Attendance drops at the Mackinac Bridge walk

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

If attendance seemed low at the Annual Bridge Walk on Mackinac Bridge on Labor Day 2017, it should have, because it was: about 25,000 people took the walk this year, while the event has drawn anywhere from 30,000 to 60,000 walkers for most of the last decade.

The drop in attendance owes to two factors: logistical challenges owing to a law enforcement request that the state shut down the bridge to traffic for the walk, and a weather report that foretold rain and high winds in the range of 25 to 30 mph said James Lake, spokesman for the Mackinac Bridge Authority, which puts on the walk.

Pedestrians, right, cross the Mackinac Bridge that connects St. Ignace and Mackinaw City, Mich., Monday, Sept. 4, 2017. The 60th annual event allows pedestrians to cross the five-mile span on Labor Day. (AP Photo/John L. Russell)

Unlike in years past, traffic was prohibited from entering the bridge from 6:30 a.m to noon Monday. The change is the result of the state's compliance with a request from Michigan State Police and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, in light of recent terror attacks where terrorists used vehicles to target large crowds of people. 

Compliance, James said, was a matter of showing "an abundance of caution" to the security risk an open road might represent. In the past, walkers used the east side of the bridge, with eastbound and westbound traffic each getting one lane on the west side of the bridge.

In 2007, for the 50th Annual Bridge Walk, some 57,000 walkers made the trek. Last year, 45,000 hiked across the bridge.

"We still view that as a great turnout, despite the significant changes," James said Tuesday.

The change regarding the bridge closure was announced in May. 

"We're aware of attacks that have occurred using vehicles in other parts of the world," James said. "That's a concern that was top of mind when making this choice."

Crowd size is estimated by "compiling info from a variety of sources," James said, including comparing crowd density to past years, and taking into account for the number of shuttle buses that bring walkers to the walk site.

But buses don't tell the full story. While 45,000 walkers participated in last year's walk, using 88 buses, there were 127 buses for the 25,000 walkers this year. 

The weather was another problem. 

"We were seeing forecasts the evening before, and even into the morning, that warned of rains and higher winds, something on the order of 25 miles per hour and gusting to 30, as well as a threat of lighting," James said. "People may have been seeing the forecast and choosing not to make the up to Mackinaw City or down to St. Ignace." 

The forecasted bad weather was also largely a no-show.

Sara Pampreen, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said things got "a little gusty" between 6 and 7 a.m., with winds about 20 miles per hour. That went down to a northwesterly wind, just seven-to-nine mph. Temperatures were in the lower 60s and there was just a scattering of rain.