REVIEW COORDINATOR: Taylor Mills

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June 22nd, 2020 10:22:28 pm

Bicycle Infrastructure in Las Vegas

A “Thought Experiment”

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Abstract

Despite the increasing popularity of bicycling in the Las Vegas area, it remains dangerous. Several injuries and fatalities in recent years make this point evident. By aiming to improve the situation, the local transportation authority wants to promote safe bicycle ridership and culture, yielding numerous positive outcomes for several groups of stakeholders. To show how to bolster such efforts, the authors examine many of the ethical dimensions involved in this situation. They invite readers to explore an imaginative “thought experiment.” This exercise proposes the idea of building an elevated bicycle path along the world-famous Las Vegas Strip to bolster the region's micromobility goals.

Bicycle Infrastructure in Las Vegas: A “Thought Experiment”

Despite the increasing popularity of bicycling in the Las Vegas area, it remains dangerous. Several injuries and fatalities in recent years make this point evident.  By aiming to improve the situation, the local transportation authority wants to promote safe bicycle ridership and culture, yielding numerous positive outcomes for several groups of stakeholders.  To show how to bolster such efforts, the authors examine many of the ethical dimensions involved in this situation. They invite readers to explore an imaginative “thought experiment.”  This exercise proposes the idea of building an elevated bicycle path along the world-famous Las Vegas Strip to bolster the region's micromobility goals.

1. Introduction

On March 19, 2018, the local paper in Las Vegas reported the death of a 22-year old bicyclist near the Las Vegas Strip.(1)  Ironically, that very same issue of the paper features another article warning bicyclists about the illegality of riding bicycles on the Strip's sidewalks.(2)  Nevertheless, this article also mentions that there are no plans on the part of the transportation department to construct bicycle lanes along that iconic stretch of roadway.(3)  The juxtaposition of these two articles in the same issue is jarring, to say the least. Clearly, something needs to be done.

The good news is that the transportation authority in the Las Vegas Valley, the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada (RTC), wants to improve bicycle infrastructure to promote bicycle culture.(4) With a new fleet of bicycle and electric bikes rentals around town, they are taking bold steps towards changing mobility culture in the metropolitan area, even giving away free helmets.(5)  Moreover, Las Vegas’ national reputation for cycling is gaining momentum.(6) Increasing the visibility of cycling in Las Vegas’ nightlife and cityscape can bolster these recent efforts.  One particularly visible way to bring bicycling to the Strip area is to install an elevated bicycle pathway, which would have numerous benefits beyond safety.  While one could argue that such a project would be an economic boon for the region, we hold that it also has an ethical dimension.  The purpose of this paper is to explore this dimension.

We begin by making our case for the project by examining the current transportation reality in the Las Vegas metropolitan environment, focusing on bicycle infrastructure.  We evaluate its strengths and the areas that could improve by employing a “complex moral assessment” to assess the outcomes that an improved bicycle infrastructure could help produce. After making this determination, we explain how an elevated bicycle path will produce better outcomes. In closing, we identify a few areas of interest that researchers could investigate to continue to improve bicycling in the Las Vegas valley.

2.  The Moral Case for Bicycling

Our transportation infrastructure is a complex system with various outcomes for many different people (in society), along with other nonhuman stakeholders. A “complex moral assessment” is an inventory of the myriad effects upon individuals and groups, which aims to gauge the good or bad outcomes that a technology helps produce as it exists in a complex socio-political arrangement. (7)  These groups are the relevant stakeholders, including vulnerable populations, the public, ecosystems and or nonhuman animals, and public artifacts (e.g., historic neighborhoods, buildings, or any other human-produced item).(8)  The idea is that all of these entities deserve consideration in terms of how they are affected by an arrangement of social and physical structures.          

The order of the list above must be respected in most instances. This notion suggests we cannot give each entity equal consideration. Such an idea means that we should act to produce better outcomes for vulnerable people before we aim to improve the conditions for a nonhuman animal.  Of course, there are cases where a lower-ordered entity should have more consideration that a higher-ordered entity, suggesting that it is best to determine such instances on a case-by-case basis.  The goal is to produce better outcomes for all the groups or come as close as possible while respecting the order above.  Although it does not make sense to say that a technology is good or bad, we can say that they play “moral roles” in society.(9)  While a complex moral assessment for planning purposes would be extremely detailed, we provide a rough sketch of one to give the public an idea of how morally assessing an elevated bicycle path would benefit locals and tourists alike.  Such an evaluation will address the areas above, and it starts with examining the activity in question: bicycling.          

