Can Cities Really Be Car-free? Michigan’s Mackinac Island Has Been for 125 Years

Urban planners concerned with designing more sustainable cities are increasingly drawn to the car-free model. But what would it take to have car-free cities in the future? Look no further than Michigan’s Mackinac Island, which has thrived without cars for 125 years. Cover graphic by Chloe Becker for Midstory.

This year’s global temperature is 1.1 C higher than in pre-industrial times – just 0.4 degrees under the global warming threshold. Humans contribute to climate change in a complex combination of ways, but one of the largest contributors, emitting around 1.5 billion tons of greenhouse gasses each year, is our automobiles. 

Cities across the world are drawing attention for their efforts to reduce the number of cars on their streets; Barcelona, Brussels, Amsterdam, Helsinki and Oslo all have joined the budding car-free movement that has piqued the interest of urban planners. 

But for Mackinac Island, a small island of just under 600 people off the coast of northern Michigan, the car-free model is not a new phenomenon.

In fact, this Midwestern city has been successfully operating engine-free since 1898: When cars were first introduced to the island in the late 19th century, they were so controversial that the island banned all automated vehicles.

Mackinac Island’s Main Street circa 1896-1915. Image courtesy of the Mackinac State Historic Parks Collection.

Phil Porter, director emeritus at Mackinac State Historic Parks, recounts the history of the “horseless carriage” ban.

“When that first car came to the island … by the nature of loud, noisy cars that were unfamiliar to horses, and the nature of horses — who can be easily intimidated by that kind of thing — it caused problems, multiple problems,” Porter said. “It was a threat not only to life and limb and safety, but also if cars were there, they could have somehow replaced, eventually, these horse-drawn carriages that were making a living by taking people on carriage tours.” 

The carriage drivers successfully petitioned their City Council, leading to the horseless carriage ban of 1898. Thus, the main forms of transportation on Mackinac remained much simpler than the rest of the country throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. 

Kyle Bagnall, park naturalist for the Mackinac State Historic Parks, explained that current residents and visitors — who flock to the island each year in part to experience the car-free environment — typically get around the island by walking and bicycling. 

While less common than in the island’s early years, carriage travel remains an important form of transportation. Horse-drawn drays are responsible for deliveries, while carriages attract visitors for rides around the island. 

“Most horse-drawn transportation is a carriage service that people will hire for tours,” Bagnall said.

Mackinac Island forms of transportation, including a horse-drawn carriage and bicycles. Image courtesy of J Dykstra via Wikimedia Commons.

Although a completely car-free city may seem unrealistic to some, this is the daily life of Mackinac’s residents — and helps sustain the island’s economy and culture:  car-free transportation not only attracts visitors, but also has notable benefits for both tourists and residents year-round. 

Leanne Brodeur, an instructor at the Mackinac Community Equestrian Center and the Mackinac 4-H Horse Club, grew up on the island appreciating the impacts of Mackinac’s automobile ban. 

For Brodeur, the absence of quick, engine-powered transportation positively impacts the culture of the island; people simply live slower lifestyles: “I think a lot of the benefits are just having to slow down. You know, we just don’t go as fast … If you’re going 20 miles an hour, you’re going fast.”

Even the difference between having horses instead of cars on the road is something Brodeur sees as an advantage.

“[The horses] are all different and they just have a pretty unique effect on people, both physically and mentally,” Brodeur said.

Mackinac’s car-free transportation infrastructure, however, is clearly dependent on the island’s small size – only 3.8 square miles of land — meaning it would be hard to replicate in other places. 

Not all is lost for larger, less crowded cities, though. They just may need to look to the not-so-distant past as a model. 

J.H. Crawford is the author of “Carfree Cities,” the first book to argue for car-free cities, and founder of, a website that provides in-depth information about car-free cities. He has thought through the complicated logistics of how cities could commit to a car-free future.

“Cities develop around their presentation infrastructure, so even stuff that was used 100 years ago still impacts patterns today to some degree,” Crawford said. “You know all of the Midwestern and eastern cities once had an enormous rail infrastructure, something heavy rail, and then there was the interurban stuff.”

These existing infrastructures — old train tracks and streetcar lines — are already based around the heart of these cities, and could be reinstated in place of the cars that once overtook them. Crawford believes that streetcars, or trams, would be the most effective. 

In Crawford’s vision, emergency vehicles would still exist, and parking would be available at the edge of the city for people to park and then travel throughout the city on the tram. These strategies are successfully demonstrated by Mackinac Island, where emergency vehicles are allowed despite the engine ban, and parking facilities are adjacent to where the ferry docks on Michigan’s mainland. 

According to Crawford, American streets lend themselves to new sustainable infrastructures due to their expansive size.

“The first thing you have to do obviously is to put in good bicycle infrastructure,” Crawford said. 

For city planners, this may mean modifying road markings and expanding the number of bike racks. In Mackinac Island, instead of metal bike racks, the roads are lined with bike-sized parking spaces to accommodate for the many bicycles that are brought to the island or rented by visitors each day.

Mackinac Island bike traffic and parking. Image courtesy of MrMiscellanious via Wikimedia Commons.

Besides adapting the roads for more bicycles, cities could plant trees, gardens and even mini-parks in the excess space. 

“In some places where the streets are extremely wide, you can even think about building a row of buildings right down the center of the street,” Crawford said. 

In addition to the possibilities of developing surplus space, car-free cities would come with a multitude of benefits – better air quality, less noise pollution, prettier streets and more social, connected communities, according to Crawford. 

Bagnall recognizes that the lack of cars on Mackinac Island helps preserve their air and water quality, reduce carbon emissions and even protect their wildlife.

“People have become the main predator of white tail deers, for example, with their cars, rather than the wolf packs that used to roam our forests before settlement. And you just will not ever see that at Mackinac Island,” Bagnall said. “The water quality I’m sure is better, because anywhere you have automobiles going, they’re dripping stuff out, draining into ditches and impacting the water quality.”

Crawford believes that these car-free benefits are about equity: polluted air, noisy streets and contaminated water are all consequences of high-traffic areas, which disproportionately run through marginalized communities. 

“Fundamentally, it’s a matter of fairness. If you look at the communities that have suffered terribly as a consequence of motor vehicle traffic — always poor communities downtown, surrounded by freeways,” Crawford said.

It might be unrealistic to expect a car-free reality to occur in the near future, but there are small changes cities can implement to reduce the prominence of cars on the roads, such as closing off some streets to traffic.

“It comes down to urban planning,” Porter said. “That is to understand the benefits of creating auto-free zones … where people can work and live and dine and just intermingle with each other without the impact of automobiles being around.”

Postcard of Main Street on Mackinac Island, Michigan, circa 1930-1945. Image courtesy of Tichnor Brothers, Inc. via Wikimedia Commons.

Porter believes Mackinac should be an influence for urban planners across the country. 

“If they were to come here to experience it and realize what a benefit it is in so many ways — in health ways, in communication, in nurturing relationships — it’s just a very healthy way of living I think.”

Mackinac Island’s residents have a strong pride for their car-free way of living. They are even celebrating 125 years of the automobile ban this summer with a “rebanning” reenactment to commemorate the anniversary. 

Perhaps by their 150th anniversary, more cities will be able to celebrate with them.


  1. Very well written Chloe, We know that cousins Doug and Nancy and Frank Sementino vacationed there. Certainly thought provoking, and sure that in time new modes of transportation will be in our future. It will take time, not in our lifetimes, but most likely yours. Hopefully the rest of the world takes the needed effort required to address the climate change issue.
    Love, Grandma and Grandpa


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