Will Uber Jump-Start a Mass-Transit Revolution in Las Vegas?

With the startup set to drive back into town, we ponder the question: Might the ride-sharing goliath start a (much-needed) transportation revolution? 

Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh

Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh

One half of my brain is in full panic mode. The other half is frantically sifting through various backup plans. Thirty minutes from now, I’m supposed to be turning off all my electronic devices, with my seat back and tray table in their full upright and locked positions. But right now, I’m in the lobby of my apartment, listening as the dispatcher apologetically taunts me. His estimated arrival time is 10 minutes. That was two hours ago.

Ah, anxiously waiting for the cab that will never come—it’s become something of a Las Vegas tradition, one that ranks up there with scorching summers and bottle service, only it’s more intolerable. So it’s no surprise that those most excited for Uber’s return to the Valley are the residents who are tired of being stood up by local taxi companies. It’s also no surprise that those who view Uber as the devil reincarnated are said taxi companies.

From San Francisco to Las Vegas to Berlin, the taxicab industry has protested the rise of Uber, and with good reason. In the five years since its initial launch in San Francisco, the ride-sharing startup has grown to be one of the highest valued private companies in the world, and its sights are set on global domination. But before the first Uber driver pulled out of his driveway, its founders had just one goal: solve the taxi problem in San Francisco, where hailing a cab is about as pleasant an experience as being on hold with your cable company.

As Uber grew, so did its impact on metropolitan transit. In September, the San Francisco Examiner reported that the city’s average per-month cab trips plummeted by 65 percent in two years. That was followed by a report in The New York Times that the sales of taxi medallions—the system used to limit the number of operating cabs—showed declines of about 20 percent in New York, Chicago and Boston. All fingers swiftly pointed to Uber.

Las Vegas, of course, is not San Francisco, New York, Chicago or Boston. Nor is it Bismarck, North Dakota, or Omaha, Nebraska. Rather, Las Vegas is the unique blend of big city meets small town—a place with about 5 million fewer residents than the Bay Area, but one that serves more than twice the amount of yearly tourists as San Francisco. Which explains why our cabbies rake in more than 2 million trips per month, with the majority of those fares going to and from the Strip and McCarran International Airport.

During its brief run here in October, Uber chose to focus on underserved neighborhoods that are tucked away from mass transit, rather than compete with taxis on the Strip or at the airport. That strategy may or may not change when Uber and other ride-sharing services—having finally been given the green light by state lawmakers during the most recent Legislative session—resume service around Labor Day. But as the relaunch nears, two obvious questions continue to hang in our searing desert air: When it comes to Las Vegas, whom should Uber serve? More importantly, how might Uber and similar ride-sharing companies change the future of transportation in our Valley?

Solving the Commute

“We’ve sold the idea to the country and the world that the only way to move is in a car,” Josh Westerhold says.

More than two years ago, Westerhold was sitting in a Harvard classroom when his ears perked as he listened to a lecture about Tony Hsieh’s efforts to revitalize a struggling neighborhood. Bitten by Hsieh’s Downtown Project bug, Westerhold soon landed in Las Vegas, eager to find his niche among the foodies, techies and entrepreneurs. With a background in business and urban planning, he latched on with Project 100, which would eventually become Shift, a car-sharing startup that planned to offer locals an alternative to owning a car.

“Probably the best way to get from Downtown to Henderson is to drive a car,” Westerhold says. “But getting from PublicUs [at Fremont Steet and Maryland Parkway] to El Cortez, it’s silly for you to take a Tesla. How can we right-size that need?”

Smart cars made up part of Shift's fleet

Smart cars made up part of Shift’s fleet

Unlike ride-sharing apps such as Uber, Shift promised to offer a full “package of mobility” where a monthly membership could not only buy you access to rides, but also to cars, bikes, even trollies. Local and national media were quick to laud Shift and Las Vegas for being on the forefront of revolutionizing traditional metropolitan transportation. Hsieh set a record with the largest order of Teslas, which were to make up part of the startup’s fleet. News spread that Shift was going to offer Smart cars, and a trolley with their logo emblazoned on its side stood watch on a corner at First Friday, reminding festivalgoers that more was to come.

While Uber and Lyft were both bred in the densely populated Bay Area, Shift was unique in that it approached alternative transportation from a sprawling suburban perspective. Services such as Lyft or Zipcar have been aimed at people in New York City or Boston or San Francisco who can and want to live a car-free lifestyle, rather than those who live in car-dependent cultures. Says Westerhold: “We were building for the Denvers and the Birminghams and the Atlantas and the Houstons of the world.”