Consider, for example, that bicycling safely is an inherently good activity. In turn, there are plenty of strong reasons to promote it, even in and around as heavily a trafficked area as the Las Vegas Strip.  While personal vehicles are often extremely costly, many people can purchase regular bicycles (or recumbent bikes).  Some models are available for less than one hundred dollars.  It can be an affordable way to travel across the city, and it can be fun.  Bicycling is a healthy activity for the cyclist, physically and mentally.  Bicycling is linked to better health outcomes such as reducing rates of obesity, diabetes, and depression.  As a form of exercise, bicycling meets the recommended levels of intensity for health, combating disease, and promoting a healthy lifestyle.  During the pandemic, bicycling is increasingly gaining popularity as a safe way to get outdoors while practicing social distancing.(10) 

The benefits of bicycling, however, extend beyond the individual cyclist.  By removing cars from the road, bicycling reduces vehicular carbon emissions and greenhouse gases, promoting the health of both the general population in the valley and the overall environment. Bearing in mind that the Environmental Protection Agency shows that the region is one of 51 areas in 22 states that exceed federal standards for smog, this point requires attention. By reducing the number of cars on local roadways, we would decrease the demand for additional lanes of traffic, efforts that could lessen the rate of urban sprawl, which would displace native species of flora and fauna.  Viewed on a grand scale, locally supporting an elevated bicycle path would be a modest step toward combatting climate change. In turn, looking at bicycling infrastructure through a lens of complex moral assessment shows that improving it could benefit all relevant stakeholders if it were implemented in the right way.  Even though encouraging bicycling is by no means a “silver-bullet” solution to the transportation-related problems that one finds in the Las Vegas valley, it is a supportive step in the right direction.

Additionally, the Las Vegas strip is notoriously congested. Efforts to reduce the number of vehicles on this particular stretch of road would improve conditions for the travel, tourism, and the overall experience of the Strip.  It is thus in the interest of tourists and resort operators alike to provide means other than private vehicles for bringing resort employees safely to work.  Despite urban legends, casino employees do not live in the hotels. With space on the Strip at a premium, resort operators have to shoulder the burden of providing space in parking garages for their employees. By developing enhanced bicycle infrastructure, we can decrease this demand, which would address several concerns mentioned above.  

This point holds significance because the sheer magnitude of the resort corridor makes commuting by foot infeasible.  While Las Vegas currently has over 1000 miles of bicycle paths, that is not a large number when you consider the sprawling nature of the metropolitan region.  Many of these miles are outside the urban core and iconic corridor. To increase ridership in the chief areas of need, we need to find its shortcomings, and the Strip is obviously a primary location.  Along with this area, downtown Las Vegas is another popular tourist attraction and place of work, and it also prohibits bicycling on sidewalks, suggesting that bicycle travel is just as unsafe as areas around the Strip.  The reasons above show that there are several reasons why we ought to promote bicycle culture in the valley.  Yet, undertaking this task requires that we address a few inadequacies, and the section below does just that.

3.  The inadequacy of the status quo

Despite the reasons for encouraging greater bicycling among the residents of Las Vegas, the current state of the transportation infrastructure actually provides a disincentive for cycling.  Cycling in and around the Strip is just not safe, a fact sadly illustrated by the event described in the first article mentioned in our introduction.  At the same time, the second article reminds readers that despite the fact that there are no bicycle lanes along the Strip, cyclists are actively prohibited from bicycling along pedestrian sidewalks.  

We think this presents a potentially morally challenging situation for urban planners and decision-makers.  For not only is it reasonable to expect those who play such roles to promote behavior in residents that are ethically (and economically and environmentally) defensible, it is even more imperative for such persons not to set up situations and infrastructure that serve to discourage such behavior. That is not to say that urban planners and decision-makers have a responsibility to task residents and other stakeholders to choose technologies that support better outcomes.  We are not demanding that residents need to think of their actions as particularly ethical or unethical. Instead, we are merely suggesting that their urban environment should be configured as much as possible so that ethical behavior is a natural way for them to behave.

