A crown jewel of bikeways

By Julie Caniglia, in Public Roads, Nov-Dec 2016

A unique sunken railway in Minneapolis had degenerated into an urban dumping ground. Now the Midtown Greenway is the superstar of the city’s bicycle network. Here’s how it happened.

The Sabo Bridge, shown here, is one of 28 connection points along the Midtown Greenway, a well-developed pedestrian and bicycling network in Minneapolis.
The Sabo Bridge, shown here, is one of 28 connection points along the Midtown Greenway, a well-developed pedestrian and bicycling network in Minneapolis.

The Midtown Greenway spans the heart of south Minneapolis, MN, from the Chain of Lakes on the west to the Mississippi River on the east. Originally part of a freight corridor for the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, by the 1990s the trains had largely stopped running. Instead, the corridor attracted crime and contributed to blight nearby in already struggling neighborhoods.

Twenty years later, the greenway hosts more than a million trips a year as an almost barrier-free commuting option for bicyclists and an attractive green space for pedestrians. USA Today named the corridor one of the top urban bike paths in the country in 2013, and the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy entered it in the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame in 2015. Critical to this journey from urban blight to community gem was Hennepin County’s Community Works initiative. As one of the initiative’s first and most successful projects, the Midtown Greenway has helped Minneapolis–the largest city in Hennepin County–earn accolades as a bicycle-friendly city.

In 2010, Bicycling magazine named Minneapolis the best U.S. cityfor biking. It has all been downhill since then–in a good way. In 2014, the U.S. Census Bureau named Minneapolis the number 2 city for commuting by bike, and in 2015 it was the first and only U.S. city to crack the top 20 on the Copenhagenize Index, a global ranking of bicycle-friendly cities. Together with St. Paul, MN, Minneapolis hosted the first Winter Cycling Congress in the United States in February 2016. In addition, the city has a long-term plan to nearly double its current network of 226 onstreet and offstreet bikeways, supplementing the plans of Hennepin County to add 20 miles (32 kilometers) annually to the county’s 651-mile (1,048-kilometer) bike network.

Of all those miles, it is the 5.5-mile (8.9-kilometer) section that makes up the Midtown Greenway that has drawn the most attention, from locals and from around the world. By many counts, it also draws the most use. Up to 5,000 people a day ride or walk this route. Flat, direct, and almost totally car free, its utility is indisputable. One local newspaper described it as “high[ly] trafficked, ideal for many commutes, and essential to city transportation.”

But utility does not explain fully the affection so many have for the greenway. That may have more to do with the experience it offers cyclists and pedestrians. For nearly 3 miles (4.8 kilometers), it runs as a corridor below the city’s main street grid, which literally sets the greenway apart from its urban surroundings. The route is a relatively quiet, peaceful, green world–even a bit rural. Overhead, 37 bridges, 27 of them historic, span the greenway at regular intervals, like the rungs of a giant ladder, creating rhythmic patterns of light and shadow for those moving underneath.

This map shows the Midtown Greenway as a continuous offstreet bikeway through the heart of south Minneapolis, connecting the regional Chain of Lakes parks and offstreet bikeways to the west with the Mississippi River and bikeways on the east. The small green circles indicate access points and the blue lines are major onstreet bikeways.
This map shows the Midtown Greenway as a continuous offstreet bikeway through the heart of south Minneapolis, connecting the regional Chain of Lakes parks and offstreet bikeways to the west with the Mississippi River and bikeways on the east. The small green circles indicate access points and the blue lines are major onstreet bikeways.

Another factor is the history of the greenway itself. As with many rail-trails, that story includes neglect, abandonment, and ultimately reclamation as a beloved community asset–the kind of 21st-century green infrastructure that is key to creating more livable, attractive, and economically vital urban areas. The story also involves innovation: from government agencies, from partnerships, and from a large-scale, long-term effort to rescue an urban area sinking in economic quicksand.