At least that was the idea … until Shift shut down earlier this year after ditching plans to expand to other cities. Founder Zach Ware went on to become a venture capitalist, while Westerhold departed the Downtown Project and is now looking for a job that would allow him to continue pursuing his goal of changing the way people move in cities.

With a $10 million price tag, Shift was one of Hsieh’s biggest investments in Las Vegas. And one of his biggest missed opportunities.

In retrospect, Shift took a wrong turn when it targeted a hard-to-find passenger: one who lives and works Downtown, and only needs a car for groceries or a trip to the airport. What Westerhold’s team failed to account for were some very entrenched behaviors supported by strong demographic statistics, such as this one: Las Vegans older than 25 spend an average of 24.6 minutes commuting to work, according to City-Data.com. With a plethora of free parking and scarce public transportation options, most of us prefer to own cars instead of braving triple-digit heat at a faraway bus stop.

Essentially, Shift was building for a city that didn’t yet exist. And while many were initially excited about the concept, in the end most said, “This is why it won’t work for me.”

But Uber could change that.

The Last Mile

It’s a brisk, sunny day in San Francisco, perfect for Fleet Week and the Blue Angels and barbecues and lots of drinking. A bus takes me south on the Golden Gate Bridge until I hit the Presidio, a somewhat secluded Army post-turned-residential neighborhood nestled in a forest of pine, cypress and eucalyptus.

Once I’m off the bus, I pull up apps for Uber, Lyft and Sidecar to compare rates for the five-minute drive down to Crissy Field, a route barely touched by the fingers of municipal transit and a destination too crowded to find parking. Within minutes, a Sidecar driver appears at the corner where I’m standing.

It makes sense that San Francisco is the epicenter of ride-sharing apps. The city boasts a density of 6,266 people per square mile, and public transportation comes in the form of trains, buses, subways and ferries. Here, ride sharing becomes complementary to the existing transportation, just another way to complete the trip from Point A to Point B.

“We’re seeing ride sharing as a solution to our last-mile problem,” says Alicia Trost, communications department manager for Bay Area Rapid Transit, the popular rail system that has been serving Bay Area residents since 1972.

Translation: People might prefer to take public transportation, but opt to hop in their cars because the distance between their house and the nearest station isn’t walkable and/or the station offers limited park-and-ride spots. Uber and the like now fill that gap, easing congestion by taking more drivers off the roads.

Ride sharing helps augment exisiting transportation, such as Bay Area Rapid Transit.

Ride sharing helps augment existing transportation, such as Bay Area Rapid Transit.

In Las Vegas, where rapid transit can’t keep pace with the city’s rapid growth, the last mile is even more of an issue. Tina Quigley, general manager for the Regional Transportation Commission, sees ride sharing as a step toward a more convenient system, one that will work in tandem with and improve our mass transit.

“You can’t build your way out of congestion,” Quigley says. “Our roadway infrastructure can only accommodate a certain number of vehicles rationally. … Even taxicab [drivers] will tell you that they cannot efficiently handle the number of people that we need to accommodate as we continue to grow.”

For some time, there has been talk of the RTC constructing light rail or offering rapid bus transit along the Maryland Parkway corridor, from Downtown all the way to the airport. Such talk has mostly been met with a mixture of opposition and skepticism, but thanks to the excitement swirling in Uber’s wake, Quigley is noticing a shift in public opinion.

“It’s time to take off the blinders about ‘What’s in it for me?’ and start talking about how to keep Southern Nevada as the premiere destination for travel and tourism,” Quigley says. “With that comes a very hardy conversation about mass transit.”

On to the Future

Thirty minutes from now, I’ll be scrolling through Vice.com as I wait to board my flight. But right now, I’m listening to M83’s “Midnight City,” luggage snug in hand, zipping down Maryland Parkway via light rail. I pull up Uber to rate the driver who took me to the transit station (five stars, because he had a bowl of candy on his middle console).

Las Vegas is now on par with other international destinations when it comes to mass transit. A vast system of trams and rail snakes through and under the Valley like a series of rivers. Zipcars and Lyfts and, yes, even taxis buzz to every corner. The average wait for a pickup is only 10 minutes, easy for desert rats even in the dead of summer. Traffic congestion is down. Tourism is up. More people have more money in their pockets, now that they’ve ditched their car payment. All thanks to Governor Brian Sandoval’s signature on a bill making ride sharing legal.

Hey, I can dream, can’t I?

Director of Digital Media Nicole Ely talks about Uber’s return to Las Vegas on 97.1 the Point. Listen to the broadcast below.

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