Transportation infrastructure is a prime example of how our urban environment has been shaped to favor some choices over others. Sidewalks (and the placements thereof) clearly influence our decision whether to walk (as well as which route to take).   The choices we thereby favor in our planning decisions reflect upon what we hold dear.  In turn, our cities have numerous artifacts that remain harmful towards humans and the nonhuman world.  Like other cultural artifacts, transportation infrastructure embodies values, from the social to the environmental.  While it may not make sense to say that pieces of infrastructure are, strictly speaking, “moral or immoral,” we can say that they play moral roles. To understand these roles, we must think about transportation technologies in all of the ways that they affect our lives, an exercise that we explored above.  If we are to consider this point seriously, then we can claim that transportation technologies that play roles that lead to pedestrian deaths, poor public health outcomes, and environmental degradation are ethically indefensible, especially if ethically preferable alternatives are available.

The history of urban design makes this point evident.  Consider, for example, the (in)famous case of Robert Moses’ bridges that kept African Americans from visiting beaches that white people frequent.  Although we must consider these bridges as they appear in the larger, more complex transportation network, the moral role that they play shows that they lead to ethically indefensible outcomes. Results such as these have the inherent condition of being discriminatory, a status that contemporary moral planners should want to avoid.  To achieve such consequences, planners need to avoid modes of thinking that follow this pattern, aiming to employ designs and technologies that achieve morally permissible outcomes. To be clear, this could also include the absence of a technology.  A missing stop sign at a busy intersection is a simple instance of this. When they recognize that a situation is harmful, wherein a technology (or its lack) is playing a bad moral role, the right thing to do is to take action to achieve better outcomes.  

The case of Las Vegas is an exemplar. The present infrastructure for cyclists has all of the tell-tell signs of a bad moral outcome, and the reason is due to the poor arrangement of transportation infrastructure.  For instance, in a recent interview with the local ABC television affiliate, Andrew Bennett, of the Office of Public Safety points out: "Unfortunately, 2019 has been a horrible year [for] bicycle fatality already. . . .We've experienced a 300 percent increase in bicycle fatalities from where we were this time last year."(11)  In terms of overall pedestrian deaths in Las Vegas, there were 617 from 2010 through 2018.(12) Cyclists’ deaths have had a profound impact on the cycling community, resulting in the formation of “Ghost Riders Las Vegas,” a group that memorializes cyclists who were struck by vehicles and died.(13) They hold ceremonial rides and erect bicycles that painted entirely white, giving them a ghost-like aesthetic.(14)

If we consider these bad outcomes seriously, then it is hard to maintain that the situation should not improve.  In this case, if we cannot change the law or take cars off of the road, then we can build the missing infrastructure that will produce better consequences.  For the Strip, we think that an elevated bike path is a key piece of the transportation infrastructure puzzle.  In the section below, we propose adding this imaginative piece of transportation infrastructure, examining the many benefits that it could bring to “America’s playground,” as Larry Bragg puts it.

4. A Proposal

A good way to begin to address all of the issues mentioned above could culminate around a landmark infrastructure that could draw attention to bicycling.   An elevated bike path could do just that. If we were to customize a complex moral assessment for the Las Vegas valley, the many reasons above show that we need a solution that can serve many interests. And we can assess how an elevated bicycle path can deal with the concerns that we have identified. For instance, an elevated bicycle path would separate bikes from cars, effectively removing them from areas of danger.  Although it would only be an initial step towards increasing overall bicycle safety, it could count as a benchmark for progress, giving planners and decision-makers a starting point for the progress that is to come.

 Moreover, an elevated bike path would diversify tourism, appealing to health-conscious visitors who want to enjoy the nightlife but also don’t want to engage in a rendition of The Hangover.  Considering that local economies depend on vacation seekers, expanding the appeal of Sin City could bolster these efforts.  Although at this point, the idea of an elevated bike path remains in the "thought experiment" stage, meaning that it lacks an architectural rendering (or even a sketch), we would like to invite your imagination to paint some of the broad strokes of what it could look like.

At present, Las Vegas has two parts of town that attract tourists and serve as hubs of employment, the Fremont Street Experience in downtown (Old Vegas) and The Strip.  While they are nearby, they remain disconnected and the area between (two miles, give or take), one could argue, is not the safest for bicyclists or pedestrians. In between these locations, there are lesser-known attractions such as the Arts District, an area that features unique cafes, restaurants, galleries, and funky vintage shops. An elevated bicycle path could connect the main areas, and they could provide stop-off access points for other interest points such as the Arts District.  Yet, to push our imaginations even further, we could envision an elevated bike path starting at Fremont Street, and winding its way alongside the majestic Las Vegas Strip, ending at the new stadium for the Las Vegas Raiders, for a total of seven “lucky” miles, giving the project and destination a fitting name.  

