Our roads were built for cars, but a new law could start to make them safer for cyclists

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

The 81st Legislative session came to a close Monday night (updates later on in the newsletter). But first: A special shoutout to my colleagues Michelle Rindels, Riley Snyder and Tabitha Mueller who led our legislative coverage with major help from our interns Jannelle Calderón and Sean Golonka. I was in awe of the excellent work they did covering this unusual (half-virtual) but consequential session that ended with a (surprising or maybe not) mining tax. 

As always, we want to hear from readers. Let us know what you’re seeing on the ground and how policies are affecting you. Email me with any tips or suggestions at daniel@thenvindy.com

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Throughout the last year, as COVID-19 restrictions limited transportation and exercise options,  more and more people turned to bikes. At this point, the trend has been well-documented in reports of bicycle shortages and in data released by exercise apps that track user fitness.

The trend is welcome news for cycling advocates and transportation planners who have long pushed to make neighborhoods more conducive for getting around using multiple modes of transportation. But it also underscored the need to make roads safer for all who rely on them.

The Nevada Office of Traffic Safety reported 10 cyclist fatalities and 83 pedestrian fatalities in 2020, with the large majority of them occurring in Clark County. That marked an increase from 2019, when there were seven cyclist fatalities and 70 pedestrian fatalities, according to the office.

Last year, on U.S. Highway 95 outside Las Vegas, a box truck killed five cyclists riding with a safety vehicle. It was a tragic incident, and the news rippled across the community — in Las Vegas and elsewhere. As John Glionna wrote in The New York Times this year, it galvanized activists to push for policies aimed at better protecting cyclists and pedestrians on the road. 

The Legislature meets for 120 days every other year. There are systemic issues that lawmakers must grapple with. The budget. Tax policy. Funding for education and health care. All of those things often grab the big headlines, for good reason. But lawmakers in Carson City also pass a flurry of subject-specific bills, often small tweaks that can make a hugely meaningful difference.

SB285 is one of those bills. The legislation, awaiting Gov. Steve Sisolak’s signature, aims to address bicycle and pedestrian safety by making a number of small (but significant) changes to statute. It’s not a panacea, but activists see it as a step in the right direction.

“The goal is to be as inclusive as possible,” said Senator Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas), the bill’s sponsor. “The road has to be shared by multiple modes of transportation, and we want to make sure everybody has the ability to get around the way that they so choose.”

Notably, the bill addresses an underlying issue: Driver’s ed. The fact is many people don’t know the rules of the roads for cyclists and pedestrians. SB285 requires driver’s education courses to incorporate rules for other types of transportation, including electric bikes and electric scooters. 

Clark County Commissioner Justin Jones, who worked on the bill, said Tuesday that “education is the most important piece of making sure that our cyclists and pedestrians are safe.” 

But education is only one element of the bill. The legislation also aims to address driving rules and infrastructure. Following what other states have done, the legislation allows drivers to pass bikes in a no-passing zone, if it is safe to do so. The legislation also spells out when it’s not safe for bikers to ride on the rightmost part of the lane — and can accordingly use the full lane.

Clark County, Jones noted, adopted a similar ordinance around managing traffic a few months ago. But, Jones said, “it’s an important step forward to have some baseline across the state.”

Finally, the legislation looks at how transportation is planned and constructed. It adds language around the implementation of “complete streets” programs, which aim to operate roads for all users and incorporate different types of transportation. SB285 states that projects undertaken through such programs must, when possible, “integrate bicycle lands and bicycle routes, facilities and signs into all plans, designs, construction and maintenance of roads.” In addition, the legislation requires designs to consider people of “all ages and abilities.”

“We understand that more people of more varied ages and abilities will start — or continue — to walk and bike when safer streets are provided through programs like complete streets,” Anne Macquarie, representing the Sierra Club Toiyabe Chapter, wrote in written testimony last month.

Several other pieces of legislation passed during the session could also make streets safer and more accommodating for different types of transportation. AB54, approved by Sisolak, would create an Advisory Committee on Traffic Safety within the Department of Transportation. AB343 would require large counties (Clark and Washoe) to submit plans to conduct “walking audits” of urban areas with an eye toward public health. And AB362 would allow Clark County’s regional transportation commission to provide microtransit as part of its slate of transportation options. 

Legislative reporter Michelle Rindels contributed to this report.

Here’s what else I’m watching this week:


WATER AND LAND

Lake Mead’s changing shores: Arizona Republic reporter Ian James wrote an excellent piece about the on-the-ground impacts of water-level declines. “At the bustling marinas in Lake Mead National Recreation Area, the shifting shorelines require costly and elaborate work: pulling the marinas out with cables and winches, extending power lines and fuel lines, using divers to unhook giant concrete anchors and dispatching barges to lower new anchors into the water.” 

  • An inside look at the Hoover Dam holding back less and less water (Arizona Republic)
  • “Climate science indicates that there will likely be less water in the Colorado River than many had hoped. This is inconvenient for 21st-century decision-makers, and overcoming their resistance may be the hardest challenge of all.” In a new editorial, John Fleck, the director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program, and Brad Udall, a climate researcher at Colorado State University, stress the need to allow science to guide Colorado River planning and incorporate “worst-case” climate scenarios.
  • Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager John Entsminger testifies on the “real and urgent” drought conditions facing the Colorado River. (Nevada Current)

Picking a new Southern California water chief: The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California considered former water authority General Manager Pat Mulroy to lead the agency. Los Angeles Times reporter Sammy Roth has more on the contested vote and what it means. 

Legislation to require wildlife plans with development: The Legislature passed AB211, sponsored by Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui (D-Las Vegas), aimed at protecting wildlife. The bill requires developers to submit plans about how they intend to offset new development on species habitat. Brian Bahouth, with the Sierra Nevada Ally, has more on the legislation. 

Douglas County commissioners declare drought conditions, via Carson Now.

  • PBS Newshour’s William Brangham and Courtney Norris on the western drought. From the report: “2021 is shaping up to potentially be the driest of all of the drought years in the last century, and definitely one of the driest of the last millennium.”

“We’ve recovered mastodons:” Capital Public Radio’s Rich Ibarra writes about the discovery of an exhaustive fossil deposit. It’s located in California at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.


MINING AND ENERGY

A mining tax compromise: In the final days of the legislative session, a deal emerged on a mining tax that avoided advancing one of three proposed constitutional amendments, which would have gone before voters. My colleagues Riley Snyder and Michelle Rindels reported on the deal, how it advanced and why several Republicans came to vote for the new mining tax. We’ll have more reporting on the tax, what it means and who it affects in the coming weeks.

Energy policy advances out of the Legislature: A major bill SB448, focused on transmission and electric vehicle infrastructure, passed and is on Sisolak’s desk. Riley Snyder wrote more about the bill, and we’ll have a follow-up coming out on that soon. On Monday, the Senate also approved AB383, which sought to address energy efficiency standards in appliances.

Groups file injunction to stop lithium mine: Conservation groups want a federal court judge to issue an injunction that would prevent any construction of the Thacker Pass mine after they said negotiations with land managers and a company fell apart. (Great Basin Resource Watch)

CLIMATE CHANGE

How auto dealers are viewing the state’s efforts to increase emission standards, via the Nevada Current’s Jeniffer Solis. The state held a session on its clean car initiative last week. 

The Truckee Meadows Community College was featured in an Inside Higher Ed piece a few weeks ago looking at how campuses are preparing for the effects of climate change.