Christopher DeVargas / Sun file photo
Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023 | 2 a.m.
It’s common for visitors to stop and snap pictures on pedestrian bridges that rise above Las Vegas Boulevard with the lights of the Strip in the background.
Those same bridges are also frequented, among others, by street performers, who set up shop playing instruments and collect tips, illegal vendors, scammers operating confidence games and panhandlers seeking donations.
These conditions — which interrupt pedestrian traffic on the bridges — can create public safety concerns, said William Sousa, a professor in UNLV’s department of criminal justice who has studied at length public safety issues in Las Vegas.
“The main safety concern on the bridges stems from people who stop or congregate,” Sousa said in a report to the Clark County Commission. “Whereas the purpose of the overpasses is to safely deliver people from one side of Las Vegas Boulevard to the other, the most reasonable solution to minimize problems related to crowd density, disorder, and criminal activity is to keep pedestrians moving along the bridges.”
It’s one of the reasons why Clark County is trying to pass an ordinance that would make it illegal to stop, stand or otherwise impede traffic on the Strip’s pedestrian bridges. The commission will consider the ordinance at its meeting today.
The proposal would create “pedestrian flow zones” on the overpasses throughout the Resort Corridor and up to 20 feet surrounding connecting stairs or escalators that would make stopping, standing or doing anything to cause another person to stop or stand in the zone, according to the text of the proposed ordinance.
Violators could face misdemeanor charges punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, a sentence of up to six months in jail, or both.
Sousa, who analyzed data about problems on the pedestrian bridges from Metro Police’s Research and Analysis Unit, found that calls for law enforcement services to Metro on Las Vegas Boulevard increased 29% from 37,589 in 2018 to 48,358 in 2022. And while pedestrian bridges account for less than 6% of the total length of the sidewalk system in the Resort Corridor, about 11% of what he termed “disorder” calls occurred on the walkways. Sousa concluded that “calls for disorderly offenses on Las Vegas Boulevard are disproportionately concentrated on pedestrian bridges.”
Calls related to homeless individuals on the Strip also increased at what Sousa believes to be an “alarming rate.” Where there were 346 such calls in 2018, Metro received over 7,000 in 2022, according to the data. And about 15% of the calls related to homeless disturbances occurred on the pedestrian bridges in 2022, jumping from 56 calls in 2018 to 1,031 calls last year.
Sousa said homeless individuals were “disproportionately impacted by struggles with physical health, mental health, and substance abuse problems — and they are at heightened risk of victimization by serious crime.”
County staff recommended passage of the ordinance, which they said not only could prevent crimes from occurring, but also could reduce the risk of “high-profile attacks” or crowd crush — when people become so packed into one area that they suffer injuries or even die.
This isn’t the first time commissioners have tried to address what they believe are safety issues on the pedestrian bridges.
Last year, the county approved an ordinance that reclassified pedestrian bridges as sidewalks, prohibiting “obstructive uses on the pedestrian overpasses.”
Metro Capt. Joshua Bitsko said during a meeting in May 2022 that the pedestrian bridges “have become a very dangerous part of Las Vegas” due to a “stagnation of movement” that allows for crimes to occur.
Some of the crimes he said occurred on the bridges include felonies such as murders, battery with substantial bodily harm, narcotics sales and sex crimes, among others.
Bitsko also argued that having any impediments on the bridges may make it harder for people to move during emergency situations — which already present a challenge because of the limited exits on or off the bridges.
“(The bridges) are made for walking, not for stopping and blocking,” Bitsko said. “The stagnation of movement on the bridges (is) resulting in a significant threat to and the degradation of the safety of our pedestrians.”
During a public hearing before a vote, the proposed ordinance is expected to come under fierce opposition, especially from street performers. They say the proposed ordinance would severely affect their ability to make money. The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada is calling the proposal “unconstitutional” and “ambiguous.”
Additionally, the county has noted the pedestrian flow areas could “have some incidental impact on the manner of First Amendment activity,” but claims there’s “ample means of communication” on other Strip sidewalks.