Editor’s note: Writer and urban planner Tim Sullivan traveled the West this spring by bike, bus, foot and several other non-auto modes, as part of a journey to discover how revolutions in transportation are changing the region. He’s at work on a book on the subject. In this scene, he looks for the future in Las Vegas, of all places.
By Tim Sullivan
I had spent the morning walking around North Las Vegas in the zip code of 89031, which in early 2012 was named the foreclosure capital of the United States. Nearly one in 100 houses in the zip code was filing for foreclosure. It was a microcosm of the breakdown that occurred throughout the brand-new, fast-growing West.
The houses in 89031 looked like average stucco boxes, but you could see the cheapness in the streets that were supposed to connect them. Like many other places that had experienced sharply declining real estate values, the design of the new subdivisions of North Las Vegas restricted its residents to driving and lacked quality public space. Las Vegas had been called the city that started the 21st century, but the reality was that it had driven the auto-centric model of the 20th century into the ground.
The person who had been showing me around in North Las Vegas, a retired planner, pointed out how outdated design standards had led to minimal five-foot treeless sidewalks blocked by utility poles, and politics had led to walls around every subdivision with few entries.
You likely couldn’t walk out of your subdivision here, and if you could, you couldn’t walk side by side with another person. These were traffic sewers. We had stood in one of the empty wide roads between the subdivisions with a view of unbroken walls and a dead-end into the desert.
But before we parted, she offered some hope. She mentioned there was new blood in the ranks of the engineers who ran the Las Vegas valley’s public works departments. They were beginning to shake up the standards and confront the politics.
A few hours and a long, sweaty bike ride later, I walked in downtown Las Vegas with one of those engineers. Jorge Cervantes had come to the City of Las Vegas as an assistant traffic engineer and had risen through the ranks, recently becoming the city’s public works director. As a young engineering student, Cervantes had been taught that a roadway existed to move vehicles.
But as he saw the results of his work, Cervantes realized that he couldn’t eliminate congestion – one of the traffic engineer’s primary charges – simply by adding more lanes. Like some others throughout the profession, he realized that streets were for moving people, not cars.
Now Cervantes was building over the wreckage of the real estate crash. He believed that rethinking streets as richer places that moved people rather than cars could provide the foundation for reclaiming Las Vegas’ future. He had led the changing of the rules that governed how the city’s streets were built. And then he started to build.
We walked until we came to what had become the centerpiece of the City’s downtown streets: Casino Center Boulevard, which swept through downtown Las Vegas in an alternate vision of the future. Instead of the monolithic asphalt, there were red-painted bus lanes running down the center, islands of meadow grass, wide sidewalks and palm trees, and animated transit stations punctuated by repurposed neon signs.
The asphalt auto lanes that usually dominated American streets were pinched to one each way, just a piece of a larger, richer picture. Where most streets in Las Vegas and the West felt like autoways that happened to allow people, this felt like a street for people that happened to allow buses and cars to move through. Where most western streets left people one option, this gave them many.
Its design was a revolt against a hundred 20th century engineering notions, each of which was a point of contention between Cervantes and the “old-school engineers” in his shop. The first was a Robin Hood capture of two traffic lanes taken from the car to give to the Regional Transportation Commission’s bus rapid transit system. This was engineer heresy – Cervantes consciously created more congestion. “Even if we lost capacity it was worth the trade,” he said.
Then there were smaller things. The engineers gave the street corners a smaller radius, which gave more space to pedestrians while forcing cars to slow down before they turned. They colored the bus lane concrete a ruddy red to communicate that the space belonged to transit. They made the sidewalks as wide as the vehicle lanes.
The new street had confused drivers initially, but it had drawn and inspired those who began to rebuild Las Vegas. We walked through a budding arts district, where two business owners stood outside a shop. “Hey Jorge,” one of them said to Cervantes.
This street had the same width as those I had seen in North Las Vegas, but Casino Center created a different world within it. Whereas most new streets in Las Vegas Valley had been hastily crammed through new subdivisions during the good times, Casino Center had been thoughtfully crafted amid vacant lots in bad times.
Unlike in the rest of the city, the street would lead the way forward, not be dragged along by the whims of the market. It announced that being a street in a new American desert city didn’t necessarily mean a bleak tunnel of asphalt. The humanity and personality of this one street gave a hint of what a future less focused on the automobile might look like.