King of the Roads

You can say what you will about Las Vegas, but you’ll say it from a fast-moving car

Last month I was at Artifice having a drink with my longtime friend James Reza, a frequent contributor to this publication and the closest thing Las Vegas has to a costumed vigilante. Under normal circumstances, James is an easygoing guy. But if you insinuate that Las Vegas is in any way inferior to any other American city, either in its cultural amenities or infrastructure, then may the Almighty Frank help you. The spikes come out, the foil goes on, and James Reza becomes Jimmy “The Leaf” Cilantro, avenger of Las Vegas’ civic pride.

“You wanna move to Seattle?” James called over to a couple at the far side of the bar. “Go on ahead. Seriously, flights leave every hour. I’ll even buy the tickets, because this town doesn’t need your negativity.”

The row had begun when the couple overheard me saying that I now live in Seattle. The husband said something to the effect of “We’re dying to move to Seattle; it’s such a wonderful city. It’s got so much that Las Vegas will never have, in terms of culture and …” Jimmy The Leaf called them out on the details, and the husband started listing Seattle’s museums, cafés, even the damn Space Needle. After a minute of this, and before Jimmy could fire back, I spoke up.

“There’s at least one way that Las Vegas utterly kicks Seattle’s ass,” I said. “The roads here are the absolute best I’ve ever driven on.”

Everyone looked at me as if I’d made a series of quacks. The roads? What the hell is he talking about?

It’s true. The roads in Seattle are absolute crap. The pavement is uneven and riddled with potholes, and many of the residential streets are so narrow that one car has to pull to the side to allow another to pass in the opposite direction. The downtown streets only follow the slightest suggestion of a north-south, east-west grid, and I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve followed a road into a weird, triangular intersection or a stalemate of one-way streets. Less than a year into living in Seattle, stymied by rough roads and nonexistent street parking, I ditched my car for public transportation, something that’s easy to do up here.

But I’ve never forgotten Las Vegas’ smooth, wide streets, every one of them an American Autobahn. I used to wonder what the hell those road crews were doing out on the streets at 3 a.m., fixing pavement that seemed perfectly fine to me the day before. Now I know: The crews were doing preventative maintenance, two words that probably haven’t been uttered in Seattle since before Clinton. George Clinton.

I drive only occasionally in Seattle—the car-sharing service Zipcar is a godsend whenever I need to do a major shopping trip—but when I visit Vegas, I drive like a 16-year-old who’s just been tossed the keys to his mother’s Subaru wagon. I take long, lazy cruises up Charleston to the Red Rock Canyon overlook, or out to Boulder City simply to get coffee. I drive down the Strip (only one block at any given time, then a hard right or left) with the radio blasting booming techno or big dumb metal. I drive at the upper reaches of the speed limit through the sprawl of Summerlin and Green Valley, amazed there are still places in this world where a man can go 45 miles per hour. For as long as I am in Las Vegas I am a motorist, full-on, and I feel like I’m on roller-coaster rails. It’s kind of a rush.

My experience may seem purely anecdotal, but I have proof. In a September 2010 study by a libertarian think tank called the Reason Foundation, Nevada ranked No. 15 for condition and cost-effectiveness of its state highway system. Nevada ranked first in the condition of its rural interstates—holla, I-80—and first in the condition of its bridge infrastructure.

By comparison, Washington state ranked 33rd out of 50. I was surprised Washington did that well; I guess the states ranked below it must have truly horrible roads. Lava pits in the middle of the interstate. Decade-long traffic jams.

I have to admit that I feel kind of funny saying all this, because in the time I’ve lived in Seattle I’ve become a total convert to car-free living: light-rail, car sharing and bus rapid transit. I wouldn’t think it the worst thing in the world if Las Vegas had its own light-rail network, maybe even reducing some of those six-lane streets to four lanes and a train running down the middle. And I nearly got Jimmy The Leaf’d last week when I read that Google was hoping to test its driverless cars on Vegas’ streets, and I said it might reflect well on us to allow the testing of those drive-by-wire technologies on some of those lesser-used westside streets that—let’s face it—have a fairly large margin for operator error.

I understand, though. James is protective of Las Vegas’ near-perfect roads. He doesn’t want anything fouling them up when he gets the urge to take one of his classic cars out for a late-night drive—top down on a warm night, blasting the stereo, feeling good about the city of Las Vegas and his place in it. Our roads are one of the things we did right; they will bear the load when we start growing again, and they’ll always get us across the Valley in less time than it takes for me to get diagonally across Seattle, from Ballard to Capitol Hill. I don’t want to be around when that couple moves to Seattle and finds out what a slow and aggravating hell that is.

Erstwhile Las Vegan Geoff Carter has lived in Seattle since 2002, but he keeps his heart in a box under the Charleston Overpass.