort in 2018 brought e-bike rentals to Reno, but that pilot program crashed after vandalized rental bikes wound up in the Truckee River or were run up flagpoles. In addition, Lime Bikes, the rental company, brought in a fleet of e-scooters without consulting city officials and had to remove both types of vehicles from Reno streets.
City leaders are rebooting their micromobility strategy and I was giddy about trying out the scooters. As I looked around for one of the parking stations that have sprung up between the University of Nevada, Reno and the south end of Midtown, I saw a man and his young daughter zipping along the sidewalk on Sierra Street in downtown.
Ray Smith and his daughter, Savanah, who live in Midtown, were taking a relatively slow ride on a Bird, whose top speed is about 15 miles per hour. Ray didn’t set out to take a ride, but Savanah had other ideas and convinced her dad to take a spin with her on board. “I try not to have too much fun, you know,” Ray Smith said. “I’ve got my daughter with me, so we’re just taking it around the block a couple of times.”
Smith said the scooters are a practical means of transportation for someone who lives and works in the Midtown/downtown districts. “I’d totally pay $5 bucks to get on here and get around town,” he said.
Cell phone in hand, I went to the line of 10 scooters parked neatly nearby.
Getting started; breaking a rule
The e-scooters can be found, rented and operated by using the Bird app, which is free to download from online app stores. I scanned the QR code on my Bird of choice and went through the prompts, noting the “dos and don’ts” of using the scooters. I viewed a brief tutorial and hopped on. I gave the scooter an initial push, held down the throttle, and was rewarded with a whine of the motor as the Bird took off.
The ride is a bit stop-and-go. The throttle increases speed and the brake stops the vehicle. There’s no way to slow down gradually by just using the throttle.
I broke a rule within seconds. Like the Smiths and many other riders I encountered, I rode on the sidewalk. “No riding on sidewalks,” is written in bold white letters on the scooters, an admonition I wanted to obey, but I began my ride on a portion of Sierra Street that has no bike lane. The busy street is lined with parked cars, has a lot of traffic and doesn’t feel like a safe place to ride.
Fifteen miles an hour is fast enough to get into trouble, but probably not quick enough to get out of it. Other riders cruising on the sidewalks shared that concern. They noted that some Reno drivers are known to be less than friendly about sharing the road with human-powered vehicles.
“Reno drivers are not the best… so I just know [the] bike lane probably wouldn’t be the safest place for me either. If (the scooters) only go 15 miles per hour, and the speed limit is 25, that could be an issue.” — Gaby Avina, e-scooter rider.
Dodging cars in Midtown
Gabby Avina and her friend, Angelique Fiorenza, who also were trying out the scooters for the first time, stuck to the sidewalks where they felt safe. That’s a big concern in Midtown, where the bike lane is within the traffic lane. Fiorenza said the wide Midtown sidewalks have a lot of room and she doesn’t worry that scooter traffic will be an obstruction to pedestrians.
But are pedestrians so understanding? Karen Waggoner and J.R., who were walking around Midtown, said they didn’t mind sharing the sidewalk with the Birds. “As long as people are courteous,” Waggoner said. Speaking as drivers, the pair said sharing the road with scooters is no different than cruising next to bicycles or mopeds. But they said scooter operators have to take responsibility as well. “Obey the traffic laws and if you don’t, that’s on you,” J.R. said.
It was time to try a bike lane. I mustered up my courage and shared the road with cars, busses and trucks on Virginia Street between First and Center streets. The drivers I encountered seemed confused and unsure of how to react around scooter traffic. That was particularly the case along the Midtown portion of Virginia Street, where motorized and human-powered vehicles travel in the common lane. Some drivers moved in close behind me in an apparent effort to speed me along. One tailgater passed me in the single lane, which is a traffic violation. The interaction with vehicles that weigh a ton or two made me feel extremely vulnerable.
Other safety concerns mentioned had to do with mixing alcohol and scooter use. “I could see a lot of bad drunken fun (happening),” said Waggoner. Tiff, another passerby in Midtown, said she sees the scooters as “just a drunk, fun toy.”
Once burned, twice shy
Sierra Hutchison, who was walking with friends in Midtown, was surprised that Reno is trusting a new company, “When I saw the scooters last night, I was like ‘What’s gonna happen this summer?” she said. “Where are the scooters going to end up now? Reno is irresponsible.”
Waggoner also was skeptical that this time things will be different. “Are we going to end up with these on top of buildings, like last time?” she asked.
That’s why the city is taking a phased approach to getting the scooters on the streets. The Birds are scheduled to be fully deployed by June. During the rollout of the 1,000 scooters, Bird must develop an outreach plan, evaluate and make recommendations from the Reno Access Advisory Committee, hold public workshops for Midtown and downtown business owners, and be willing to update its operational plan to address any concerns from the city.
Will they decrease emissions?
Reducing vehicle emissions is the major goal of the scooter rentals, but some people interviewed were skeptical that the program will accomplish that goal.
Syrys Perez, who was walking in Midtown, said people may not see the scooters as a viable transportation option. “It’s not really looked at as for transportation, it just kind of a toy,” he said.
On Sierra Street, I met Christian and his friends zipping along on their Birds. Christian is an e-scooter veteran, having used them in Phoenix, Ariz. He was skeptical that the use of the electric vehicles, at least in Midtown, will reduce energy use and emissions. Many people drive to Midtown from other parts of the city, he noted, but don’t get back in their cars and drive to restaurants or other businesses that are just a few blocks away.
“When I go to Midtown, I drive, I park and then I walk around, so I mean, it’s not really going to lower emissions unless you live in Midtown,” Christian said. The scooters, he said, might help people get from shop to shop faster, but because most people walk in Midtown once they have parked their cars, he doubts the Birds will make much of a difference in lowering emissions.
Reno rentals among highest in U.S.
Costs of the rentals also are a factor. The Birds cost $1 to start a ride and, supposedly, 39 cents a minute while in use. I was surprised to be charged 42 cents per minute, including tax, because Reno had announced the rental price would be 39 cents per minute. (Editor’s note: City officials could not initially explain the discrepancy, but on May 1 told the RN&R that Bird set that rate based “on market conditions. A RN&R sidebar takes a look at the company and e-scooter rentals elsewhere.)
My bill for as 13-minute ride came to $6.61 including tax. When I commuted from Incline Village to Reno, that amount was about the same as my round-trip cost for gas. For some folks, including students like me, that relatively-expensive cost will be a factor in deciding whether to use the scooters.
And because Bird charges by the minute and not the mile, every short stop I made was adding money to the meter. Even when not reporting for a story, I like to stop and talk and take in the sights. Charging by the mile rather than the minute makes more sense.
Riders also are restricted to certain sections of the city and there are “red zones” where the scooters won’t roll. Those red zones include parking garages and the university campus.
It remains to be seen whether Reno’s multimodal debacle of 2018 will repeat itself, although city officials have said they learned a lot from their experiences with Lime Bikes. For me, the Birds are a fun way to explore the downtown and Midtown areas. And if users aren’t sensitive to the costs, the scooters can be an environmentally-friendly alternative for short commutes.