The Bike-Friendliest Little Town in America

I’m sitting in Bites on Broadway in Skagway, Alaska, a hundred-year-old saloon-cum-coffee house, watching tourists walk down the wooden boardwalks. For every dozen tourists, there’s a local guide biking past. The guides look lean compared to the typically tubby cruise ship passengers. They ride up to the post office mailbox across Broadway to drop off letters to the Lower Forty-Eight. There are bike racks up and down Broadway, taking up prime car parking space, tucked into alleys, by back doors, and by front doors. They’re often half full, sometimes more. The diversity of bikes in Skagway is stunning: fixies, fat bikes, beach cruisers, touring bikes, tandems, BMX bikes, mountain bikes, choppers, penny farthings, sidecars, trailers, and tag-alongs. During the summer, easily half of the folks in Skagway rely on bikes for their primary transportation.

The bike racks along Broadway in Skagway are typically full.

Skagway is laid out in a grid twenty blocks long north to south, and four blocks wide east to west. It’s barely a mile from one end of town to the other. It’s flat. Aside from the wind, it’s perfect for bikes. During the summer tourist season, more than half of the vehicles are driven by professionals, who are unfailingly courteous to the cyclists who abound in Skagway. The speed limit in town is a sedate twenty-five miles per hour, fifteen in front of the all-grades-in-one public school. Bike racks are everywhere. While permanent bike theft is virtually nonexistent, “borrowing without permission” is a more widespread problem.

Families ride their bikes to the parks. Kids ride their bikes to school. Off-duty guides ride their bikes to trailheads. On-duty guides, bartenders, waitstaff and retail workers all ride their bikes from home to work and back. After school is out, packs of kids ride around unsupervised. “Gut feeling,” Dustin Craney, General Manager of Sockeye Cycle Company, said, “it’s gotta be a third to a half of people [who use bikes for their primary transportation]. It’s hard to get in a car and drive three blocks. It’s easier to just walk or ride.”

Ashton, one of the baristas at Bites on Broadway, poses with his penny farthing bicycle.

The Skagway town government has had more than a little to do with the ubiquity of bicycles in Skagway, after recognizing that there simply wasn’t enough room in downtown Skagway for every summer worker to own and park a car. According to Dustin, they “made an effort to increase the bike parking options in town. As you’ve probably noticed, some of the racks get pretty full sometimes, especially the one at Second and Broadway, near The Red Onion, it’s almost just always packed with bikes. [The city] is pretty responsive to accommodating needs, when they see bikes laid all over a building because there’s not enough parking, a bike rack sometimes shows up there. The downtown area, for as small as we are, is relatively heavily used by vehicles. [The municipal government] wants to be encouraging of people bringing their bikes into town and not bringing their [car] into town, especially when you’re driving, like, eight blocks. Don’t come down here and park all day, take up parking space, take up road space. Leave your car at home and bike in!”

“I just love biking past the [Skagway] school and seeing the rack entirely chock full of bikes, and seeing all the kids get out of school and there’s a little train of kids biking down the street.” -Laura Patton, senior Sockeye Cycle tour guide.For all of its friendliness to bikes though, Skagway isn’t an officially designated “Bike Friendly Community.” When Dustin and Sockeye Cycle Company urged the Borough Board of Superintendents to apply for the designation a few years back, there was a bit of pushback. Dustin explained, “There were and are concerns about the Klondike Highway, and the amount of traffic on that highway. It’s basically the one road in and out of town. It’s a bike route, it’s an industrial highway, it’s just a general commercial and recreational transportation corridor. It’s heavily used by a ton of different user groups…They were concerned that if they were prioritizing bicycles or encouraging more cycling that it was gonna be a conflict with the industrial traffic that also uses that corridor.” Nora, a mechanic at Sockeye Cycle Co., shows off her Salsa Fargo fat bike.

Cruise ships dock for the day in Skagway and depart in the early evenings. At nine in the morning, the downtown boardwalks are crammed with passengers from the two, three or even four cruise ships that dock simultaneously. Twelve hours later, at nine at night, the sky is just as bright but the streets belong to the locals. From May until August the sun doesn’t set, so much as slip along the northern horizon, and locals pedal around town long past when they’d be asleep in the summer. Daytime is work time in a cruise town, and nighttime is playtime. And after a few beers at The Red Onion Saloon or the Happy Endings Bar, it’s not uncommon for folks to (un)intentionally “borrow” a bike to get home.

There’s a casual attitude towards locking bikes in Skagway. Nine out of ten bikes aren’t locked up. Folks trust other folks. Bikes aren’t stolen in Skagway, they’re just “borrowed without permission.” The practice is prevalent enough that the Skagway Police Department issued a notice that borrowing without permission was, legally speaking, theft.

Bike thieves aren’t hanged in Skagway, so long as they return the bikes that they “borrowed without permission.”

Dustin Craney explained that “there’s a big gray area in Skagway between ‘this bike was stolen’ and ‘this bike was just borrowed and it was totally fine.’ [It’s] this gray area of, ‘it was borrowed, the owner didn’t know about it, but it’s gonna be returned.’ …There’s not a lot of people that lock up their bikes in Skagway. There’s not a huge threat that cruise ship passengers are going to steal bikes and bring them on the cruise ship. And then the only other way out of town is up the hill and through the border. A lot of people are going to be hesitant to steal a bike and take it across the border. With the small town that we live in, it’s also hard to steal a bike and then use it because the owner probably lives within five blocks of you. There’s not a huge issue with bikes disappearing and never coming back.

But what there is an issue with, especially later at night near the bars, near the downtown area, is bikes kind of wandering and finding their way into a different yard in town or a different bike rack than it was parked at. There’s a combination of comedy and frustration with it at times depending on if it’s actually your bike…At 1am at The Red Onion Saloon, they all look the same. It’s, hey this bike’s not locked up, I need to get fifteen blocks to my house, I’m just gonna borrow this one, I’ll ride it back into town tomorrow and park it in the same bike rack. I’m sure it happens without people noticing sometimes. They left their bike there for a couple days, and it’s still there, and they don’t know that it’s had a couple rides…[Bikes] might just be relocated overnight, but then there’s a search and they’re found, and everyone’s ok with it…It is a little bit of an unsaid ethic in this town; if you need a ride home at night, grab a bike, and leave it -I don’t know if I’m encouraging that- grab a bike, leave it in your yard and bring it back the next day; it’s probably ok. People realize that if their bike disappears around here, it’s probably not forever. You’ll probably find it. It’ll probably show up. At some point.”

Kill your TV.

Wesley Cheney leads Klondike bike tours for Sockeye Cycle Co. in Skagway, Alaska. He earned his Eagle Scout Badge with Troop 216 in Springfield, Vermont, biked from London to Rome via the Route Napoleon, sailed with the USS Kearsarge to Equatorial Africa, earned a Bachelors Degree in Philosophy from Old Dominion University, completed the final Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200km Brevet, and most recently delivered freaky fast sandwiches for Jimmy John’s in Norfolk, Virginia. As a professional photographer, he has captured images of Harrier jump jets, Norfolk Southern intermodal trains and mountain bike races. Wesley has built, pedaled, paddled and sailed bamboo bicycles, bamboo kayaks, and bamboo sailboats. In the off-season he sings in the choir of Christ & St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, teaches screen printing at 757 Makerspace. He regularly contributes questions to The Thomas Jefferson Hour, plays the ukulele and the flugelhorn, reads the New Testament in German, and prefers to wear a kilt.

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