The Greenway’s Origins

In 1882, the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad (Milwaukee Road) laid track for its main line along what was then the southern edge of Minneapolis. By the early 20th century, however, the city had grown beyond the tracks. With trains crossing dozens of densely built residential streets at grade, conflicts–and deaths–were inevitable. Local residents began pressuring the Minneapolis City Council to address the issue and in 1910 the railroad company proposed a 2-year project to sink its tracks below street level.

Photo. Railroad tracks with garbage and litter scattered and heaped on adjacent hillside.
By the 1990s, the Milwaukee Road rail trench saw less and less rail traffic, and more and more garbage.

This proposal was unique for its time, as other railroad grade separations from that era involved elevating the tracks or building roads over or under tracks. This distinction led to the sunken portion of the line being listed, in 2005, on the National Register of Historic Places–though in May 2016 the Minnesota Department of Transportation released a preliminary draft of a reevaluation that discusses the ramifications of keeping, altering, or revoking that historic designation.

No sooner was the agreement to sink the tracks made with the railroad than another legal battle ensued, this time prompted by businesses along the tracks that now stood to lose railroad access. In July 1912, the Minnesota Supreme Court heard a lawsuit on the project, at the time the second-largest public works project in Minnesota’s history, and ruled in favor of the city of Minneapolis. One hundred years ago, in 1916, the Milwaukee Road completed the project, which included the trench and more than three dozen bridges to preserve the city’s street grid.

A Long Decline

Fast-forward 75 years, to the early 1990s. Freight traffic was drying up in the rail corridor and the trench was becoming a literal dumping ground. One contributor to a railroad photography Web site recalls encountering a barricade of “bikes, shopping carts, and mattresses” in the trench. As Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin put it, “You had to make sure your tetanus shots were up to date” if you elected to walk there. Realistically, people feared worse than a scrape from rusty metal. Crime rates and blight were on the rise in and around the railroad trench, in what is known as the Midtown Corridor: a mix of modest residential neighborhoods and industrial buildings (by then, many of them vacant).

Lake Street is also part of that area. A major east-west thoroughfare through Minneapolis, Lake Street runs parallel to much of the rail corridor, about a block away. The decline of this commercial street was especially apparent. It had retained its vitality well into the 1950s, even as the city dismantled its streetcar line and auto dealerships moved in, but stressors mounted. Businesses decamped to the suburbs, the State built I–35 West to both bisect and bypass the street, and adult-themed businesses took up residence in the 1970s and 1980s. And an economic and symbolic blow occurred in 1994 when Sears closed its 13-story, 1.2-million-square-foot (110,000-square-meter) tower on Lake Street, which dated back to 1928.

In 1995, Minneapolis endured a record-setting 97 murders, leading to a notorious front-page “Murderapolis” profile in The New York Times in 1996. Hennepin County officials regarded the downward trajectory with alarm. They convened an unprecedented Parks and Public Works Commission, which included members of the Minneapolis City Council, school and park boards, county commissioners, and representatives from business, trade, and development organizations, to assess the scope of the problem and find ways to turn it around.

Sparking a Comeback

The members of the Parks and Public Works Commission focused on a property map produced by the county Assessor’s Office. The map highlighted the fact that the only properties in Minneapolis holding or gaining value were adjacent to lakes, parks, or parkways. The commission expanded on those findings in a report, published in June 1994, titled Hennepin Community Works. The title is a reference to the Depression-era Works Progress Administration and its public infrastructure projects. The report confirmed a “strong correlation” between higher home values in Minneapolis and the city’s renowned system of parks connected by parkways and trails. The report noted that “the farther one gets from the park system, the fewer higher value homes there are.” In fact, the commission found that parks in the city’s declining areas tended to be isolated, rather than linked into the network via parkways or trails.

