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I was in Juneau for a few days in mid-April and during some spare time I checked out the local transit system, Capital Transit. The City and Borough of Juneau is larger than the state of Delaware but it’s home to only about 32,000 people. In Juneau, car ownership and road building is constrained by the fact that there are no roads that connect Juneau to the rest of the world. A 4-lane highway connects central Juneau with the airport and the Big Box stores located near the airport, but that highway doesn’t connect to the outside world. The only way to reach Juneau is by sea or by air. The Subaru Outback station wagon seems to be the most popular vehicle in Juneau and for those who don’t own a car, the local transit system connects just about all the important locations with dependable bus service.

Capital Transit operates 4 basic routes in Juneau:

  • the Mendenhall Valley local routes that start in central Juneau near the cruise ship docks and operate clockwise or counter clockwise loops through the Mendenhall Valley and the Big Box shopping area before returning to central Juneau. These routes run 7 days a week with departures every 30 minutes (daytime) or 60 minutes (evenings) from downtown between 705am – 1035pm (shorter span on Sunday). For an inexpensive sightseeing trip to see the rapidly melting Mendenhall Glacier, use these routes.
  • An unnumbered route that serves Douglas, across the channel from Juneau with 30 minute headways until 6pm/60 minute headways until 1105pm.
  • The Express route to the Airport that runs hourly on weekdays between 7am and 6pm.
  • With those routes, Capital Transit is able to provide service to the most important local destinations with an excellent span of service. The 30/60 minute headways mean a long wait penalty for someone who just misses a bus, but considering the size of the local population base, 30/60 is pretty impressive.

    The cruise ship passengers are what support most of the businesses in Juneau. The city’s sidewalks are built wide enough to hold the hordes of Uncle Abners and Aunt Karens that come from all over the world to spend a few hours in town during the summer cruise ship season. Juneau is definitely a tourist trap, but there are some shops that sell very nice locally produced arts and crafts. I was in town just before the cruise ship season began and the stores were fully stocked; I found some really nice works to bring back. The geography of Juneau is very steep but it’s easy to walk anywhere in central Juneau if one is ready for some serious hill climbing. The City has built many metal staircases for pedestrians on the steepest hills that make walking safer on icy days.

    If you do arrive in Juneau by air virtually every hotel offers free transfers to and from the airport, but the Express bus would also be an option if you arrive while it is running (M-F 7am-6pm). There also appears to be a van transfer service between the airport and the Big Box area that might connect you with the local bus routes, but the hotel transfer buses are the best option.

    8 Replies to “Transit Day: Juneau AK”

    1. In a place like Juneau, my natural expectation would a transit system that would have a strong seasonal component, with beefed-up service during the summer and a minimal level of service during the winter. Part due to cruise ship riders (who are all arriving without cars) and part due to the fact that locals are more likely to go out in the evening when it’s warm a sunny than when it’s cold, dark, and snowing. The fact that they keep their buses running past 10 PM during the winter is quite surprising.

    2. I seriously doubt you would find any tourists riding public transit in Juneau. The tourist area is compact, walkable and self-contained near the cruise ship docks. Juneau is also the capital of Alaska so there are a number of administrative buildings and the associated workforce that requires mobility. There is at least one multi-story parking garage adjacent to the Captiol, so not everyone is riding the bus. There also are plenty of single family homes in central Juneau but they are built on small lots with little yards on narrow streets which creates a very high density single family residential living pattern.

    3. I used the bus in Juneau a few years ago when I took the AMHS ferry up from Bellingham. Unfortunately (at least at the time), the bus didn’t go to the far flung ferry terminal at Auke Bay, so I had to walk a mile to a stop. From there, I rode the bus to the airport. The system seemed surprisingly complete (minus service to the ferry dock) for such a small city.

    4. For a different take on what Juneau could have been, if the locals imagined something different, read Nathan Lewis’ post from a few years ago (scroll down).

      There was no practical reason at all for cars to be introduced into Juneau; the entire population could live and shop within walking distance of each other if they chose. Instead, the few people who can’t/won’t drive must wait 30 to 60 minutes to access what they need because of the long distances required by use of the automobile.

      1. Just as an aside- Lewis rails against the Apollo missions’ rovers as a useless extension of driving everywhere on Earth, but the rovers actually massively increased the surveying range of the astronauts and the scientific payoff.

      2. I’m writing a followup article on Lewis’ series. Do you have any more information on him or it, or how did you first encounter the series? I also wonder if Nathan Lewis and d.p. are the same person, because d.p. used to make similar comparisons. (Although in a different tone and with more swearing, so probably not the same person.)

        The Apollo mission analogy didn’t make sense, but good writers do that occasionally, construct an argument that seems strong at the time but with more thinking is really weak. I’m more familiar with “The Martian” since I saw it last year, but in either case it’s the same. You can’t explore large parts of an uninhabited planet without something like a car (which is also your oxygen refill and battery charger), or travel between remote or abandoned camps as Matt Damon did. They didn’t use the rovers for commuting from home to base or shopping center, they used them to explore, or for mission-critical travel to other bases (i.e., a “bus”).

        1. I found the Nathan Lewis website linked on some other urban blogs I read. He has a unique and wide-ranging philosophy, using several terms he coined to get across his ideas. His main gig is as an economics commentator, of the gold standard/low taxes type, and urbanism is a side-hobby of his. Any time you see any of the following terms, it is based on Nathan Lewis ideas:

          – Heroic materialism
          – Traditional City
          – 19th Century Hypertrophism
          – 20th Century Hypertrophism
          – Place or Non-place
          – Really narrow streets

          His main insight is that traditional cities all around the world, and the most successful urban districts today, are made of really narrow streets with total lot coverage. Everything else flows from those requirements. It explains the enduring popularity of the Pike Place Market. However, it also means that most Seattle neighborhoods will have a hard time transitioning to successful urban places because our streets (distance between buildings) is too large.

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