Imagine that you or you and your significant other lands at McCarran Airport.  A short cab ride or car-share later, you check into your hotel on the Strip or downtown.  After a nice dinner and some time at the tables, you head to a concert, followed by. . . “what happens in Vegas.”  The next day, you repeat the process.  The day after, however, you want to do something else, an activity that helps your waistline. As the sun begins to set, you make your way to a bicycle rental shop, reserving two “Strip Cruisers,” one-speed luxury bikes, complete with spill-proof cup holders, mobile device docks, and a hot-pink flamingo seat cushion. While gliding down the bike path, high above the ground, you marvel at the sunset over the Red Rock escarpment, and soon you are greeted by the warm glow of neon lights and the excitement of the Las Vegas cityscape.

 Along with the pure enjoyment that could accompany an elevated bike path in Las Vegas, this critical piece of infrastructure could have numerous advantages that would help mitigate existing harms and provide numerous benefits for locals and tourists alike.  For instance, it would provide a safe way for people to ride bicycles near the Strip without having to change existing ordinances.  Second, it would provide an alternative means of mobility for casino workers and locals alike. This point also shows they could easily incorporate exercise into their daily routine, which would increase efforts to improve public health in the region. In addition to these aspects, it would also, albeit rather modestly, reduce traffic and automobile emissions, which could improve air quality (slightly). Implementing this infrastructure would also increase bicycle sales and rentals, which could also bolster the local economy.  The existing hotel and convention center infrastructure could easily host bicycle conventions, becoming a central place for showcasing bicycle technology and culture.

In addition to the benefits for locals, an elevated bicycle path could, of course, speak to the interests of tourists who come to Las Vegas for vacation.  While driving past or walking down the Strip offers visitors with the up-close experience of the city's excitement, an elevated bike path would provide them with another iconic way to appreciate the neon aesthetics from above, giving an experience that is rivaled only by the images captured by drones equipped with cameras. For families staying for a week or weekend in town, it would create an opportunity to spend time together. If the path were to eventually include access to the Raiders' football stadium, families could avoid traffic and parking costs, allowing for more money to go toward souvenirs.

For the health-conscious tourist, this bike path could complete a fun-filled, healthy weekend. Consider, for instance, that along with a vibrant nightlife scene, the region also has natural tourist attractions that offer year-long outdoor activities such as hiking, sightseeing, and rock climbing, such as Red Rock Canyon and Mt. Charleston Wilderness area, both are located right beyond the city. Including an elevated bike path would provide outdoor thrill-seekers with a variety of activities.  There are already numerous delicious and healthy restaurants in the metropolitan area that would be ready for hungry tourists to replenish after a rigorous workout, high above the boulevard.  

Considering that the Luxor Hotel and Casino emits a beam of light that can be seen from outer space, replicas of the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of liberty, and the Venice Canals exist on the Strip, along with thousands of species of fish and flowers, putting a two-to-seven mile elevated bicycle pathway in the sky would fit right in. While the activities mentioned above could almost serve as an advertisement for a tourist attraction, there are also challenges that would need to be addressed if one wanted to explore the possibility of moving from daydream to reality. To address these issues, the following sections examine some of the obstacles that need attention.  

5. Addressing the challenges ahead

While safety, physical, and topographical challenges will keep engineers and planners busy, other ethical considerations deserve attention.  For example, how will the city of Las Vegas (and surrounding areas) acquire the land that is required to build it?(15)   Who will pay for it?  Must local taxpayers or tourists shoulder the economic burden that this infrastructure would create? That is to say, will poor people be evicted from their homes?  It would surely not be a good idea to exacerbate housing problems while trying to improve mobility issues—for the exact same people in many instances.  

        What’s more, are there any guarantees that this piece of infrastructure will deliver the outcomes mentioned above?   How is it morally acceptable to build an elevated bike path for the future, when most cyclists and pedestrians are killed away from the Strip? For example, the majority of bicycle and pedestrian-related fatalities happen outside of the tourists' sector. So, wouldn’t a better use of those resources be to attend to those matters?  Although these are pressing questions that deserve attention, they do not dismiss the possibility that an elevated bike path could motivate people to pay more attention to bicycling infrastructure. In turn, increasing the public appeal of the matter could draw attention to the questions above, which could lead to more socially just outcomes.

