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October 25, 2014

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Transit solutions could be copied here

Next-level bike lanes, bus shoulders have reduced congestion elsewhere

The Las Vegas Valley could learn from communities that are taking creative approaches to traffic management — efforts that began long before $4-a-gallon gas started pushing cities in that direction.

In Minneapolis buses can legally cruise along highway shoulders to bypass traffic. Several other cities have “intelligent” signal systems that reduce delays by adjusting to the flow of traffic. And elsewhere cities separate bicycles from auto traffic to promote two-wheeled commuting, or charge motorists stiff fees to enter central urban districts as a way of relieving congestion and raising money for transportation improvements.

Not all of those ideas, however, would necessarily be practical here. Even so, local transportation experts are monitoring these and other innovative ideas as communities struggle to keep traffic flowing and to cut their soaring costs:

Highway shoulders: Metro Transit in Minneapolis runs 280 miles of bus-only highway and expressway shoulders to keep mass transit vehicles on schedule, even when traffic would appear to make that difficult.

At a cost of $15,000 to $100,000 per mile — far less expensive than many other mass transit solutions — Minneapolis upgraded the shoulders so buses could travel there when traffic in the main lanes is moving at less than 35 mph. If traffic is at a standstill, buses are permitted to travel at up to 15 mph, the lower speed being a safety measure.

Since the shoulders’ use began in 1992, accidents involving buses have resulted in only one injury crash — a fatality that was not the bus driver’s fault — according to a University of Minnesota analysis last year. Another study found that ridership along those routes climbed more than 9 percent even as other routes’ popularity declined.

Regional Transportation Commission spokeswoman Tracy Bower said transit officials in Las Vegas have discussed bus-only shoulders for the valley but have no immediate plans to create them.

High-occupancy vehicle lanes, a similar concept, already exist on U.S. 95 northwest of the Spaghetti Bowl. But no such lanes exist southeast of the Spaghetti Bowl and it is not known whether buses will run on planned express lanes along Interstate 15, which today does not have adequate shoulders to accommodate buses.

“Certainly we are looking for any way to make our transit system comfortable for riders, so any right of way we think is available is something we would be interested in looking at,” Bower said.

Separated bicycle lanes: The concept began in Copenhagen, Denmark, and now is popular in Melbourne, Australia. Unlike traditional bicycle paths that run alongside auto traffic, as in parts of Las Vegas, Copenhagen built a network of lanes between parked cars and the sidewalks.

The bike paths are wide enough so that cyclists can easily avoid crashing into opened car doors. Some paths are separated from parked cars by safety islands.

It helps that an estimated one-third of Copenhagen’s residents pedal to their jobs — and that Copenhagen owns a fleet of bicycles available for public use in exchange for refundable deposits.

Similarly, Melbourne touts separated bike lanes as a safer way for cyclists to travel as well as a way to relieve traffic congestion and reduce pollution.

“It sounds pretty cool,” Las Vegas Cyclery owner Jared Fisher said. “If it makes it safer for bikes, it would increase ridership because people would feel more comfortable riding ... I’m for anything that improves safety and gets people out of their cars.”

Others, however, question whether bicycle ridership will ever become more than a minuscule portion of Las Vegas’ daily traffic, because of the region’s forbiddingly hot weather and its longer commuting distances.

Congestion charging zone: That’s how London’s transit agency refers to the central area of the city, home to Parliament, Piccadilly Circus and other world-famous attractions.

Since 2003, when London began charging drivers of private vehicles to enter that zone from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, traffic has declined 21 percent and bicycling has increased 43 percent.

The system relies on cameras that record the license plates of all entering vehicles. The rates are roughly $16 for fees paid the day of travel, $20 the day following the trip and a stiff $240 penalty for nonpayment, with the money being used for transit improvements. Payment may be made online, by phone, through the mail or at self-service machines.

For London government leaders, the congestion fee was a controversial move that used a painful economic stick to force many drivers out from behind their wheels and onto mass transit or to seek other alternatives.

Not surprisingly, no American cities have rushed to embrace the concept for their central business districts — and not simply because of a lack of political will to force the unpleasant medicine on commuters. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg last year pushed a congestion fee modeled on London’s for Manhattan, but the New York Legislature blocked the plan.

Although no one would dispute that the crowded Las Vegas Strip could benefit from any congestion-relieving ideas, Las Vegas transportation consultant Tom Skancke said the nature of the Strip would make it a poor candidate for a congestion fee.

“I don’t know how you would sell that to the public,” Skancke said. “I don’t know how you congestion price the Strip when you look at the investment in free parking that we have.”

As an alternative, Skancke advocates managed highway lanes in which motorists have the option to beat traffic by paying a variable rate — higher during rush hours — to use the designated lanes.

The Nevada Transportation Board has recommended that the Legislature next year approve toll lanes for parts of I-15 and U.S. 95. Legislators, though, have rejected similar concepts in the past.

Adaptive traffic controls: Several cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix and Seattle, use computerized programs to coordinate stoplights based on the most recent vehicular flow.

Studies have shown that such systems reduce travel times by 13 percent to 25 percent thanks to fewer or shorter stops at red lights.

The systems work with the help of sensors that detect traffic flow, with the information transmitted to a central location so that up-to-the-minute changes in traffic signals can be made if warranted.

The RTC has plans for a pilot program of the system on Boulder Highway from Tropicana Avenue to the U.S. 95 overpass. The commission is expected at its Thursday meeting to ratify a $470,000 contract with supplier TransCore of Hummelstown, Pa., and hopes to determine by fall whether that trial justifies using the system elsewhere in the valley.

The valley’s current traffic signals run on fixed cycles that change depending on the time of day. Typically, the interval between yellow lights on major arterials is up to two minutes and 20 seconds. But with the new system, motorists on side streets wishing to enter a main roadway may see a green light sooner.

“Adaptive timing is not a panacea for all traffic controls, so we may keep some on fixed cycles, like downtown Las Vegas, where you have a grid network,” said Glenn Grayson, the commission’s traffic control director.

“But it has applicability, if it’s successful on Boulder Highway, in over half and maybe 75 percent of the signals in the valley.”

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