A speeding driver lost control of his car one day last month and plowed into an RTC Transit stop, killing four people who were waiting for the bus. The Review-Journal and Sun stories that followed the tragedy made me sorrowful and lightheaded; the comments that followed the stories made me angry.
About half of the commenters said that bus stops should be made safer, but the other half wondered why anyone waited at bus stops at all. They suggested bus riders wait behind the stops or in nearby parking lots. This completely misses the point of bus stops: If drivers don’t see anyone waiting, they don’t stop.
But the most disturbing thing I noticed, weaving in and out of the rhetoric about bus riders, was the word “they.” As in: They should wait behind the stops. They should be more aware of oncoming traffic, even when on the sidewalk. They should wear brighter-colored clothing. (Because any one of these things will repel a driver suddenly veering onto the sidewalk at 90 mph.) Perhaps they should, you know, get a car.
As a bus rider—a card-carrying member of the They—I shouldn’t have been surprised. I know one other person in this Valley who rides the bus, and hundreds of others who never have and never will. When a commenter on a Sun story suggested that something must be done to make bus stops safer—perhaps installing protective barriers in front of the more exposed stops, or simply moving the stops several feet back from the roadway—a friend of mine penned a terse follow-up: “With respect to the victims, nothing must be done.” You can’t plan for everything, he reasoned, so why waste the money?
The unspoken thought in Las Vegas is that public transit is—to use a word currently in vogue—an entitlement. We give “them” a cheap way to get around town, out of the goodness of our hearts; what do they want, safety? Convenience? The ability to stand on the sidewalk without being poised and ready to vault over a speeding car, like Neo in The Matrix? To many Las Vegans, RTC buses are very much a “they” kind of thing—practically free transportation for the city’s working poor, who wouldn’t have these getting-run-over-at-bus-stops problem if they’d simply bite the bullet and get a car.
But bus riders aren’t the entitled ones. The RTC recently sent me two sets of telling figures: the budgets of the last four years of transit contract expenses and the 2013 budget for streets and highway projects. RTC’s transit budget for fiscal year 2012 is in the neighborhood of $84 million (not counting paratransit, which is an additional $38 million).
Meanwhile, RTC has $138 million budgeted for streets and highway projects in the fiscal year 2013, so that’s obviously a bit more than they have budgeted for the bus … Oh, wait. I forgot the Nevada Department of Transportation! NDOT’s governor-recommended budget for fiscal year 2013 is nearly $555 million. In 2010, some 61 percent of that was apportioned to Clark County projects, which means that unless our cut of the pie has shrunk, we’ve got $338 million to make our roads more awesome.
Even though it’s difficult to do an apples-to-apples comparison of these figures—“your mileage may vary,” indeed—it’s easy to see that we spend much, much more on our roads than we do on our transit. All you need to confirm that is the evidence of your own eyes. Road work is a constant in this town, and as I wrote in a Vegas Seven essay earlier this year (VegasSeven.com/Carter/KingoftheRoads), the Valley’s roads are pretty much the nicest I’ve ever driven. With few exceptions, they’re glassy-smooth and wide enough to accommodate a passenger jet.
By comparison, our pedestrian landscape is a joke. Many of our roads have incomplete sidewalks, and some only include sidewalks seemingly as decoration. (Sunset Road, the street I walk to my office, has a sidewalk on just one side of its Interstate 15 bridge, and it’s so narrow that when someone comes the other way, I practically have to step into traffic to let them pass.) Our crosswalks are faded, and many of them lack any kind of signal light; I’ve driven through more than a few of them without knowing it.
And yes, we do have to do something about the bus-stop problem. According to a Sept. 13 Sun story by Rebecca Clifford-Cruz, there have been more than 10 instances of drunk, drugged or otherwise incapacitated drivers ramming into bus stops over the course of the past decade, which sounds like more than bad luck to me.
Look at RTC’s new express bus stops—with their raised curbs, yellow safety lines and deep setbacks—and compare them with the bus stops built during the 1990s, which sit in the middle of the sidewalk, virtually on top of the traffic lanes, and are really little more than billboards with seats. The new way of building bus stops is the right way; RTC should receive the funding necessary to correct the old stops.
But that won’t happen. We won’t stand for it. Las Vegas is built around single-occupancy cars, and that’s how we’ve been conditioned to think of this place. When we get behind a slow-moving bus, we curse. When we see a pedestrian enter a crosswalk on the other side of the street, we speed up our right turn to beat him.
It never occurs to us that we might be sharing the roads with bikes, pedestrians and public transit, because for decades, none of those things have existed in Las Vegas in appreciable numbers. When we get behind the wheel and turn onto our enormous, well-maintained roads, we feel a sense of entitlement like no other.
But we can’t do that anymore. This isn’t the 1990s, when gas was cheap and we couldn’t build houses far enough removed from the center of town. We can’t continue down that road, not when it costs $65 to fill up the tank.
So let’s not forget that public transit isn’t about “us” and “them,” and it never has been. For all the recent talk of “creating community” in Las Vegas, the truth is that we’ve always had it. We all work in the same hospitality-driven culture; we all avoid doing things on the Strip except when we don’t; and we all travel the same roads to get where we’re going. Only now, we’re taking different ways of getting there—and for our own good, we all have to acknowledge that one way could be as good as another.
And we have to fix the damn bus stops. Seriously.