Concrete Progress is an ongoing series of columns by Peter Brewitt devoted to exploring America’s infrastructure. It is part of Orion’s Reimagining Infrastructure project.
It’s five p.m. on a Tuesday, Alaska Standard Time, and all across Anchorage businesses are closing up for the end of the workday. Outside, the thermometer reads eight degrees above zero. Night fell just after lunch. Nonetheless, the people of Anchorage shut down their computers, put on their jackets, lace up their ski boots, click into their bindings, step on to the trail, and start home, their breaths frosty in the subarctic air.
There are four hundred miles of trails in Anchorage, radiating out through the city like blood vessels and reaching beyond it to surrounding communities far away from the urban core. Every day of the year, lawyers and consultants and clerks ski, bike, and run back and forth between their homes and offices. (I wish I could tell you that they mushed dogs on the commute, but this would not be true—only a few of Anchorage’s trails are open to sled dogs.) The trails are broad and well maintained, many of them paved, many of them lit for the dark of the northern winter. And many miles are separate from the road, running through tunnels when obliged to cross a highway, so that a ski commuter may only meet traffic at the very beginning and very end of the route.
How did this happen? Anchorage is widely thought of as a poorly developed collection of strip malls, sprawling and unpleasant—like Fresno or El Paso, but colder. After spending last week there, I would have to agree. The nicest thing I can say about Anchorage is that it has beautiful views. But in the 1950s, as Alaska was gearing up for statehood, Anchorage was blessed with a visionary urban planner named Vic Fischer. Thinking of future Anchoragites, Fischer and his colleagues believed that as the city grew, it would be valuable to preserve some of the green space and undeveloped corridors that existed in places like Chester Creek and Russian Jack. So the city set aside land for a green belt. These spaces became the core of the system they have today, but the effort really got moving during the oil boom of the 1970s, when the cycling community lobbied for bike trails through the exploding city. Out of this effort came the Anchorage Trails Council, which put together a map expressing its vision for the future trail system. The city was receptive, and you can see the fully realized version of the map here.
I don’t think I’m being unfairly stereotypical when I say that Alaskans are hardy folk. Where I live, in Santa Cruz, California, Bike to Work Day is in May. Temperatures will be in the sixties, and the weather will be fair. In Anchorage, they hold a Bike to Work Day in February. The average high for February is twenty-six degrees Fahrenheit, and you can expect it to snow. Anchoragites are so devoted to their bike commute that through the Alaskan winter (described to me as “too long by a month…on either end”), while their colleagues switch to Nordic skis, many people ride special Fat Bikes, burly cycles designed for use in the snow, through the trail system. The data are hard to come by, but one estimate has 10,150 people using a selection of the city’s trails each week in the winter. More than three times that many use them in the summer.
The commute holds its own perils, though. Big animals, especially moose, are common enough in city limits that the municipality’s excellent bike maps include a Wildlife Safety section. It’s full of good advice on dealing with moose and bears, some of which I will share with you here by way of insight into the life of the Anchorage commuter:
Wheels and heels always yield to hooves.
*I bet they do—moose are seven feet tall.
If a moose charges, get behind a tree or something solid.
*I have to say that this seems obvious to me.
Avoid bad-smelling areas.
*I wasn’t tempted, even without the bears.
Make yourself as big and loud/scary as possible.
*It is hard to look like a tough guy in spandex.
Never approach cubs.
*I saw someone break this rule once, and it was one of the most alarming moments of my life. (It wasn’t in Anchorage, and it wasn’t me.)
**I should note here that you mustn’t disrupt the young of any of these animals.
Brown Bear (Grizzlies)
Put your bike between you and the bear.
*No matter how much you paid for it.
Talk calmly then leave slowly.
*Nerves of steel.
If it attacks, play dead until it leaves. It is trying to “remove the threat.”
*I have always wondered how people manage to convincingly play dead—quiet, still, unresponsive—while being savaged by a bear. Let me know in the comments if you’ve accomplished this.
You can find the rest of the Wildlife Safety advice as well as the map and lots of other information here, as well as at the websites of the Anchorage Park Foundation and Anchorage Parks and Recreation department.
As I planned my Alaska trip, I didn’t have much expectation of writing a column about it. When I think of Alaskan infrastructure, I think of Bridges to Nowhere, ice roads, and oil pipelines, all of which are interesting but none of which are exactly what Reimagining Infrastructure is about. But my friends there told me about their commute down the Chester Creek Trail from their neighborhood to their offices downtown, and I decided that I should check it out. My wife and I headed out Chester Creek on a chilly morning. The snow was hard, a little icy in patches, but great for skate skiing. We glided around a city park and then out through stands of birch trees and past icy lakes with ducks huddled in the little spaces of open water. Soon we were quite warm. We passed bikers and walkers, zipped under two highways, and emerged, red-cheeked and happy, at the tall buildings of Northern Lights Boulevard. It struck me that between the cold, the precipitation, the sprawl, and the darkness, Anchorage has probably the worst conditions for trail commuting of any city in America. So if Anchorage has this magnificent trail system, shouldn’t there be one everywhere?
Peter Brewitt has wondered about infrastructure ever since a flood kept him away from three days of kindergarten. He’s currently at work on a PhD at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he’s researching the ways people restore and remake their environments.