The California Bucket List: Your daily guide to the best adventures and experiences in the Golden State

Easy driving on the Strip? Don't bet on it

Special to The Times

Friday night in Vegas never looked so bad. I simply wanted to get to the Stratosphere, just four miles from the Mandalay Bay. But after almost an hour sitting in my rental car, I found myself longing for the rush-hour crush of the southbound 405. At least that moves. ¶ Instead, I sat marooned in a sea of red taillights. ¶ Traffic, and how to avoid it, has become an obsession for Vegas regulars and residents -- the Las Vegas Review-Journal runs a popular weekly Road Warrior column -- and for the visiting Angeleno, it's insult upon injury, especially considering how hard it is just to get here. ¶ With seemingly perpetual highway construction between Baker and Barstow, the traditional four-hour car trip from L.A. can now stretch easily to six or more, and if you're thinking of flying, what once was a simple 50-minute flight can now be an hours-long ordeal.

As for the city itself, with several multibillion-dollar building projects underway and overall growth continuing, there's no relief in sight.

The Strip, of course, is where the traffic jams the worst. On any given night, it is wall-to-wall autos, and with mega-watt car stereos booming and half-gassed co-eds leaning through moon roofs of rented limos, challenged by legions of inebriated pedestrians dashing across the boulevard, it almost seems as if getting somewhere is really not the point.

Unless, of course, you're trying to get to a poker tournament on time as I was. So, to make sure I'd never sit in traffic like this again, I met with a couple of locals who really know the city. It was an easy conversation; the subject's seemingly on everyone's mind.

"When Vegas was formed in 1905, the railroad promised to immediately pave the first five blocks on Fremont Street," historian Michael Green said over a lunch (to which I arrived 45 minutes late). "That took 20 years. Since then things have gotten no better."

We sat down at the Bahama Breeze at Flamingo and Paradise roads and were joined by Geoff Schumacher, author of "Sun, Sin and Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas."

"For those of us who live here, it's easy. You do everything humanly possible to avoid the Strip," Schumacher said. "Though there are times, midweek, very early in the morning or very, very late at night, when it's actually possible to take a wonderful, leisurely drive down one of the greatest streets in the world. But those are very brief windows."

Indeed, my most memorable, unobstructed, almost lyrical cruise down Las Vegas Boulevard took place four years ago precisely at 4:40 a.m. on a Thursday.

But what do you do if you've come to Vegas to have some fun during one of the other 23 hours of the day? Here's a quick guide to navigating the Strip:

DRIVINGIf you're in your own car, make sure to do some map-reading before you step on the gas. Do it Frank's way and stay off the Strip -- even to get up and down the Strip.

Frank Sinatra Drive runs behind the casinos, parallel to the Strip and just a long block to the west. It gives you direct back-lot entrance to Mandalay Bay, Luxor and Monte Carlo. Yes, there's also a Dean Martin Way (which is just a fancy new name for what Las Vegans know as Industrial Road) one more block over, and that too is a smart way to move north and south. Just be careful not to get detoured into one of the many lap-dance clubs.

On the eastern side of the Strip, stick to Koval Lane, Paradise Road or Maryland Parkway to move up and down. "When it comes time to cut over to the Strip," Green says, "the farther north you are the better. Try Oakey street or even Sahara."

To the south, the major east-west cutovers are Flamingo and Tropicana, and if you insist on using them, Trop is slightly better, but just barely. If you're in Vegas on business, do what local drivers do and hop on the Desert Inn Road Super Arterial, which dives under the Strip and zips you across town.

And if you have any reason to want to take the local freeways, be forewarned: The thrills of the Interstate 15 and U.S. 95 intersection, lovingly referred to as the spaghetti bowl (and not to be confused with that other headache, the "Henderson Spaghetti Bowl," a.k.a. the "Henderson pretzel") are rivaled only by the 1,000-foot high roller coaster at the Stratosphere. Only this one moves at a snail's pace. Consider packing the audio version of "War and Peace."

RENTAL CARSDon't do it. Last month, it took me 90 minutes from the time I boarded the airport shuttle until I drove out of the rental car lot. Then you have to learn all the navigation tips above. If you must, buy the fuel option because you'll probably burn an entire tank just in the jammed traffic between the Paris and the Sahara.

PARKINGAs Robert De Niro said in "Casino," don't be a "momo" and slum it by using self-parking. Hotel valet service is the best deal in Vegas. It's free except for a tip of a buck or two.

Perhaps the best advice is not to be cheap. Slip the valet $5 or $10 when he takes your keys and tell him to keep the car close by. It's a time-honored trick from employees of the adult escort service trade who don't have 20 minutes to wait for their car to arrive when they have to leave.

TAXISIt can be easier to hail a cab on Van Nuys Boulevard than in Vegas. Even at the airport, it's not uncommon to have to wait an hour in the line. Same story at big hotels. I counted 67 people waiting in the Caesars' taxi line on a Friday afternoon.

Go to a smaller hotel to pick up a cab -- or just skip it altogether. If you're in a small group, the big hotel town cars run about $50 a trip. Otherwise, be prepared to spend about $20 for just about any short taxi ride.

Also, don't complain if your cabbie loops around on the side streets. He's trying to do you a favor. It's $22 an hour just to sit in traffic on the Strip.

MONORAIL AND BUSBetter known as the "moneyrail," the $700-million system is a flop and is soon expected to go into financial default. For $5 a head, it offers a spectacular nighttime view of the Riviera parking lot. It only runs down one back side of the Strip and doesn't even stop at many major casinos.

A much better choice is "The Deuce," the comfortable, air-conditioned, smoked-glass-window double-decker bus that stops at every casino on Las Vegas Boulevard. Only $2 a ride, $5 for a 24-hour pass; kids younger than 6 ride free.

WALKINGOften the fastest way to get from point to point on the Strip. Better at night than in the day, which in summer can require a protective slathering of Crisco. Be different from the pedestrians around you: Don't wear Mardi Gras beads, and please stow the plastic football full of beer.

And if you see me in my car, please don't gloat. Just smile and wave.

Marc Cooper is an LA Weekly columnist and teaches journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication.

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