6. Conclusion

This article began by addressing a serious concern: bicycle safety and the Las Vegas Strip. We highlighted the reality that while bicycle riding is not allowed on the Strip, people want to experience it on two wheels. Although these things are not compatible, introducing an elevated bike path would serve as the beginning of a solution.  Beyond this scenario, adding this infrastructure to the existing mobility systems serves many more interests for locals and tourists alike. Examining these possibilities showed that there are many reasons why the county and city planners of Las Vegas should further explore this infrastructure as a viable option to support transportation, public health, environmental preservation, and urban sustainability overall.  Despite these possible advantages, there are areas of concern that require attention.  Yet, when stacking the pros against the cons, betting on an elevated bike path does not seem like a gamble.

Footnotes

  1.  Lacanlale, Rio. “ Bicyclist, 22, dies in crash with truck near Las Vegas Strip.” Las Vegas Review-Journal, March 19, 2018. Available online: https://www.reviewjournal.com/local/local-las-vegas/bicyclist-22-dies-in-crash-with-truck-near-las-vegas-strip/.
  2.  Marroquin, Art. “Don’t ride your bike on the sidewalk, even on Las Vegas Strip,” Las Vegas Review-Journal, March 19, 2018. Available online: https://www.reviewjournal.com/news/news-columns/road-warrior/dont-ride-your-bike-on-the-sidewalk-even-on-las-vegas-strip/.
  3.  Marroquin. “Don’t ride your bike.”
  4.  Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada. “Cycling.” Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada (2019). Available online: https://www.rtcsnv.com/ways-to-travel/cycling/.
  5.  De Leon, Alexandra. “RTC debuts new electric bikes.” Fox 5 Vegas, September 12 (2019). Available online: https://www.fox5vegas.com/news/local/rtc-debuts-new-electric-bikes/article_b97969ba-d57e-11e9-9108-170d55c38720.html.
  6.  Carter, Geoff. “Las Vegas’ cycling reputation takes a step up.” The Las Vegas Sun News, June 30 (2018). Available online: https://lasvegassun.com/news/2018/jun/30/las-vegas-cycling-reputation-takes-a-step-up/.
  7.  For instance, Epting, Shane. "Automated vehicles and transportation justice." Philosophy & Technology 32, no. 3 (2019): 389-403.
  8.  Epting, “Automated.”
  9.  This aspect of the complex moral assessment approach comes from structural ethics.  For more information, see Brey, Philip. 2014. "From moral agents to moral factors: The structural ethics approach." In The moral status of technical artefacts, eds. Peter Kroes and Peter-Pauk Verbeek, 125-142. Dordrecht: Springer.
  10.  Villafranca, Omar. “Americans turn to cycling during the coronavirus pandemic.” CBS Evening News May 20 (2020). Available online: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/americans-turn-to-cycling-coronavirus-pandemic-2020-05-20/.
  11.  Maldonado, Cinthia. “Hit-and-run crash nearly kills boy in Summerlin.” ABC 13 KTNV, March 7. (2019). Available online: https://www.ktnv.com/news/crime/hit-and-run-nearly-kills-boy-in-summerlin.
  12.  Akers, Mick. “Pedestrian deaths in Las Vegas can be reduced by staying alert.” Las Vegas Review-Journal, April 1. (2019). Available online: https://www.reviewjournal.com/news/news-columns/road-warrior/pedestrian-deaths-in-las-vegas-can-be-reduced-by-staying-alert-1630811/.
  13.  Lacanlale, Rio. “Henderson ‘ghost bike’ ride, ceremony honor fallen bicyclist.” Las Vegas Review-Journal, November 4. (2017). Available online: https://www.reviewjournal.com/local/henderson/henderson-ghost-bike-ride-ceremony-honor-fallen-bicyclist/.
  14.  Lacanlale. “Henderson ‘ghost bike.’”
  15.  The proper “City of Las Vegas” is rather small. The surrounding metropolitan areas are usually thought of as being part of Las Vegas.  For more information, see Clark County, Nevada, “2018 Clark County / Las Vegas Valley Jurisdictional Boundaries” Available online: https://www.clarkcountynv.gov/public-communications/news/Documents/Map%20Jurisdictional%20Las%20Vegas%20Area%200218.pdf.  

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Citation

Epting, Shane and Beisecker, David (2020). Bicycle Infrastructure in Las Vegas: A “Thought Experiment”

Copyright

Copyright, 2020, Shane Epting and David Beisecker

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