Sunday, May 2, 2010

Cycling The Las Vegas Strip

In mid-April, I was invited to stay with some friends on the Las Vegas strip. The hotel was pretty much free as part of a timeshare sales program so I figured why not see what it is like for a cyclist in Las Vegas. While my hosts sat through a sales presentation for a condo, I took off on my bike down the Las Vegas strip.

Flying with Bicycle
Of course, before I could do that I had to get myself and my bike to Vegas. I could rent a bike like I did in Australia but finding a place to rent a really nice road bike is even more difficult than finding a place that rents a really nice car. Also, my height makes it even more difficult to find something my size.

Given that, I'm starting to regularly bring my bike with me on planes. Southwest Airlines is the most reasonable at $50 each way. For some, this is outrageous. For me, my bike fits like a great pair of shoes and it is totally worth it. If you factor in the money you save on a rental car, it works out.

No Bike Lanes, Not Even a Shoulder
One of the first things I saw on the strip was this type of thing: a classic American roadway completely dominated by cars. No bike lanes or sharrows here. There's not even a shoulder for cars. That must create all kinds of fun when a car breaks down.

Lots of Cops on Bikes
The second thing I saw were bicycle police. Seeing them made me feel better about the total lack of any other protection for bikes. With the cops on bikes, the drivers on the strip will be thinking twice before antagonizing a cyclist. Even better, I just happened to be wearing a yellow jacket like the cops were.

I asked one policeman how he liked using a bike on his beat. He said, "Don't tell anyone but I'd do this for free". I can see it. It is loads of fun whizzing down one of the most colorful streets on the planet.

Refreshingly Flat
With that, I took off from the very north end of the strip (the Sahara).  I was pleasantly surprised by the flatness. The Hayward and San Andreas faults back home ensure you are never really off of an incline. There's always a subtle, or not so subtle, grade you are pedaling against. Here, there was no resistance. Woohoo!

With that I was easily able to sustain 25 MPH and could even sustain 28 MPH for a couple of blocks. This turned out to be plenty of speed to keep up with traffic. Because of the incessant stop lights, even the lead foots couldn't get going too much faster than I did. I even passed cars in some of the congested parts. This calmed my nerves. I figured no car could be too upset with a cyclist that was meeting or exceeding the flow of traffic. Now I could enjoy the scenery.

Since I was enjoying the speeds I could reach, I decided to cruise all the way to the south end of the strip (beyond MGM) and then work my way back more slowly: focusing on some of the new architecture and sidewalk infrastructure that are unique to Vegas and hint at what could be possible for bikes there and elsewhere.

The New City Center: Disco Berlin
One of the amazing new sites in Vegas is the new City Center. This should not be missed because it is unlike anything else in town. First of all, it is absolutely massive compared to anywhere else on the strip. It takes up many city blocks and the base goes up 5 stories before the tall buildings even start.

The style is also uniquely understated for Vegas. It looks like someone from Vegas decided the strip could use a hint of Berlin or Geneva along with all the other cities represented. Of course, the new buildings still have a Vegas flair: some of them are leaning (by design) at a dramatic angle. Regardless, the development is something to see both from an aesthetic point of you and from a transport design point of view (perhaps poor design but fascinating, nonetheless).

Yet Another Monorail
Included in this new development, is a new monorail. It turns out, Las Vegas has two monorail systems. Why they need two disconnected systems and why neither goes to the airport, is a mystery. One has been around for a while and it spans the whole strip. It is quite effective in quickly and safely getting pedestrians or cyclists to key parts of the strip. The new City Center monorail looks really cool and gets you around the City Center but that's about it.

The line of cabs waiting at the new City Center nicely illustrates what it still takes to get around Vegas. Obviously, these monorails are not a complete transport alternative. Nevertheless, this is still a better alternative transport infrastructure than you find in a lot of other American cities.

What the strip lacks in real bike and train solutions it makes up for with the pedestrian solutions. The Vegas strip pedestrian infrastructure is awesome in its scale, enginuity, and even its beauty at times.

Vegas has always had wide sidewalks along the strip which are always a welcome site for pedestrians. Those are still in full effect with some rather nice landscaping to obscure the whoosh of cabs that are inches away. These can obviously be found in lots of cities as well.

Pedestrian Intersection Bridges for Days
What most other cities don't have is a comprehensive set of pedestrian bridges over all the road intersections. Nor, do you frequently see such pedestrian bridges with escalators.  With this infrastructure in place, it is possible for a sucker (I mean guest) to stroll the entire strip without encountering cars. That alone is a fabulous achievement and more than you see in anywhere cities in the U.S. Granted, it stops at the strip but I'm betting the pedestrian fatality and injury statistics are excellent compared to other downtown areas of large cities.

When similar infrastructure is proposed for cyclists, cost and space constraints are always cited. Las Vegas is proof that these can be overcome.

Blocks of Elevated Sidewalks
The new City Center construction takes this pedestrian infrastructure to a new level in engineering and aesthetics. One gets the impression that Las Vegas will eventually have two strips: one for cars at ground level and one for pedestrians two stories above that. The bits of that vision that are appearing now make that look like a nice idea. If they could incorporate bikes and trains more deeply into this trend, downtown Las Vegas could be on to something.

In the meantime, dangerous though it may be, I still dig racing the cabs.