Southern Nevada provides efficient transit for tourists and residents who seek more environmentally friendly modes of transportation.
by Adrienne Packer, Las Vegas, Nevada
Southern Nevada is viewed by tourists as an adult playground, where vacationers flock to sip exotic drinks by luxury hotel pools, gamble, shop at high-end stores and hit top-notch nightclub parties hosted by celebrity DJs.
But that is not what the Las Vegas residents typically embrace or envision for their city: They cherish nearby hiking or biking along natural trails at Red Rock Canyon and Mt. Charleston, and on a day-to-day basis they strive for a healthy quality of life.
“We live in a unique city where we have a very busy yet constricted Strip and it is our responsibility to introduce transit that will move visitors up and down the Las Vegas Strip as quickly and conveniently as possible without interfering with vehicular traffic,” said Tina Quigley, general manager of the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada (RTC). “But we also have to meet the needs of our residents and provide them with sustainable, efficient modes of transportation for commuting purposes.”
Over the years, the RTC has worked diligently to accommodate both lifestyles. One of the agency’s primary responsibilities is to move residents and visitors efficiently, whether it is along the Las Vegas Strip or in residential neighborhoods throughout Southern Nevada.
To meet the demands of the crowds drawn to the Strip, the RTC in 2005 introduced the Deuce, a double-decker bus that runs the length of the Strip and the Strip & Downtown Express in 2010, a bus rapid transit route that runs along the resort corridor with fewer stops.
The RTC also zeroed in on the community’s needs, which was not only to deliver passengers to their destination quickly, but provide alternative, more sustainable modes of transportation. RTC has introduced the Boulder Highway bus rapid transit, the Centennial Hills Express and the Westcliff Express to provide transit to the valley’s primary employment centers.
Despite its reputation for blistering summers, Southern Nevada’s climate most of the year is pleasant, making for comfortable bike rides and walks. RTC’s task was providing a safe environment for the growing popularity of these alternate modes of transportation.
History of Southern Nevada street designs
Southern Nevada arterials have traditionally been built around a single mode of transportation – the automobile. During the population explosion in the 1990s, labyrinth-like residential developments blanketed the valley floor and crawled up hillsides.
Development agreements between private developers and government jurisdictions required companies to improve roadways adjacent to their new communities, but little thought was given to the design of the arterials or ingress and egress into walled-in communities.
Residential development was fast-paced, leading to road designs with wide thoroughfares that became open invitations for speeding motorists and less than ideal conditions for cyclists and pedestrians.
Consequentially, residents who could otherwise walk or bike to shopping centers or grocery stores were forced to drive. Two-minute walks turned into ten-minute vehicle trips because of insufficient access points or pedestrians and cyclists feeling uneasy about traveling alongside fast-moving traffic.
“Complete Streets” concept
Sahara Near Maryland Before and After: During the early years of development in Las Vegas, little thought was given to anything but the automobile when major streets were designed. Another example of how the RTC is working to improve the efficiency of transportation by creating dedicated bus lanes, widening sidewalks and making all modes of transportation more appealing. Photos provided by RTC.
The RTC oversees public transportation and traffic management and is the Metropolitan Planning Organization for Southern Nevada. As a result, RTC is able to respond to the community’s concerns about roadway designs and its need to accommodate alternate modes of transportation by initiating a “Complete Streets” program.
Complete Streets provide safe and protected roadways designed to allow motorists, cyclists, pedestrians and transit passengers to co-exist comfortably.
This design includes dedicated bus lanes for the growing express bus route service, clearly marked bicycle lanes and wider, landscaped sidewalks that make walking more appealing. These calming features have proven nationally to slow down motorists and encourage residents to use environmentally friendly methods of transportation.
“Complete Streets not only slows down vehicles but increases the capacity of our roadways, promotes healthier lifestyles, provides additional choices for commuters, and, perhaps most important, demonstrates smart growth,” Quigley said.
Because of the agency’s triple role in the community, the RTC’s transportation projects are implemented through collaborative efforts with Southern Nevada’s government entities.
The RTC joined with the City of Las Vegas to develop perhaps the valley’s most successful Complete Streets projects, converting an aging downtown into a vibrant city core that hosts popular festivals and attracts residents of all ages.
The agency created bike lanes with a bright green film clearly indicating their use to motorists. It built sandstone-colored bus lanes dedicated for our rapid transit services and traffic signals were upgraded to enable transit priority. Sidewalks were widened and trees and shrubs were planted along the roadway and in the medians.
The transformation of downtown Las Vegas is clear. Its facelift attracted new bars, restaurants, museums and a performing arts complex, giving a much-needed boost to our economy.
