What some time without the luxury of a car taught me about Las Vegas' public transportation
According to Google Maps, my morning commute is six minutes by car, 57 minutes by foot, and 39 minutes by bus. I only discovered this after I gave in to summer 2023’s hottest trend: having my catalytic converter stolen.
As a Las Vegas resident and fourth-generation Ukrainian American, this I know: 1. Pierogi Village in Summerlin makes the best pierogi in town. 2. My skin will burn after two minutes in the July sun. I would not be taking the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) bus to work as summer 2023 rocked on and Earth entered its cozily named boiling era. I would be entering my carpool era, which lasted the several days my 2008 Honda Element was in the shop.
My Honda may have been outfitted with a new catalytic converter, but the car is also old enough to get a learner’s permit of its own, and it complains like a teenager. Loudly. So, I took it to the dealership earlier this fall to quiet it down. The diagnosis was grim. My serpentine belt was worn out, brake pads were threadbare, and oil was leaking from the spaghetti of pipes under the hood. The cost of repairs: $1,266.
I asked the auto technician what I needed to replace so that I didn’t die driving my car off the lot. Per his suggestion, I replaced my brake pads for a couple hundred and rang and screeched my way home, where I dug out my car title, filled out an online estimate form for selling my vehicle, and have been haunted by thrice-daily calls from Findlay Honda ever since.
Having been spoiled by a six-minute driving commute, a 39-minute bus commute seems like a punishment. But that punishment is easier to swallow than $1,266 (or, using my preferred metric for conceptualizing cost, one and a half round-trip tickets to Greece), so I started commuting by RTC bus — something thousands of Las Vegans do daily, with RTC’s average number of weekday unlinked trips sitting at 100,087 in 2021 — the last week of September.
I learned quickly that the 39 minutes was give-or-take. My PR is 29 minutes, and my longest morning commute, and the only time I’ve arrived late (by six minutes) took 38. My evening commute is a bit longer, averaging the Google-projected 39 minutes.
I’ve also learned that many stars must align for a bus commute to work for me. Firstly, I have the weather on my side. Neither bus stop I use has any form of shade, and most of my time commuting is spent walking (an average of six minutes to the first stop and 12 minutes from the second stop to my office). I’ve come to cherish these walks, which are, some days, the only sunlight and exercise time I get — whether that says more about me or American work culture, I’m still sussing out.
Beyond the decent fall temperatures, I also have daylight on my side. When speaking with Rick, a valet driver who also commutes by bus, he mentions that his main issue with the buses is safety.
“Working late hours, the bus definitely feels different at 11 p.m. than it does earlier in the day,” Rick says. While Rick confirms that he has never been personally victimized on an RTC bus, he does say you “have to be more alert” the later you ride the bus.
Local news outlets extensively covered the February murder on an RTC bus of Dominique Lucas by Aaron Cole, who was on parole on a charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon that had been reduced from a second-degree murder charge. RTC Deputy CEO Angela Castro, in the wake of the tragic violence, pointed out that despite a 21-percent increase in ridership, reported incidents had decreased 12 percent from January to August 2023.
Earlier this year, RTC wrapped the $7.9 million project of upgrading security cameras in each bus, and Lucas’s murder was captured by several interior and exterior security cameras from Luminator Technology Group. As of this writing, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department reports there have been 97 homicide offenses in the metro area since the beginning of the year. Lucas’s murder is one of a handful of these to be filmed from multiple angles and uploaded to the cloud, which speaks more to the ghoulish spectacle curated by security theater than to public transit safety in general.
In a car-dependent city whose roads are dotted with personal injury law billboards, violent death seems to lurk in the back seat of every commute. In my experience — albeit as a man, albeit as a man whose workout routine is sometimes just a walk to and from the bus — I feel safer on the bus than I do driving a car on its last leg down a street with Vegas drivers.
Ray Delahanty is an erstwhile Las Vegan who spent a year living in the Valley without a car. Delahanty worked as an urban planner for decades before pivoting to become a full-time YouTuber; he runs the channel CityNerd where he uploads “weekly content on cities and transportation.”
When Delahanty moved from Portland, Oregon, to Henderson in January 2022, he knew he wouldn’t be bringing a car, “partly as a values decision, but also partly for the affordability. I didn’t want to have a car payment,” he explains.
While Henderson’s extensive bike trails are what attracted him to that area of the valley, he did find himself using RTC buses several times a week. “Overall, I actually think the RTC bus system is pretty good compared to U.S. city bus systems,” Delahanty says.
“Actually” is a word I find myself repeating when I tell my friends I’m commuting by bus and only using my car when I absolutely need to. The buses are fine, actually. The buses are mostly on time, actually. It’s nice to be a passenger, to let someone else dodge traffic cones on Charleston, and to stretch my legs, actually. Actually, falling into the rhythm of public transit, the doors opening to the same dozen or so people every morning, noticing for the first time the gold lantana that lines the street where my 1996-built office park sits, feels European, dare I say romantic? Am I actually the Amélie of Las Vegas?
Come hotter months, will I still be romanticizing the RTC commute? CityNerd weighs in: “For Sunbelt cities, there’s so much that needs to be improved. The amount (of work) that would need to happen to turn Las Vegas into Amsterdam or Copenhagen is probably trillions of dollars of infrastructure investment and that’s pure design and construction not even touching the political piece of it, which is that, probably, a majority of people in the Las Vegas area wouldn’t want things to be different than the way they are … I suspect a lot of people are fine with the way things are … Driving an air-conditioned car to an air conditioned destination is probably as good as you can do in Vegas.”
Before Vegas boils over again, maybe I will have the spare $1,266 for car maintenance, or, maybe we’ll be, as I’m leaning towards, a one-car household by then. Until then, though, the bus is pretty nice, actually.