Three Years of Car-Free Las Vegas Living

One local reflects on riding the struggle bus. Literally.

Photo illustration by Cierra Pedro.

I sold my car in 2005. I didn’t need it. I moved from Las Vegas to Seattle in 2002, and after three years of paying parking tickets, repair bills and the like, I realized it was cheaper for me to use Seattle’s public transportation to get around. My annual bus pass was partially subsidized by my job: $100 a year got me a ride virtually anywhere in the city I wanted to go. Who wouldn’t try that, if it were possible?

When I moved back to Vegas in May 2012, I remained dizzy with the possibilities of public transit. I held onto my Zipcar membership in hopes the car-sharing service would come to town, and I bought $65 monthly bus passes from the RTC—not as favorable a deal as I had in Seattle, but still an arrangement that would pay for itself in 10 to 15 days of commuting. And I held onto that crazy dream until September 2015 … when I finally caved in, bought a 2015 Fiat 500, and joined the traffic jam already in progress.

As good as the RTC’s transit coverage is, there are substantial holes in it, and unfortunately I fell into one.

Look, I love the RTC. To my mind, it’s the most transparent of Nevada’s state-funded agencies: We can account for every nickel it gets by simply by looking around. Nearly every major street in the Valley is getting big, fat upgrades: bike lanes, bus lanes, wider sidewalks, safer bus stops and landscaping. Its transit goals are as ambitious as those of Seattle’s Metro (though, admittedly, that agency serves a smaller, much more dense city).

All that being said, these past three years have been, um, challenging for me. As good as the RTC’s transit coverage is, there are substantial holes in it, and unfortunately I fell into one. My commute from Downtown to WENDOH Media’s old offices—seven miles to the south, near Town Square—was an hour and a half each way, and involved two different buses and a mile of walking in blistering heat. (Luckily, WENDOH furnished me with a satellite office on Fremont Street, only a mile from my home. I only needed to make the full commute once a week; the rest of the time, I biked.)

On those days when I missed the bus or had far-flung assignments that made a bus ride impractical, I hailed cabs, which frequently wouldn’t show up. I actually used the Downtown Project-funded rideshare service Shift until it failed. I held my breath for Uber, and was let down when the service finally arrived and proved just as expensive as Vegas’ cabs. And while Zipcar did eventually add a handful of vehicles to this market, those cars are all parked at the airport and at UNLV, where they’re of no use to me.

By the end of Year One, I realized that I couldn’t live in Vegas without a car and enjoy the same quality of life I had in Seattle. But for a minute, I had hope. RTC’s buses are well maintained and clean, and the agency is continually improving service on key routes to shave down those commute times. Over the past few years, it has added new routes, installed new bus stop shelters and begun offering real-time arrival information via smartphone applications such as Google Maps and Transit App. The problem isn’t the buses or the transit agency that runs them; it’s the city they serve.

Las Vegas is not yet a transit town. It might take longer than a generation before we see service-industry workers and six-figure-salary executives sharing bus rides, as they do now in Seattle. A paradigm shift of that order requires huge changes to the fabric of this town. A Las Vegas that embraces things like light rail needs residential and commercial density to form; it needs an economy that includes industries besides hospitality and gaming. We’re seeing the beginnings of those trends now, but it could be years before they have any real impact.

Some aspects of car-free living have stuck with me. Every time I turn the key on my Fiat, I’m struck by how fortunate I am to have returned to a Las Vegas that provides a few options to driving. Back in 2002, the notion of walking or riding a bicycle through a pedestrian-friendly Downtown corridor was impossible to fathom. I couldn’t have imagined then that I would even consider commuting to work, or that services like Uber and Lyft would take the illegality out of happy hour. It’s not hard to imagine a time, maybe 10 years down the road, where I might be tempted to live car-free here once more.

Or not. Y’know, I gotta admit, I really like this new car.

UPDATE, JANUARY 19, 2016 Our friends at the RTC say that my former one-mile gap has been filled: “The mile-long walk to WENDOH Media from the bus stop has now been reduced to under 0.4 miles as a result of our November 2015 service change, which included a westward extension of Route 212 along Sunset.” It’s still a long ride, still more than an hour—but that final half-hour walk has been cut to a few minutes and a couple of blocks. We’re getting there!