Improving transit options in Las Vegas

It may be an iconic scene to drive down the Strip in Las Vegas but the city is looking for ways to improve transit:

But consistent growth has forced a city known for sprawl to start to change its ways. Last year, voters approved a measure that ties fuel taxes to inflation, a move that will address the region’s $6 billion shortfall in road infrastructure. In addition, the Regional Transportation Commission approved a new long-term plan to expand light rail down the Maryland Parkway and massively expand bus service. In mid-March, the RTC submitted a proposal to build a multibillion-dollar light rail system that would connect the Strip with McCarran International Airport.

The Strip has limited transit solutions, most of them privately funded by the gaming industry. A series of free trams that travel from casino to casino allows tourists to move up and down the western side of the Strip without using cars. In 2004, a 3.9-mile monorail opened just to the east of the Strip that serves casinos on that side as well as the convention center. The city also created a double-decker public bus named the Deuce that exclusively serves the Strip…

Brown says comparing Vegas to other cities, especially those in the Northeast with subway and rail systems, isn’t fair. Vegas has a different growth pattern due to the influx of tourists and the large number of workers who serve them—all of whom need to move to one place—and will need a different type of technology to solve its transport issues. “Vegas is about as unique a place in the world as you can find.”

Autonomous vehicles are one option that could improve congestion, lower emissions, and appeal to tourists’ desire for novelty. Brown wants infrastructure that can support and take advantage of that technology. The city and RTC are aggressively courting autonomous vehicle companies and studying “high capacity corridors” throughout Southern Nevada to prioritize opportunities for bus rapid transit.

These options sound like they would help. In particular, giving people an option to take a train from the airport to the Strip is something that should have been done years ago.

At the same time, these are primarily changes that would take advantage of the existing road structure (outside of the monorail and light-rail options). Perhaps it is too much to ask for a city with such important structures – the sprawling casinos built along the Strip – to attempt to create a denser, more walkable streetscape. The amount of work that would need to be done to better tie together the casinos would be massive. But, as someone who has walked the Strip multiple times, wouldn’t it create a more exciting experience for tourists? Wouldn’t it reduce traffic and the long lines at the taxi stands? Maybe the true goal of the Strip is get people to do their recreational walking within the casinos – stroll through Venice or Ancient Rome so you’ll spend some money there – but there are some bigger questions about urban planning than just providing a few more mass transit options.

Las Vegas willing to pay record public subsidy to have NFL

How much power does the NFL have? Enough to have major cities commit incredible sums of public monies:

Las Vegas appears poised to claim the mantle of World’s Most Expensive Stadium from East Rutherford, New Jersey, where the Jets and Giants play in the $1.6 billion MetLife Stadium. (Los Angeles Stadium, Stan Kroenke’s project that will host the Rams and Chargers, is estimated at $2.6 billion—but that cost includes parts of the surrounding entertainment district.*)

Clark County taxpayers will contribute $750 million to the new arena, a record for a sports facility—about $354 per resident, taken from an increased tax on hotel rooms. That tax currently pays for schools and transportation, in addition to tourism-related expenditures.

Stanford economist Roger Noll said it was the “worst deal for a city” he had ever seen…

The state’s figures to justify that new tax are… ambitious. Its forecasts suggest 450,000 new visitors every year drawn by the 65,000-seat stadium, spending an average of 3.2 nights per visit. About a third of tickets are supposed to be purchased by tourists, although no other city manages 10 percent. Why half a million people would fly across the country to watch a team that no one wants to pay $20 to see in Oakland is not clear.

Even with the studies that show stadiums don’t contribute anything to cities, it seems that someone is always willing to pay. In this case, it wasn’t just Las Vegas: Oakland tried to put together a last-minute deal that they claimed would require even less of the team:

Schaaf told ESPN Friday she believes Oakland’s new stadium plan is viable.

“At the end of the day, this is the decision of the Raiders and the NFL,” Schaaf said. “What I am confident about is, if the Raiders want to stay in Oakland, we have a viable plan to build them a stadium with no upfront money from them, in financial terms that I believe are more favorable to them than the terms in Las Vegas — what we know of them.”