The Fremont Street/Boulder Highway corridor, one of the Las Vegas Valley’s oldest roadways, recently received Complete Streets enhancements as part of a $41.5 million RTC project that included dedicated curbside transit lanes, bike lanes, new transit stations and landscaping. These improvements and the addition of two new bus rapid transit routes along this 15-mile corridor will enhance connectivity and facilitate economic growth in three jurisdictions: the Fremont Street East entertainment district in Las Vegas, the Boulder Highway gaming corridor in Clark County and the Water Street historic district and Galleria Mall retail area in Henderson.
The RTC has created a Complete Streets policy that it hopes will also be adopted by our partners in Clark County, Henderson, Las Vegas, North Las Vegas, Boulder City and Mesquite.
Dedicated to biking
Las Vegas Valley is a sprawling bowl-shaped metropolitan area with semi-steep slopes, which can lead to lengthy and challenging rides for less experienced cyclists.
The RTC has made concerted efforts during the last decade to encourage residents to park their vehicles at one of five park-and-ride facilities and ride transit downtown.
Our transit vehicles are fitted with equipment that allows passengers to easily transport their bicycles. The fleet of RTC buses carries an average of 50,000 bicycles per month, which is more than Portland, Ore., a city better known for cycling enthusiasts.
A new transportation hub, the Bonneville Transit Center, opened in November 2010 and was recently awarded LEED Platinum certification. It has also been lauded for its features that accommodate commuting cyclists. The transit center houses a bike repair shop, and, for a small fee, commuters can shower and store their bicycles.
Over the past years, the RTC has designated more than 65 miles of bicycle routes, 280 miles of bicycle lanes and 180 miles of bicycle paths throughout the Las Vegas Valley. RTC is working closely with other government entities to close the gaps in existing routes and trails to create a more contiguous network. An additional 100 miles of bike lanes and 30 miles of bike routes are planned within the next year.
“I believe the increasing popularity of Viva Bike Vegas Gran Fondo biking event shows that Las Vegas is truly a cycling destination,” Quigley said. “We held our fifth annual event in September and attracted more than 2,500 cyclists from around the country and the world.”
As the Las Vegas region becomes more bike friendly, the RTC is doing its part to encourage more businesses to offer bicycles to employees for quick trips to lunch or business-related errands, a program that reduces emissions and lessens congestion on downtown streets.
The RTC introduced its electric bike-fleet program in 2010 and this year, the Molasky Corporation, which employs 1,000 workers, became the first private company to follow suit with traditional bicycles. In the summer of 2013, the RTC will be rolling out a public bike-share program, similar to programs unveiled in Washington, D.C., and Paris.
Kiosks will be located throughout downtown Las Vegas and with the swipe of a debit or credit card, commuters can rent bicycles and complete the “last mile” from a transit stop to their final destination.
Evolution of Transportation
American’s transportation needs are evolving and the needs of Southern Nevadans are no different. Recent studies have shown that 55 percent of Americans would rather drive less and walk more. Transit use is growing faster than the population or the rate of highway travel. Two-thirds of Americans would like to have more choices when they travel. Still, 73 percent of Americans believe they have no choice but to drive.
Convincing residents to leave their personal vehicles behind is no simple task and the RTC realized long ago that improving infrastructure to accommodate all methods of transportation was a vital component to accomplishing the challenge.
Since the Regional Transportation Commission has expanded its bike trails, furthered its Complete Streets initiative and extended its express bus routes, we have noted a significant increase in transit ridership. Last year, 58 million passengers took advantage of our fixed-route service.
The RTC plans to begin designing its ninth bus rapid transit route this year – the Flamingo Road BRT. Flamingo Road is one of the city’s busiest and most congested arterials, yet it plays a significant role in our network because it links a dense residential and commercial area to the heart of the Strip.
RTC is also working in conjunction with the University of Nevada, Las Vegas to coordinate a transit system that fits into the campus’s master plan.
The RTC received a $2.8 million federal grant to build a six-bay transit center on campus and is in the infancy stages of a study to determine what type of transit will serve this revitalized area. We are looking at implementing an express route or adding an alternative transit feature such as a fixed guide-way.
Like most government entities across the country, the RTC was hit hard by the Great Recession. In 2007, during the brighter days when the Las Vegas economy was healthy, The Regional Transportation Commission collected $179 million in sales tax. This year RTC is projected to bring in $150 million.
The bulk of RTC’s revenue is derived from sales tax revenue, fare box revenue and motor vehicle fuel tax, which hasn’t been increased since 1993, which was President Bill Clinton’s first year in the White House.
Still, as the community grows and residents choose different methods of travel, the RTC must overcome financial obstacles and continue to be more innovative in our efforts to create additional travel choices, shorten travel times and shrink our carbon footprint in the Las Vegas Valley.
Adrienne Packer serves as the public affairs coordinator for the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada. RTC is both the transit authority and the transportation-planning agency for Southern Nevada. Visit www.rtcsnv.com.
Published in the February/March 2013 Journal