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Land of the four-minute stoplight

Nov 5, 2017 By Randy Tucker, Staff Writer

q That's Las Vegas, and those long reds are there for a reason.

The average American will spend 142 days of life waiting for a red light to turn green. It is no exaggeration. The number is reflective of the urban lifestyle most Americans now embrace.

If the average person drives 60 years that person will spend 10 minutes a day at stoplights. While readers in Dubois, Pavillion, Shoshoni and Hudson don't ever experience this annoying aspect of modern life those of us in Riverton, Lander and even Ethete (one stop light!) do, on a much smaller scale.

The last couple of years we've spent a lot of time driving in Denver, Pittsburgh, Dallas, Houston and throughout the urban corridor of the east coast. Yes, a lot of time is wasted at intersections.

A recent trip to Las Vegas opened an entirely new view on the interminable waiting that accompanies the dazzling urban scene. The average light on or near the Vegas strip is four minutes long.

We spent a long weekend catching three musical groups, lounging at the pool, and generally being tourists in Sin City. We walked almost 22 miles (according to my pedometer) in three days but some of the venues were just too far apart to hoof it, and the Vegas monorail system doesn't go everywhere. There are many hotels, casinos, restaurants and tourist venues between Mandalay Bay and the Stratosphere.

On the right coast, Pittsburgh has a large Google presence. An entire downtown high rise building is dedicated to the digital giant. The roof of the building is covered with a variety of antennas, dishes and broadcast equipment. Part of all those electronics is dedicated to computer-controlled Uber vehicles.

The technology is still in its infancy and at present requires a human driver on board as a backup, but it is working on the winding streets of the Steel City and its many suburbs.

Not so in Las Vegas, where an estimated 10,000 taxis and 25,000 Uber and Lyft vehicles serve the millions of visitors arriving each year.

Our three shows were, in order, Donny and Marie (in deference to my wife Sue, a longtime fan), Diana Ross and the Temptations. We were able to walk to the Flamingo for Donny and Marie, but the other performances were at the Wynn and the Orleans, far from our hotel.

We could have walked to Diana Ross but Las Vegas is intricately attuned to milking every last dime from visitors. Shows all begin at 7:30 or 8 p.m., but restaurants open at 5:30 p.m. Not a problem if you're dining at the same site as the show, but that's where the rub comes in.

If you have a particular restaurant you want to eat at the timing is perfect for dinner, a walk or short ride and on to the show, but here's the caveat: They close the ticket office an hour before the show and you forfeit your seats if you haven't made it there yet.

Airlines allow you to use a home-printed ticket or just a PDF on your cell phone, but not a Vegas hotel. That means you eat at their venue, hire a cab to get there, or lose your seats. It's ingenious in a city designed to quietly remove all the cash from your pocket or to surreptitiously drain your debit card.

Enter Uber, and its primary competitor, Lyft. The people running these cottage industry ride services are ubiquitous in the bright spot on the southern Nevada desert.

We contracted three Uber rides Saturday and Sunday and took the opportunity to question the drivers on their backgrounds, businesses and profits. The three men could not have been more different.

Karl was 74 years old, a retired Navy chief with experience as a military contractor. Allan was a Vietnamese refugee who came to America after the fall of Saigon, and Joe was a 69-year old former Mississippi cotton farmer who found his way to Vegas via San Diego after departing the deep South.

Karl worked from 6 a.m. to noon and had a record profit of $2000 just the week before we arrived. Allan had two cell phones attached to the dashboard of his Toyota Rav4 - one for Uber, one for Lyft. He worked eight hours a day for a cab company then another four to six after hours for himself.

Joe was another early morning specialist who made most of his runs for local people in the suburbs or to one of the two terminals at McCarran Airport.

They all had a disdain for working the strip, and each expressed the hostility that casino doormen and skycaps directed toward them. Taxis get the main entrance. Uber gets the parking garage as a pick-up point.

Joe explained the long traffic lights.In the glory days of early Las Vegas when Sinatra, Elvis, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. dominated the night life, the city council, with heavy lobbying from local cab companies, lengthened traffic lights to four minutes. A cab ride isn't measured in distance, it's measured in time. Those long lights put coins in the pockets of every cab company owner.

It remains that way today.Cabs charge by the minute, Uber and Lyft by the ride.Cabs love the strip and the constant delays at every intersection. Not so with the independents. The delays are costly, because they limit the number of runs the drivers can make in a day.

Legislation, local ordinance and public works policy combining to serve their most important client, themselves. It is a uniquely American process of government at work for the people they represent.

So don't complain the next time you're stuck at an intersection. Maybe somebody's getting a new yacht on your time.

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Editor's note: Staff writer Randy Tucker is a retired public school educator.

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