The Future of Las Vegas Transportation

Plan seeks to alleviate traffic in tourist core.

Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh

Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh

For any resort, the biggest problem is getting people to show up. Las Vegas seems to have solved that problem, as the city has more than recovered from a recessionary slowdown. But the continuing growth of visitation raises a problem: how to move people around once they’ve arrived.

The Las Vegas Strip developed organically as a low-density roadside series of attractions from the 1940s onward. When there wasn’t anything of substance standing between the Flamingo and Sands (today’s Venetian), congestion was a problem the same way that a lack of sunlight is a problem. When 6 or 7 million people a year came and there was plenty of open space between Strip resorts (and parking in front of them), getting around was easy.

Today, Las Vegas gladly welcomes 42 million-plus visitors each year. But there’s one more guest who has been showing up too much lately: gridlock. It’s not Sepulveda Pass-at-5:30 bad, but there’s no denying that travel in the tourist corridor is taking longer and becoming less convenient.

“We have to be cognizant about how we can better serve other uses—those who walk, ride the bus or bike. We need to make sure our network accommodates them.” – David Swallow

And the growth—barring an economic slowdown—is only expected to continue. With high-speed rail connections to Southern California under discussion, two major resorts under construction and the expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center facilities on the former Riviera site, it looks like the Valley’s core will become much more crowded over the next decade.

The Transportation Investment Business Plan, announced in December by the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada, looks 30 years into the future to imagine a less congested, easy-to-navigate “core area.” This core extends from McCarran International Airport in the south to Cashman Center in the north, and from Valley View Boulevard in the west to Maryland Parkway in the east. In addition to the Strip and Downtown “tourist corridor,” this core includes both UNLV and Charleston Boulevard-centric Medical Districts, two areas that seem primed for growth.

The 30-year plan will look to secure funding from federal, state, local  and private/public-private partnerships to create an “efficient, high-quality transportation experience” in the core area.

Right now, 2046 may seem like a long way off, but it will be here before we know it, and it’s sensible to imagine that our current transportation infrastructure won’t be up to the challenges of the middle of the 21st century. By that time, it will have been a half century since the 1990s megaresort boom—about the same amount of time that passed between the Strip’s start with the El Rancho Vegas (1941) and The Mirage (1989). To put it in perspective, since 1990, The Mirage’s first full year, annual visitation has more than doubled, from 21 million to 42.3 million.

There have been many changes since then, including the monorail and elevated pedestrian bridges, as well at the Interstate 215 beltway. According to David Swallow, the RTC’s senior director of engineering and technology, the changes go even further: The roadway network across the Valley is much larger than it was in 1990, with upgrades to area freeways and major arterials.

The challenge is planning for a future that might be as different as 1989 Las Vegas was from 1941 Las Vegas. Focus has been on adding roadway capacity—which has certainly helped automobile drivers—but the next stage of transportation evolution in Las Vegas will see a change, Swallow believes.

Light rail, Swallow points out, is an excellent way of “adding capacity without widening the roadway.”

“We have to be cognizant about how we can better serve other uses—those who walk, ride the bus or bike,” Swallow says. “We need to make sure our network accommodates them. We’ve done a good job in building a roadway network. So how do we enhance that network, add capacity and enhance its efficiency?”

Part of that work will be improving how signals are timed, but more pedestrian bridges—not just on the Strip but elsewhere in the core area—are also important. And light rail, Swallow points out, is an excellent way of “adding capacity without widening the roadway.” He also notes that, as one of the few routes in the Valley that brings in significantly more revenue than it costs to operate, the Strip is well positioned to host a light rail “starter system” that might ultimately branch across the Valley.

And although the “core” focus seems to benefit visitors more than locals, it’s worth pointing out that a large percentage of locals work in that core; they will see improvements in their daily commute if the Transportation Investment Business Plan meets its goal.

Traffic, after all, doesn’t discriminate between locals and visitors.

David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.