Better bike paths as one solution to heat and climate change-induced traffic congestion around Lake Tahoe

The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency approves the 2024 Active Transportation Plan as warming temperatures and congestion continue to impact the region

Better bike paths as one solution to heat and climate change-induced traffic congestion around Lake Tahoe

The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency approves the 2024 Active Transportation Plan as warming temperatures and congestion continue to impact the region

This story was developed by the University of Nevada, Reno's Bicycle Working Group in partnership with the University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe.

Lake Tahoe, known for its crystal-clear waters, stunning vistas and granite sand beaches, is a global travel destination with a local travel problem. Each year, visitors spend around 15 million collective days recreating in the Lake Tahoe Basin and nearly 56,000 residents regularly travel Lake Tahoe’s roads to and from work and play. Increasing car traffic around the lake impacts everything from air and water quality to wildlife habitats as well as increases in traffic congestion, road safety and travel times for all road users.

To combat the growing pressure from car traffic in the region, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) released a 2024 Active Transportation Plan outlining a complete multimodal trail system that, if implemented, would provide residents and visitors alike with alternative options for moving around Lake Tahoe by bicycle, foot or scooter. The plan was released in March 2024 and was approved unanimously by the governing body on April 24, 2024.

“This approval qualifies the projects within the plan for local, state and federal funding,” Ryan Murray, transportation planner for TRPA, said. “The plan also becomes a guiding policy document. It helps our local implementers understand the goals for the region and serves as a template on how to best to move these goals forward.”

Bike lane sign with bicyclists in background next to cars.
Lake Tahoe has several types of bicycle infrastructure, including shared roadways, painted bike lanes and separated pathways for bicyclists. Central to the 2024 Active Transportation Plan is making the on-road network safer for all road users, including cyclists. Photo courtesy of the Tahoe Regional Transportation Agency.

Transportation: a hot topic

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, transportation accounts for the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. at 28% with passenger vehicles and light duty trucks accounting for the majority of all transportation emissions at 59%. Warming temperatures due to climate change are exacerbating transportation impacts in the Lake Tahoe Basin. As an outdoor recreation hotspot flanked by urban areas like Central California, Reno and the Bay Area, Lake Tahoe is seeing increased traffic congestion as temperatures warm. Recent research from University of Nevada, Reno doctoral student in the Department of Geography Tianwen Hui and Associate Professor of Geography Scott Kelley showed a correlation between hotter summer days in the greater Sacramento area and increased traffic congestion around Lake Tahoe.

“Our study finds a very clear correlation between higher temperatures and increased visitation and increased traffic volume, especially from some highway entrance points, from the Sacramento area,” Hui said. “Some holidays can see an increase of vehicle miles traveled, ranging from 12,000 to 33,000 miles entering the Lake Tahoe Basin due to the increased visitation.”

The research team, which included Kelley, Hui and University of California – Davis collaborators Susie Pike, director of the Transit Research Center, and Susan Handy, professor of environmental science and policy, pulled weather data from the Sacramento International Airport weather station and compared it to traffic data from the Nevada and California Departments of Transportation. They also incorporated survey responses collected by TRPA to understand travel behavior around Lake Tahoe better. The researchers used the data to model a normal day of visitation in the Lake Tahoe Basin.

Bicyclists on a path that is separate from the road in Lake Tahoe.Courtesy of TRPA.

“We got a decent sense, an estimate, of how many miles people were traveling and how much that would increase,” Kelley said. “As conditions continue to warm in our region, the chances of people wanting to go to Tahoe and escape that heat temporarily is going to get higher. We see the impacts of transportation in terms of congestion, in terms of feeling unsafe on the roads, whether you're in a car or walking or on a bike. For those that live up there or travel up there, it gets hard when there are cars everywhere, it's hard to travel.”

Though this initial study looked at tourism by way of car travel into the Lake Tahoe Basin, Kelley is clear that this is not the complete story. Travel around the lake by residents, commuters traveling to and from the lake for work and seasonal residents add additional travel pressure in the Lake Tahoe Basin. However, the overwhelming perception is that traffic congestion has dramatically increased in recent years.

“The way that people are experiencing visitation seems to be changing,” Kelley said. “It just feels like there are so many more people there, but it is hard to make decisions about how to manage it without a clearer picture of what kinds of travelers these are.”

A move toward more sustainable transportation options

One proposed solution to Lake Tahoe’s transportation problem: provide alternatives to traveling by car. The TRPA Active Transportation Plan outlines a complete network of bicycle, scooter and pedestrian pathways to get visitors and locals alike around the lake without gassing (or charging) up their cars.

"Trying to get folks out of their vehicles and to their destinations by walking, biking or rolling helps the environment, helps air quality, helps reduce noise pollution and helps us achieve our goals as an agency.”

In surveys of 216 Lake Tahoe residents conducted by TRPA, 58% use a car as a primary mode of transportation. However, a whopping 28% reported using a bicycle as their main mode of transportation. The national average for those whose main mode of transportation is a bicycle is less than half a percent, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. This relatively high percentage of bicycle commuters in the region makes Lake Tahoe a prime location for implementing a road system that better serves the cyclist. Further, despite the current majority reliance on cars, 85% of Tahoe residents said they would prefer to travel by bike, foot or public transit. With improved and safe multimodal infrastructure, Lake Tahoe has the potential to shift the majority of road users to sustainable options.

