Last weekend I ran a Twitter poll asking people if Las Vegas is a good city. The results were more or less what you’d expect from urbanist Twitter, with people saying Las Vegas is bad by a 3:1 margin.
Well, I’m here to tell you that Las Vegas is, in fact, good.
Las Vegas, as a very young American city (population was under 50,000 after World War 2), has a physical form that doesn’t appeal to most urbanists or to many people in planning. Like many newer cities, it actually has fewer freeways than older cities of similar size. Las Vegas essentially has 4 freeways, the 15, the 95/515, the 215, and Summerlin Parkway; compare that to similar size metros like Kansas City, Cincinnati, Cleveland, or Pittsburgh.
What Las Vegas lacks in freeways, it more than makes up for in medium density auto-oriented suburban development served by very wide arterial roadways. This makes it easy to see the physical form of Las Vegas as a symptom of urban dysfunction, but this is a mistake. Like Los Angeles before it, Las Vegas is a successful city that creates opportunity for many different people, misunderstood because it does not look like older cities.
To start, I think we need to remember what a city is and what it does. A city is a place that attracts many different people of diverse backgrounds because of the economic opportunity created by having lots of people in close proximity. A larger population allows for increased economic specialization, higher incomes and standard of living, and greater freedom to pursue one’s dreams. It also allows for larger communities of immigrants and marginalized groups to form, creating the support networks needed for those groups to thrive and build the social power necessary to combat discrimination.
This has very little to do with urban form, transportation, or walkability. East of the 100th Meridian, America has lots of places that are pretty walkable with pleasant mixed-use cores. I like to call them… towns. It’s perfectly possible to have a city that is dense and walkable, but failing at being a city because of economic stagnation or decline, and it’s also possible to have small cities and towns that are walkable but not growing very much. This is largely a separate question.
As a simple example of how successful Las Vegas is in allowing economic specialization, consider that Carrot Top has headlined a show at the Luxor since 2005. I submit to you that there is no other city in America, perhaps the world, where this could happen. While Carrot Top is perhaps the silliest example, Las Vegas has created tens of thousands of jobs for artists and entertainers – as of February 2018, almost 22,000 jobs, up 40% from the post-recession low and doubled since 1990. The percentage of jobs in arts and entertainment in Las Vegas is 2.22%, comparable to Los Angeles (2.40%) and about twice that of Houston (1.12%).
So, Las Vegas has created opportunity for thousands of people in that industry, enabling them to settle down in one place, rather than have to travel from city to city to perform. In addition, the hospitality industry accounts for almost 30% of jobs in Las Vegas – almost 300,000. So Las Vegas has created a ton of working class employment as well.
Finally, Las Vegas has remained much more affordable than California, especially coastal Metros. The cheapest new homes in the distant reaches of the Inland Empire like Victorville and San Jacinto are about $250,000, over 60 miles from the city center. In LA/OC excluding the Antelope Valley you’d be lucky to find anything new for under $500,000. Meanwhile in Las Vegas you can get new construction much closer to the city center, about 10-12 miles out, for $200,000.
Given all of that, it’s no surprise that Las Vegas is a major destination for domestic migration out of southern California. Let’s look at some domestic migration data for SoCal to Las Vegas, and also to Phoenix, another major destination for domestic migration. Here’s net migration to Clark County (Las Vegas) and Maricopa County (Phoenix). All data is based on the 2011-2015 ACS.
Los Angeles County provides a disproportionately large amount of SoCal’s net migration to Las Vegas, perhaps due to the synergy between the entertainment industry in the two counties. On the other hand, Orange County is a disproportionate amount of SoCal’s net migration to Phoenix.
Let’s dig a little further into the migration data by age and by race, which I think helps make the case that Las Vegas is good.
Here’s four graphs, showing migration by age for each of the four SoCal counties (sorry, San Diego, get your own blogger) to Clark County.
Los Angeles County loses population to Clark County for every age group except 18-19, probably representing college students. The biggest age cohorts that move from LA to Las Vegas are 5-17 year olds, 25-29 year olds, 45-49 year olds, and 20-24 year olds. This overwhelmingly represents young people and families that cannot afford to live in Southern California, and are finding opportunity in Las Vegas instead. For Orange County, it’s people in their 20s and their 50s moving to Las Vegas. For the Inland Empire, migration is much more balanced due to the lower cost of housing in the IE, with Riverside County actually gaining children and more or less breaking even overall. San Bernardino County loses children and young people at almost the same rate as LA County, but gains people in their 30s.
For comparison, here are the same graphs for Maricopa County.
Again, LA loses many children, 20-somethings, and 30-somethings to Phoenix, while gaining a few college students. Like with Clark County, the IE sees more balanced migration but still overall loses population to Phoenix.
While trends may seem broadly similar based on age, Clark County appears to be doing a better job of creating opportunity for a more diverse group of people. Here’s migration by race from LA County to Clark County and Maricopa County.
Net white migration and net black migration from LA County to Clark County was practically the same, just over 2,000 each, despite whites being 52.4% of LA County’s population and blacks being only 8.6%, with each group making up roughly 30% of LA County’s net migration to Clark County. Asians, who are 13.8% of LA County, account for 20%, with other or 2+ race people making up the remaining 20%.
Meanwhile, whites made up almost 75% of LA County’s net migration to Maricopa County, with blacks being 18% and Asians 12%. Maricopa County actually lost other race and 2+ race people to Los Angeles County.
I’ll leave the reader to speculate why Phoenix attracts less diverse migration than Las Vegas, but it certainly appears, abstractly anyway, that Las Vegas is doing better at creating opportunity for more people. Note: I certainly do not intend any of this to gloss over or ignore the fact that African-Americans in LA County have paid the worst price for the loss of working class jobs and rising rents in low-income communities. The intent here is to compare places that people are moving to.
Here are the same graphs for the other three SoCal counties.
Las Vegas is, without question, very auto-oriented. Its one attempt at fixed guideway transit, the monorail, did not exactly deliver inspiring results. Its pedestrian infrastructure is savagely minimal off the Strip, while the Strip itself is a mix of throngs of pedestrians violating punishingly long light cycles and traffic engineering dystopia where all pedestrians are forced to cross on bridges. Its downtown revitalization project is single-handedly run by a tech mogul with some unusual business practices. No one is looking to Las Vegas for urban design ideas.
And yet, Las Vegas is pretty clearly succeeding as a city. California cities would do well to start measuring their success by how many people they create opportunity for, rather than how high they can drive housing prices.