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Keeping Las Vegas moving

As the city booms, transit must take new directions

Every weekend, Las Vegas moves a Super Bowl’s-worth of people into and out of the 4.2-mile Strip. The result is often gridlock; the city hit an all-time traffic record of 109,200 vehicles per day in 2015, according to ridership data from Green Chips, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting sustainability in the region.

The Strip is one of the most tourist-rich stretches of real estate in the country—and for most of its existence, Vegas has simply struggled to keep up with the pace.

“This city has just boomed in the last three decades,” says Clark County Commissioner Larry Brown. “From a transportation infrastructure standpoint, we’ve spent the majority of our time catching up with the private sector.”

But consistent growth has forced a city known for sprawl to start to change its ways. Last year, voters approved a measure that ties fuel taxes to inflation, a move that will address the region’s $6 billion shortfall in road infrastructure. In addition, the Regional Transportation Commission approved a new long-term plan to expand light rail down the Maryland Parkway and massively expand bus service. In mid-March, the RTC submitted a proposal to build a multibillion-dollar light rail system that would connect the Strip with McCarran International Airport.

The Strip has limited transit solutions, most of them privately funded by the gaming industry. A series of free trams that travel from casino to casino allows tourists to move up and down the western side of the Strip without using cars. In 2004, a 3.9-mile monorail opened just to the east of the Strip that serves casinos on that side as well as the convention center. The city also created a double-decker public bus named the Deuce that exclusively serves the Strip.

“The most challenging transportation issue that faces Southern Nevada is what transportation is going to look like in five years,” says Brown. “Light rail, monorail, complete streets: I don’t think anybody can look at a crystal ball and see what’s coming. My sense is that it’s going to be a cafeteria menu of options, and no one solution will work for everybody.”

Brown says comparing Vegas to other cities, especially those in the Northeast with subway and rail systems, isn’t fair. Vegas has a different growth pattern due to the influx of tourists and the large number of workers who serve them—all of whom need to move to one place—and will need a different type of technology to solve its transport issues. “Vegas is about as unique a place in the world as you can find.”

Autonomous vehicles are one option that could improve congestion, lower emissions, and appeal to tourists’ desire for novelty. Brown wants infrastructure that can support and take advantage of that technology. The city and RTC are aggressively courting autonomous vehicle companies and studying “high capacity corridors” throughout Southern Nevada to prioritize opportunities for bus rapid transit.

Downtown Vegas also created an “innovation district” to test new transportation tech in real-world conditions. Most recently, the French companies Navya and Keolis tested an autonomous, driverless public shuttle there, along an eight-block stretch of downtown’s Fremont Street, during the annual CES convention.

The tech is here, Brown says, and Vegas would be foolish to fight it.

“We need to stay true to the commitment to overall infrastructure, and just grow into something that fits Vegas. That way, in 10 to 15 years, you may see a transport system as unique as the city.”