Driving in Las Vegas

Driving in Las VegasSnow-capped red rock: Nevada Highway 159
the morning after a big storm

People who’ve lived in Las Vegas a long time are always moaning about the traffic. I can’t blame them. When a city goes from dusty Western town with a couple of intersecting highways to a multi-freeway metropolis in forty years, it’s easy to wax nostalgic for the good old days. I’ve lived here only five years, and even that is long enough to remember charming phenomena that have vanished in the supergrowth. There’s a street named “Pyle” on the south side of town, but recent arrivals don’t know that the next major street north of it used to be called “Gomer.” “Gomer” is now Silverado Ranch Boulevard. Ah, the good old days, when you could name dirt roads after old sitcom characters.

Is traffic in Las Vegas really bad? It depends on what you compare it to. If you’re remembering when the first “Ocean’s Eleven” was being filmed on the Strip, it’s terrible. If you’ve just arrived from Boston, you might think you’ve landed in paradise. Whenever I come back from a trip to Los Angeles, Las Vegas seems pretty tame. Even so, there are aspects of driving here that always strike me as being peculiar to Sin City. Here are my top ten:

1. It’s amazingly easy to get out of town, and the scenic highways around Las Vegas are breathtakingly beautiful and uncrowded. Lots of new car commercials are filmed in the natural areas around Las Vegas, and it’s easy to see why.

2. Pedestrians have no rights. The major thoroughfares are vast swaths of asphalt, and crossing them on foot is like swimming across a river full of turbo-charged crocodiles. If you’re walking, you can assume that all cars, most of which are oversized SUVs, are out to get you.

3. Parking, even on the Strip and in downtown, is generally plentiful and free. This can change when a large show (like the CES show currently here) puts extra pressure on parking lots in certain areas, and hotels sometimes charge people who aren’t renting rooms.

4. Valet parking is available at many places on and off the Strip (even malls and hospitals) for the price of a tip — usually a couple of bucks. (If the “Valet Full” sign is out, a twenty will often get you parked anyway. It’s a scam, but if you’re late for a show, it’s useful to remember how well money speaks in this town.)

5. “Rush hours” are completely unpredictable and can occur for reasons like a boxing match at Mandalay Bay or an air show at Nellis Air Force Base. The only heightened traffic flow that seems to follow patterns like other cities is the daily migration from Summerlin (in the northwest) to the center of town.

6. Rain is serious. Even a little rain can make cars slide around in scary ways, and a big storm invariably brings big accidents. Intersections flood, and even though freeways have better drainage, they still can’t always handle the quantities of water a sudden cloudburst can drop.

7. Car insurance is expensive. Rates are among the highest in the country, right up there with places like New York City.

8. Lots of drivers, especially those near the airport and the Strip, don’t know where they’re going, and they’re driving unfamiliar cars. Mix that with the reason people come here — to drink and play games of chance — and you’ve got a mandate to drive defensively. This also helps explain the high insurance rates and the outrageous number of fender-bender accidents.

9. Taxi drivers are great! They know the city, speak English, and the cabs are in good shape. They’ll cut you off as gleefully as they do in other cities, but generally speaking, they’re a cut above.

10. Driving on the Strip can be frustrating unless you get into a car- and people-watching frame of mind. If a cool vehicle exists, you will see it. From Lamborghinis to Humvee limos, tricked-out low riders to Rolls Royces, they’re all here. (For some reason, traffic on the northbound side of the road is always slower than on the southbound side. I can’t figure out why, but if you want to cruise the Strip more quickly, start at the north end.)

Like everything else in Las Vegas, driving can be an adventure, and there’s no denying that you’ll sometimes be stuck in a jam, most often caused by a construction project like the interminable one in Henderson that will eventually result in a new freeway. For this reason, I always carry books-on-CD in my car — someday I will have Las Vegas traffic to thank for finally finishing Moby Dick.

Links & Resources
Street Maps, Highway Construction, Traffic Information, and Web cams
Nevada Road Conditions
Current Traffic Conditions Reported by Metro (Police)
Complete List of Web Cams, Casino Construction, and Traffic Condition Reports
Red Rock Web Cam
Las Vegas Motor Speedway