• What happened to a place in Michigan when cars were banned for 115 years?

    by  • February 26, 2013 • Bicycle Friendly Places, Legislation and Policy • 32 Comments

    by Jeff Potter

    Excerpted from Mackinac Island: “Watch the Bike!” published in Bicycle Times Magazine (Feb/Mar 2013)



    Bike culture has recently been booming in the U.S.  But there’s a little place in the north that’s been in love with bikes for generations: Mackinac Island, Michigan, a historic tourist destination on the Straits of Mackinac, between Lakes Michigan and Huron. Because motor vehicles have been banned here since 1898 – more than 100 years – everyone has used bikes for everything a bike can be used for, and for more than you might imagine.  Along with multi-season commuting, it’s a place where everyone socializes on bikes, from teens to guys in sports coats.



    [Bikes here] come in dozens of brands, spanning the eras…they’re built for comfort.  Nearly all have a big front basket, upright handlebars, full metal fenders, a kickstand, and a big seat.


    Headlight use isn’t comon, but it’s making slow inroads along with handlebar bells.  Islanders enjoy their night sky and navigating by treeline and moonlight…Hardly anyone wears a helmet…Islanders just seem to realize that the safe, human scale of bikes outweighs the need for such extra gear.  If helmets worked for them they’d be hanging from every handlebar.



    Michigan State Highway 185. (No kidding.)

    “Copenhagen Bicycle Chic became popular a few years ago, yet generations of Islanders have known that bikes are a part of fashion, part of looking good.  Sport coats and dresses – check.”

    Not a bike path but another shot of Michigan State 185. It’s an officially designated state highway. It just doesn’t have any cars.

    Photo credit: The Graphic

    The air is cleaner and injuries are fewer.  Island residents are healthier due to the exercise. There’s a cherished egalitarianism: everyone gets around the same way.  They also save a tremendous amount of money that would normally go to commuting by cars.


     Photo Credit: Michelle Stenzel


    Photo credit: Glamorous Housewife 

    Excerpted from Mackinac Island: “Watch the Bike!”, by Jeff Potter. Used by permission of the author. All rights reserved.



    Michigan State Highway 185 (Wikipedia)

    • Perfect bike/walk vacation found on Mackinac Island

    • Mackinac Island Bike Tour

    Destination: Mackinac Island, Michigan

    32 Responses to What happened to a place in Michigan when cars were banned for 115 years?

    1. Mark
      February 26, 2013 at 10:31 am

      It all works great if your city can shut down 8 months a year and your population drops in half every night.

      • Jake
        August 18, 2015 at 1:05 pm

        Explain Copenhagen, Amsterdam, or Trondheim then. Biking for transportation can work in any city and in any weather. It just takes good design (resulting in safer streets and denser development) and good policy (that promotes good design).

    2. Brandon
      February 26, 2013 at 10:37 am

      Multi-season commuting, clean air? The permanent population is 482. Copenhagen cycle chic? Egalitarianism? This is a luxury resort/tourism island. And nobody is saving money, these folks all own a car when off-island, left at the ferry dock. Nobody involved is “saving money.”

      I’m a bike advocate, but this article is a clear example of visiting a place (if you did indeed visit) with a clear narrative/agenda in mind and really reaching in obvservations of a very odd, non-normal-town of a place to fit that narrative.

      Mackinac Island is more like Disney World than a normal town.

      • February 26, 2013 at 12:55 pm

        Actually, the reason it’s not a “normal town” is that it doesn’t have cars, not that it doesn’t have a year-round population. It’s more like the parts of the West Village (NYC) where there’s no through traffic, or any Dutch city (large or small) where they prioritize safe cycling and pedestrian shopping over through traffic and parking. Mackinac Island just shows that it’s possible to live, work, and shop without a car where the city is designed for it. The money you spend driving we spend on local shopping — or invest in real estate. In my neighborhood we don’t need a car (though it’s far from safe to bike); in my building, not owning a car saves exactly enough to upgrade from a 1-bedroom to a 4-bedroom apartment.

        • February 27, 2013 at 7:48 am

          It’s worth noting that a lot of the ski resorts in the Swiss alps are car-free. How are you going to get to the ski resort with your skis and stuff, without a car? Well, they just do it and it works. The railway offers a checked luggage service just like the airlines do.

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    4. WI Pedal Gal
      February 26, 2013 at 5:15 pm

      This cracks me up. As a biking and walking advocate for a number of years, all my friends told me I would love Mackinac Island. So on my circle tour of Lake Michigan I went out there. My observations, (aside from the fact that it is loaded with tourists and all the amenities that tourists want and make my skin crawl):

      1. There’s not a bike rack to be found on the whole island. At least not one that meets APBP or other urban planning standards. (Supports the frame and allows use of a U-lock.) Maybe most people aren’t worried about having their cruisers stolen, but I was riding a bike that was worth more than the car I was driving.

      2. People kept yelling at me to slow down, even when I was out of the “downtown” and in the rural areas of the island. And I was only going 10 mph!

