Las Vegas Sun

August 20, 2019

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Ride-hailing and self-driving cars only increase the need for light rail

Among those who detest the thought of spending tax dollars on public transportation, there’s a misguided argument that mass transit systems like light rail are being made obsolete by ride-hailing services and other new transportation technology.

The core of that argument is that the convenience of point-to-point services like Uber and Lyft, and later the availability of autonomous vehicles, will result in less use of private vehicles and fixed public transportation systems. In this school of thought, the outcome is less traffic congestion and less need to invest in light rail or bus systems.

But a new study turns that argument completely upside-down.

Brooklyn-based transportation analyst Bruce Schaller’s research shows that use of ride-hailing apps has resulted in more congestion on city streets, and says the majority of riders in Uber and Lyft vehicles would prefer using public transportation if a suitable system was available. And when autonomous vehicles go mainstream, Schaller said, there will be even more congestion, not less.

Drawing from a number of sources, including a new national travel survey and trip data from transportation network companies, Schaller found that rideshare usage had led to a 160 percent increase in driving on streets in high-density where public transportation tends to be most readily available. Why the additional traffic? Because of the miles that ride-hailing drivers travel when they’re between passengers or are on their way to pick up riders.

The study is relevant in Las Vegas, where officials are working toward building a light rail line from just north of McCarran International Airport up Maryland Parkway and through downtown Las Vegas.

It’s a project community leaders should not only support but expand upon, and not just because of the changes being brought on by ride-hailing and autonomous vehicles.

With visitor volume on pace to hit an incredible 46 million this year, and with the valley’s population growing at one of the fastest rates in the nation, we’ve got to create a relief valve for our already over-congested roads and highways.

The old way of dealing with that problem — widening roads or building new ones — simply isn’t an option in many of our high-traffic areas.

The Strip is Exhibit A in that regard. As shown virtually any weekend evening, Las Vegas Boulevard has hit maximum capacity in the tourist corridor, and there’s no longer any room to add lanes to it.

As the number of tourists continues to grow, relying on Uber drivers or autonomous vehicles to get them to and from McCarran will simply add more cars to the mix.

This is a real problem for Las Vegas, as it threatens to reduce the quality of the visitor experience that is the backbone of our appeal as a destination for travelers and convention goers.

The solution is light rail, which would allow visitors to get to their resorts from the airport without getting in a car. Once there, they could move from property to property quickly, as opposed to inching along in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

The Maryland Parkway line won’t solve the problem on the Strip, but it’s a good start to what will hopefully be a much bigger system. As is, the project would provide a number of benefits to local residents by connecting UNLV, downtown, Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center and the UMC health care complex, as well entertaining, dining and shopping options that include the Boulevard mall.

As proven in other communities that have invested in light rail, it will also spur significant commercial and residential development. Examples include the $8.2 billion in development that occurred along Phoenix’s system in its first seven years of operation, and Denver’s $2 billion in downtown development.

An outdated idea? Developers certainly don’t think so, and if you’ve ever used a good light rail system as a visitor to another city, you probably don’t think so either. Being able to get around without renting a car, paying for parking and crawling along in traffic is liberating.

Meanwhile, as Schaller’s study suggests, local residents benefit from public transportation in the form of less congestion and smoother travel when they’re not taking a bus or riding the rail.

Although other researchers have come to different findings, Schaller’s study should be required reading for local leaders. It’s particularly far-reaching, containing data from 20 of the nation’s largest cities that Schaller divides into two groups based on their share of no-car households and number of public transportation commuters.

Las Vegas wasn’t among those cities, but that’s neither here nor there. Schaller specifically notes that it could have been, but the cities were chosen arbitrarily by design and 20 were enough.

What’s important here is the report’s findings, and what they could mean for Las Vegas. The bottom line: Far from sending light rail into obsolescence, ride-hailing and autonomous vehicles are actually making it a greater modern need for our community.