Currently, several of the main thoroughfares around Lake Tahoe – including much of State Route 28 around the North Shore of Lake Tahoe, Highway 50 from the East to South Shore and California 89 around Emerald Bay to Tahoe City – have no formal bicycle infrastructure. Often, cyclists must ride in roadways with no bike lanes alongside cars traveling at speeds of 45 miles per hour or faster. A person walking or biking hit by a car traveling 42 mph has a 50% chance of death, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, up from a 25% chance of death when being hit at 32 miles per hour.

“The 2024 active Transportation plan for the Tahoe Basin has a heavy focus on making the on-street network lower stress,” Murray said. “That's to make the on-street network more friendly to bicyclists and pedestrians who are trying to get about the Tahoe Basin. Another major component of the plan is supporting our shared-use trail network that is attempting to go around the entire lake.”

Man and dog stand in front of parking sign that reads "Tunnel Creek Parking Lot. East Lake Tahoe.".
Ryan Murray, Transportation Planner for the Tahoe Regional Transportation Agency, stands at the East Shore Trail Tunnel Creek Parking Lot, a park-and-ride for bicyclists and pedestrians. The East Shore Trail provides bicyclists and pedestrians with 11 beach access points.

The new Active Transportation plan proposes adding Class 1 trails, like the East Shore Trail that connects Incline Village to Sand Harbor by way of a bike, scooter and pedestrian-only pathway, around nearly the entire lake. Other proposed road changes follow the Complete Streets guidelines, a transportation design approach meant to provide safe, convenient and comfortable travel and access for all road users regardless of their mode of transportation, which could include painted bike lanes, buffered lanes or lanes with a vertical barrier of some form between car traffic and bike traffic.

“Infrastructure matters a lot, and that's particularly true for people that want to ride bicycles,” Kelley said. “Our cities are designed in such a way right now that doesn't give bicyclists a great option of where to be. Think about a road, right? If you're going down a road, there are clearly marked lanes for where a car should be, and there's usually a sidewalk that's clearly marked for where pedestrians should be. But unless there's a dedicated space for bicyclists, where are they supposed to go? Sometimes we tell them, you have to share the road. Sometimes we say, well, just do your best. Giving bicyclists a dedicated space on that roadway is essential to a shared understanding of how to use that road, but also for safety.”

In addition to serving residents who, as surveyed, are enthusiastic about a shift to multimodal forms of transportation, varied road infrastructure options would also provide visitors with alternatives to moving around the lake. Many regional tourist destinations like the popular Sand Harbor Beach already offer sustainable transportation incentives like $2 admission when entering by bike. The trail connects a park-and-ride area with the multimodal paved trail for tourists and residents with 11 beach access points. During peak summer visitation, the 2.7 miles between the East Shore Trail parking lot and Sand Harbor often sees standstill traffic, turning a 5-mile drive into a long commute. The Sand Harbor parking lot is often full by 9 a.m. midweek. By bike, the trip takes 14 minutes, and no parking spot is required.

“If anyone has visited Tahoe during peak season, it's no secret that vehicle congestion can be a big challenge, definitely at our high-traffic recreation destinations,” Murray said. “This also means impacts to parking and people using informal parking – parking on the side of the road or in the forest. Not only does this have an impact on our regional congestion, but also raises environmental concerns. Trying to get folks out of their vehicles and to their destinations by walking, biking or rolling helps the environment, helps air quality, helps reduce noise pollution and helps us achieve our goals as an agency.”

The 98% cycling city

Critical to this new plan is building pathways that people will want to use. There are many types of bicycle infrastructure around Lake Tahoe, including painted bike lanes, shared-use roads and protected pathways separated from cars. Research has repeatedly shown that to get people out of their cars and on their bikes, they need to feel safe. 

TRPA surveyed its residents about their comfort level in riding bicycles around Lake Tahoe. Using the four cyclist types, an assessment of rider’s comfort on the road, Lake Tahoe again shows a considerable opportunity for converting car users to bike commuters in the region.

The strong and fearless rider is willing to ride a bicycle on any roadway regardless of traffic conditions. According to the 2023 Tahoe Transportation Survey, the strong and fearless made up 39% of the 206 respondents, once again reporting a number significantly higher than national averages. Next, there are the enthused and confident riders who are confident on most roadways, but who’d prefer safer protected routes. These riders make up 35% of Tahoe residents. Then there are the interested but concerned group making up another 25% of potential bike commuters in Tahoe. These individuals might want to ride their bikes more but don’t feel safe riding unless on a protected pathway separated from cars or on low-traffic neighborhood streets. The smallest group at just 2.4% simply are not interested in bicycling, may be physically unable, or don’t know how to ride a bicycle.

With safer, protected lanes to get around Lake Tahoe, nearly 100% of regional road users might opt to hop on a bike instead of getting in their car more of the time.

Lake Tahoe has long been known as a leader in environmental policy and management. The Lake Tahoe 2024 Active Transportation Plan provides a road map (or bike map) for locations around the world, hoping to limit their environmental impact by harnessing their communities and supporting thriving tourist industries.

Latest From

Nevada Today