Laura Bliss is CityLab’s west coast bureau chief, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
A new bike-share program is one of several signs that the city is finally getting behind the idea of an urban renaissance.
For visitors, the signature feature of Las Vegas is the Strip: an unwalkable, unshaded, traffic-jammed boulevard of monster casino-hotels flanked with a circus of digital screens, garish signage, and over-the-top theme architecture. It’s a place where urbanism has gone to die, an environment designed more for cars with gambling habits than for humans with conventional needs.
But the Strip is outside the city limits, and the story of downtown Las Vegas is quite different. Perhaps best known as a place where budget travelers sleep off their hangovers, the neighborhood’s flat, gridded street network, relatively short blocks, and mid-century storefronts “make it a natural pedestrian and biking town,” according to the transportation research group TransitCenter. And now it will start to look the part: At the end of September, the city opened a bike-share program, with 20 rental stations opening up around the Fremont Street corridor and further south near Las Vegas Boulevard, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Vegas’ RTC Bike Share is similar to those in many other cities: Swipe your credit card to pay $4 for 30 minutes, $8 for 24 hours, or $20 for a monthly unlimited membership. It’s proposed as a “first-last-mile connection” to transit for new residents moving into the area, according to David Swallow, the senior director of engineering and technology at the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) of Southern Nevada, which is running the service. “We’re excited to offer another option for people to get around town,” Swallow told the Review-Journal. “Our goal is to see people use it.”
These are boom times for bike-shares: There were 23 system launches in 2015 alone, according to the Urban Land Institute. But this isn’t Las Vegas’ first brush with the idea. Back in 2012, Zappos CEO and “evangelical urbanist” Tony Hsieh launched a $350 million “Downtown Project” to transform the gambling mecca’s core into a hub for tech start-ups. In addition to backing a shipping-container shopping center, Burning Man-inspired public art, and a small-scale hardware manufacturing center, Hsieh privately invested in a members-only shared-mobility service that offered access to Teslas, Smart cars, and souped-up bicycles.
That company, SHIFT, wanted to slash car ownership among Las Vegans, but with an initial $400 monthly price tag, it couldn’t find its premium subscriber base, nor work out all its logistical kinks. SHIFT folded in early 2015, and Hsieh stepped back from the Downtown Project in October 2014. And though the neighborhood is a busier place now than it was four years ago (the Container Park has become a fairly successful tourist attraction), it hasn’t exactly transformed—not least because a lack of housing options has kept would-be downtown dwellers living in the Vegas metro’s many sprawling ‘burbs.
That may be beginning to change—in fact, Hsieh is now focusing his energies and investments on building mid-priced apartments. And downtown Las Vegas is getting some of the other proper infrastructure a connected city needs. The neighborhood got a modest network of bike-paths and sidewalk improvements a few years ago, and the RTC has other transit tweaks up its sleeve (including a light-rail line to the airport). These transportation changes pair nicely with the city of Las Vegas’ aggressive 30-year “downtown master plan”: Approved in June, it envisions the urban core as a far friendlier place for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users, with more parks, more shade (essential in a place where summer temperatures average 106° F), and more mixed-use developments alongside light-rail or rapid bus routes.
“You’re going to see a downtown that is as vibrant and has the same urban amenities that you would imagine you’d see in a Portland, Seattle, San Francisco—even certain neighborhoods of New York,” city planner Robert Summerfield told the Las Vegas Sun earlier this year.
A Las Vegas that looks more like New York City (beyond that Manhattan-themed casino) might sound a little outlandish. But it’s welcome to hear such a vision coming from a city official with some political capital to lose, rather than a local tycoon on a mission to urbanize a famously un-urban city. Hooray for public agencies getting in on the action.