      3. People don’t look over their shoulders or signal when they are about to veer across the road. When you want to pass someone, you are always worried that they will suddenly swerve in front of you.

      4. Not surprisingly, the best part of the island is out of the “downtown.” The entire ring road – i.e. the circumference of the island is only about 8 miles, so it doesn’t take long to see the whole thing by bike. Yet very few people get out of the area within 1/2 mile of the ferry.

      In sum, there are a ton of bikes on the island, but most of them are being used by people who have absolutely no clue how to use a bike for transportation. Most are tourists that are more a menace than a quaint local attraction.

      (OK, maybe I’m biased, because the ferry operators also left my very expensive touring bike on the dock while I sailed back to the mainland because they wouldn’t let me load it myself. I waited nervously for the next ferry to arrive and got my bike back.)

      • Albert
        February 27, 2013 at 9:18 am

        WI Pedal Gal:

        Your criticism of Mackinac Island seems to be based only on preconceptions you’ve brought along:

        1. Your “very expensive touring bike” doesn’t fit in with the local lack of theft in a place where bicycles are mundane and ubiquitous.
        2. Your desired pace of riding is faster than the local norm.
        3. You worry about other people riding in a locally-appropriate carefree style because speeds are low and there are no cars.
        4. This car-free island seems to be attracting many people new to the idea of cycling for transportation, which a long-time biking & walking advocate might think was an overall good thing.

        Your idea of “how to use a bike for transportation” just might not be the same in a small car-free haven as it is in a large motor vehicle-devoted city. And as “touristy” places go, this one has got to be a lot better than the other 99.9%, with their 10-lane highways and acres of car parking. I remember it fondly from my Michigan childhood, and I assume that it contributed a lot, perhaps subconsciously, to my eventual car-free status (in Manhattan) and liveable streets mindset. If I ever return to Mackinac Island, I, too, will probably want the place to myself rather than have to share it with other tourists who don’t bike a lot at home, but I also expect to love watching these potential new advocates for cycling and walking discover how much better the world could be if most cities & towns could be free of cars like Mackinac Island.

        • Bonnie Casey Jones
          March 6, 2013 at 12:49 am

          WI Pedal Gal,

          It sounds to me like YOU don’t fit the Island, not the other way around. You are correct that the majority of tourists stay close to downtown. That just makes it better for those of us who know to head inland for the best island experience.

          There are many bike racks on the island, apparently though, none that meet your specifications. Yes, you are not supposed to lock your bike to lamp posts when it is parked on the street or to a bike rack. I lock mine anyway. There is bicycle theft on the island, though usually by some intoxicated partier who doesn’t feel like walking home at 2am.

          There are speed limits for the bicycles in the downtown area. During the peak season, the streets are congested with people, bicycles, and horses. Perhaps you were riding unsafely? Try visiting anytime after labor day. The weather is beautiful and the tourists disappear.

          Yes, tourists have a tendency to turn, pull out, or swerve in front of you. They are generally not used to riding bicycles and either don’t know or don’t care about riding etiquette. A simply stated, “On your left” usually takes care of the problem (as does riding at a realistic speed).

          I agree that the tourists can be an annoyance. That is why I generally visit after Labor Day, it is a whole different experience. The streets are empty, I have ridden around the entire island in the early morning and not passed a single soul.

          As for your bike not making it onto the ferry, I suspect you were not paying attention and making sure it was loaded onto the ferry. I have used both Arnold Line and Sheplers and always bring my own bicycle and never experienced a problem with my bicycle being loaded. After I board the boat, I watch my bicycle to make sure it makes it on the ferry.

          Mackinac Island isn’t for everyone, I suppose, but having spent my summers there as a child and visiting almost yearly, I find it one of the most unique, magical places on earth. For some people, Mackinac Island gets in your blood and keeps calling you back. Perhaps the secret is knowing when to go and where to go when you are there.

          Sorry you didn’t enjoy your time on the island.

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    9. Alice Hartman
      March 21, 2013 at 7:50 pm

      The ride around Mackinac Island is delightful. About 8 miles and a perfect way to spend a family afternoon.

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    13. Jeff
      July 6, 2013 at 9:39 am

      It would be nice to think I could somehow find a job and a simple, nice place to live and make the Island my year round home. I have been seeking a slower pace.. I know it is a tourist destination, and is not perfect. I know it is expensive. But that it is car-free and fresh air is a plus. And I am sure it would far better than this tourist town I live in now.

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    22. Faye
      February 6, 2014 at 10:11 am

      I wish Key West is like this. Key West is not a bike friendly island, the streets are not wide enough to give a 36 inch berth for a bike and there has been accidents here and there with a 2 ton car and a bicycle, mostly near misses or a deliberate mud puddle splashing on a bike. Key West is a subtropic Island that is 126 miles from Miami (almost 4 hour drive) and 90 miles north of Havana, Cuba.
      I am sick of the traffic the cars make, emissions, pollution. Bikes take no gas, doesn’t cause emissions, doesn’t create pollution and don’t cause traffic jams.

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