Las Vegas cyclists feel growth — and growing pains — as city becomes more bike friendly

RTC Bike Share launch

Mikayla Whitmore

A group of Elvis impersonators ride bicycles during the RTC Bike Share launch event in Downtown Las Vegas on Oct. 26, 2016.

One hundred miles of bicycle lanes extended throughout Las Vegas 10 years ago. Today, there are about 500 miles citywide and an additional 200 miles in other parts of the Valley. Car culture, funding restrictions on cycling infrastructure, and the sprawling nature of the Valley have historically created challenges for urban cycling. But as Southern Nevada grows in population and road biking becomes more normalized, the region’s cities and Clark County are adapting more bike-friendly policies and infrastructure, albeit incrementally. “We’re building it little by little,” said Marco Velotta, a senior management analyst in the City of Las Vegas’ Planning Department.

The efforts seems to be bringing more cyclists out of the shadows. The number of people carrying bicycles onto Regional Transportation Commission buses has been steadily increasing in the past several years, RTC data shows. In May, it counted about 56,000 bicycles on buses, and the agency continues to observe “well-utilized” bike racks around the Las Vegas Strip, said Ron Floth, bicycle and community outreach coordinator for the RTC.

Cyclists range from children biking to school (particularly in more residential, higher-income neighborhoods) to millennials to aging baby boomers, Floth said. Some cycle primarily to commute, for leisure and exercise, and because bicycles are their primary or most reliable form of transportation.

“People [are] riding from transit to their final destination, which is work. We’re seeing quite a bit of that,” Floth said.

Within the city limits, affluent Summerlin seems to have the largest biking population and the most bike lanes, some of which were created by the Howard Hughes Corporation that owns and manages the master-planned community, according to Velotta. Similarly affluent Henderson is also known for its high concentration of bike lanes and bike paths.

A major goal in the region now is to make biking as equitable as possible, in part by expanding bike infrastructure into all neighborhoods and communities.

“It’s one thing to make sure an area like Summerlin has facilities, and that’s important, but we want to make sure we hit places like Downtown and Wards 1, 3 and 5 in the center of the city,” Velotta said.

Changing the culture

Despite a growth in bike infrastructure and bike riders, cyclists and planners acknowledge that the region has a long way to go to protect cyclists and instill a share-the-road mentality throughout the Valley, especially among drivers.

“We still need to do more on the encouragement part and the enforcement part,” Velotta said.

Cyclist injuries and fatalities at the hands of drivers remain common; four cyclists have been killed so far this year in Clark County, according to the Nevada Office of Traffic Safety.

To reduce fatalities and collisions, many cyclists would like to see stronger enforcement of a Nevada law requiring drivers to maintain a three-foot distance from cyclists when passing them on the road. Although the three-foot law has been in place for years, drivers who hit cyclists (and therefore have automatically broken the law) still often get off scot-free, said Heather Fisher, president of the Summerlin-based bike shop Las Vegas Cyclery.

Many drivers don’t even know that the law exists, and lax enforcement certainly doesn’t help, Fisher added.

“It just needs to be promoted through the DMV, through signage, or anywhere we can get the word out,” she said.

Fisher has lived and biked in the Valley since 1992 and now lives in Blue Diamond, a more rural and potentially safer enclave for cyclists compared with heavily trafficked areas such as Downtown Las Vegas.

Downtown, for its part, has some of the strongest cycling infrastructure in the area, including highlighted green bike lanes and access to the RTC’s bike center and bike share program. But cyclists often agree that it is still one of the most hostile areas, mostly because of the amount of vehicular traffic it gets.

“When you get into some of the more high-traffic areas closer to Downtown, people seem to be less [bike]-friendly. People are in a hurry, and maybe they don’t expect [cyclists] there,” said biker and North Las Vegas resident Mary Margaret Williams.

It’s a problem no longer unique to Downtown, as population and traffic continue to rise rapidly. Even though there are more cyclists on the road compared with 10 years ago, there are also more drivers, many of whom are more distracted than ever before, said biker Sean Tyrone.

“There are … more close calls, more accidents and more deaths, and 99% of them are because of driver inattention,” said Tyrone, who is also chief operating officer of Las Vegas Cyclery.

Tyrone used to commute for years from east Las Vegas to Green Valley. That bike route is a lot more problematic today, he said.

“I had a lot of close calls [before], but nothing like what I’ve seen and experienced personally in the last five years,” he said.

That’s not to say that growth cannot be accomplished in a way that helps cyclists, Fisher noted. For example, the Southern Nevada Regional Bicycle Coalition is pushing for developers to start including bike lanes whenever they build new housing. The City of Las Vegas’ 2050 Master Plan will also include a greater emphasis on multimodal transit, including cycling.

Funding for cycling infrastructure has always been a challenge when it comes to getting more bike lanes onto the streets. The Las Vegas Planning Department’s budget for bicycle infrastructure is still a tiny fraction of the rest of the budget, but it is becoming more of a priority, Velotta said. Other departments—such as Public Works, Parks and Recreation, and Operations and Maintenance—are also beginning to embrace cycling-friendly policies, he said.

“The fact that we’re including more and more buffer lanes, and that is now kind of the default, it just shows that there’s more of a commitment there to making complete streets possible,” Velotta said.

Pouring money into the issue isn’t a guarantee the region will become more bike-friendly, but if the money goes toward installing cycling infrastructure and signs, it can at least help drivers prepare to see cyclists and understand how to interact with them, Williams said. She acknowledged that cyclists must understand how to interact with drivers safely as well, something the RTC has been promoting through bike safety programs and educational workshops.

As a cyclist, the key to safety is to stay with traffic, utilize hand signals and use a bike light at night, which is required under Nevada law, Floth said. Although biking on sidewalks is permitted in most of Clark County with the exception of North Las Vegas, cyclists are safer when they act like motor vehicles and go with the flow, Floth emphasized.

“One of the things we talk to cyclists about all the time is to ride predictably,” he added. “That way, motorists know what they’re going to do.”

In the coming years, Fisher hopes that the region will recognize not only the health, environmental and recreational benefits of cycling, but also how becoming a cycling city could propel Las Vegas into the future.

“You go to other cities and there’s bike lanes everywhere and bike paths everywhere,” Fisher said. “They do that to attract the newer, younger tech-y job market to their cities, and to diversify. And that’s what we’re going to have to do here.”

Planners seem to have a similar vision.

“We’ve come considerably far over the past decade,” Velotta said. “We really have seen a physical transformation as a result. But we still have a lot of work to do.”

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.

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