I’m still waiting for a city mayor or other big-name official to publicly bid a major sports franchise good riddance when they ask for a lot of local money. Perhaps that would be bad form – local officials are usually in the business of trying to attract everyone they can – but it could also send a strong signal about how private interests cannot overrule the long-term public interest.

Declining American homeownership illustrated in Las Vegas

That city that may have been the exemplar of the early 2000s housing boom may now provide good evidence of a shift from owning to renting in the United States:

The shift to rental in single-family homes is visible on streets like Recktenwall. Between 2005 and 2009, about 80% of such houses in greater Las Vegas were owner-occupied; by 2013, that had dropped to 71%, a 12,000-unit shift…

But the homeownership decline is not entirely tragic. For the footloose, the empty-nested, the risk-averse and assorted others (contract workers, military servicemembers) renting makes sense…

The housing crash’s ground zero was Las Vegas. People who thought you couldn’t lose money on a house lost everything. At one point, an astonishing three quarters of Las Vegas mortgage holders owed more on their homes than they were worth, a percentage that still hovers around 25%.

That’s one of many factors suppressing home sales. Another is the fact that millions of houses have been flipped to rentals by investors who snapped them up at rock-bottom prices years ago.

This long article that covers presidential support of homeownership in recent decades to the perks of some newer apartment complexes presents an interesting conundrum: Americans – including young adults – tend to say that they would prefer or aspire to own a home but for a variety of reasons – from bad credit to tight credit in the mortgage industry to uncertain jobs to college loans to better perks in rental complexes to more options like single family homes available for rent – see renting as desirable at the moment. Some of this might only be determined over time; will the housing market conditions continue to push people toward renting? And, if this happens, does the aspirations of owning a home also slowly decline?

What would be helpful to see with this article that uses Las Vegas: where has the population increased or declined in the metropolitan region over the last ten years or so? While the single-family home market was hit hard, does that mean the suburbs lost people and residents moved closer to the region’s center?

Why are The Property Brothers renovating a Las Vegas McMansion?

The Property Brothers at Home recently started on HGTV and it involves renovating a large home outside Las Vegas. Though they don’t call it this, here is why the home is a McMansion:

1. It is about 5,000 square feet. Plenty of space inside, particularly with the cavernous living room.

2. It is on a quiet residential street about 11 miles outside of Las Vegas. Classic suburban setting.

3. It is a relatively new build. It does beg the question of why a relatively new house needs so many new design ideas.

4. The home has a Mediterranean exterior which is not exactly “native” to Las Vegas (though defining “native” Las Vegas architecture could be interesting).

5. It was purchased as a foreclosure. Las Vegas was one of the foreclosure centers in recent years.

There are a few factors going against the McMansion trend: the home does not necessarily seem poorly built (often a critique of mass-produced homes) and it is on a decent size lot.

Why would the Scott brothers want to be associated with such a home? I understand that they are putting their own personal touch on it but many critics would argue they are starting from a bad place: garish home in a lonely suburban neighborhood in the metropolitan region that exemplifies suburban and consumerist excess.

“Without Lake Mead, there would be no Las Vegas”

The 14 year drought in southern Nevada, northern Arizona, and southern California threatens Lake Mead and the water supply to Las Vegas and other communities. The ability to have such a city in the middle of a desert is quite remarkable. It rests on the construction of Hoover Dam:

HooverDamJul12

I’ve been there twice and I was impressed both times by the ability to put this all together in the 1930s. Yet, the dam is highly dependent on available water and weather patterns. Here is a look at the lower Lake Mead from the top of Hoover Dam in July 2012:

LakeMeadJul12

While this is partly a cautionary tale about the the limits of human consumption, it also presents an opportunity for human ingenuity. As the news report notes, “Las Vegas actually reuses 93% of its water.” Imagine if all cities in the world reached such levels. Thus, even with an extended drought, Las Vegas may continue to thrive:

BellagioFountainsJul12

The show must go on…

Architectural sociology approach to why Las Vegas residents don’t know their neighbors

Sociologists looking at why Las Vegas residents don’t know their neighbors explain that the design of their newer subdivisions are partly to blame:

“So that means squeezing a lot of houses into small lots, and it also means an architectural design in many cases that doesn’t facilitate the flow of people,” UNLV sociology professor Robert Futrell said.In 2010, UNLV professors conducted a survey of neighborhoods and people living throughout the Valley. They found that communities built after the construction boom of the 1990s include narrow streets, concrete walls, short driveways and few front porches. All of these things impede social interaction.

“While many developers have tried to create these master-planned communities to be high-functioning, high-interacting neighborhoods, many of them are not working that way,” Batson said.

Professors point to neighborhoods with short driveways as an example. People drive up to their homes, open the garage and drive in without talking to anyone.

The article goes on to say that residents in these communities truly do want to interact with their neighbors. But, design holds them back.

Is it completely the fault of design? The beginning of the article also notes that Las Vegas has many transient residents. If it is truly the design, we should be able to look at neighborhoods with different designs and measure higher levels of social interaction. Is this what we actually find? New Urbanists argue it is all about designing neighborhoods in a traditional way but they don’t as often bring up the data that would show the neighborhoods do what they say they should do. Other might counter that even with some better home design, people are still distracted from social interaction because of cars, air conditioning, television, the Internet, and more.

Another thought: would the residents of these new neighborhoods be willing to trade the size of their homes or the interior features of their homes for some more neighborly features?

Argument: Phoenix is world’s least sustainable city

I recently ran into an overview of a 2011 look at Phoenix as the “world’s least sustainable city”:

Phoenix, Arizona is one of America’s fastest growing metropolitan regions. It is also its least sustainable one, sprawling over a thousand square miles, with a population of four and a half million, minimal rainfall, scorching heat, and an insatiable appetite for unrestrained growth and unrestricted property rights.

In Bird on Fire, eminent social and cultural analyst Andrew Ross focuses on the prospects for sustainability in Phoenix–a city in the bull’s eye of global warming–and also the obstacles that stand in the way. Most authors writing on sustainable cities look at places like Portland, Seattle, and New York that have excellent public transit systems and relatively high density. But Ross contends that if we can’t change the game in fast-growing, low-density cities like Phoenix, the whole movement has a major problem. Drawing on interviews with 200 influential residents–from state legislators, urban planners, developers, and green business advocates to civil rights champions, energy lobbyists, solar entrepreneurs, and community activists–Ross argues that if Phoenix is ever to become sustainable, it will occur more through political and social change than through technological fixes. Ross explains how Arizona’s increasingly xenophobic immigration laws, science-denying legislature, and growth-at-all-costs business ethic have perpetuated social injustice and environmental degradation. But he also highlights the positive changes happening in Phoenix, in particular the Gila River Indian Community’s successful struggle to win back its water rights, potentially shifting resources away from new housing developments to producing healthy local food for the people of the Phoenix Basin. Ross argues that this victory may serve as a new model for how green democracy can work, redressing the claims of those who have been aggrieved in a way that creates long-term benefits for all.

Since the population of the United States has shifted in recent decades to Sunbelt cities like Phoenix, tackling sustainability in these more sprawling and hot places seems like it is important. I wonder how much this sustainability push would require curbing sprawl and if there are some critics who would argue places like Phoenix (or even the metropolitan regions of cities like Chicago and New York) can’t really be sustainable unless they severely limit sprawl.

In two trips to Las Vegas in recent years, I was struck each time by the landscape when flying into the city. I always enjoy seeing cities from above but Las Vegas (and presumably Phoenix as well) shows stark contrasts between deserts which suddenly turn into subdivisions, lawns, golf courses, and then opulent casinos. It is a quick reminder that some of these Sunbelt cities are carved out of the desert and this requires a lot of resources to maintain and expand.