One of the commission’s proposals was to create “new value” in these areas by connecting the isolated parks–and nearby residents–to the larger system with new or expanded trail and parkway corridors. This type of corridor would not only improve “the physical quality of the communities,” but also would “enhance [their] social and economic viability.” The report lists more than two dozen places for “projects that emphasize community linkage,” including the “29th Street Corridor”–aka the Midtown Corridor.

“Community Works was fundamentally set up as an effort to get reinvestment in the county’s urban areas that were struggling,” says Commissioner McLaughlin. “We didn’t just invest in the corridor. We knew that government can’t do it alone, so where appropriate, we partnered with organizations like Allina Health and Wells Fargo to catalyze investment along the corridor.”

Meanwhile, other elements had aligned to help gather momentum for transforming the derelict rail corridor into the Midtown Greenway. One was public ownership of the Milwaukee Road rail corridor. Since 1980, the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority–a distinct governmental entity established by the county in accordance with State statutes–had been acquiring disused rail corridors for eventual light rail transit development. In 1993, the rail authority purchased the corridor.

Another element was the shared vision for a bicycle/pedestrian trail along this urban corridor, similar to those in use on other rail corridors owned by the rail authority. (Today, all 55 miles [86 kilometers] of the county-owned rail corridors have trails.) Two trail advocates, volunteers George Puzak and Tim Springer, had been promoting the idea with slideshows for neighborhood groups along the rail corridor; they called it a “cycling highway” to promote bicycling as transportation, not just recreation. They and other volunteers began meeting as the Midtown Greenway Coalition in 1992, which became a nonprofit in 1995 and a key partner–along with Hennepin County and the city of Minneapolis–in the newly formed Midtown Community Works project.

An 8-Year Buildout

By 1999, a master plan was in place for the Midtown Greenway as a central element of an urban planning and revitalization effort along the entire Midtown Corridor, including Lake Street. The first 3-mile (4.8-kilometer) greenway segment opened less than 1 year later, merging with the North Cedar Lake Regional Trail at the city’s western border and terminating at 5th Avenue.

A second segment opened in 2004, bringing the greenway east to Hiawatha Avenue (State Highway 55), where it made a timely connection with the region’s brand-new light rail transit line. The greenway’s third and final segment, completed in 2006, extended to West River Parkway on the Mississippi River.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Hennepin County purchased some 55 miles (86 kilometers) of rail corridors for possible future transit use. There is no current commitment to develop transit on the greenway, but the south side of the corridor—the undeveloped green space shown here to the right of the trail—is reserved for it.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Hennepin County purchased some 55 miles (86 kilometers) of rail corridors for possible future transit use. There is no current commitment to develop transit on the greenway, but the south side of the corridor—the undeveloped green space shown here to the right of the trail—is reserved for it.

The following year, Hennepin County completed the Martin Olav Sabo Pedestrian Bridge, enabling bicyclists and pedestrians to bypass the light rail tracks and the seven lanes of Hiawatha Avenue. This suspension bridge is named for the longtime U.S. Representative from Minnesota, who died in March 2016. He was known for his leadership on the bipartisan National Transportation Policy Project and for acquiring funding for numerous transportation projects, especially pedestrian and bicycling projects.

The greenway itself features one trail with two lanes for bicyclists and one lane for pedestrians. More than two dozen access points include street-level entrances, ramps, and stairways. Like the city’s other multiuse paths, the greenway is maintained year-round and is often cleared of snow even before local streets are, much to the delight of users. As one of them noted in February 2016 on Twitter: “@midtowngreenway gets . . . gold medal for consistency & plow speed. Seriously. Well done.”

In keeping with the reason for the purchase of the rail corridor, land on the greenway’s south side is reserved for transit service, though a development timeline remains uncertain. A 2014 alternatives analysis recommended a double/single track rail option, supplemented with enhanced bus service on Lake Street extending east into St. Paul. The Midtown Greenway Coalition, however, staunchly advocates streetcar service.

“We are convinced that it makes the most sense, given how the greenway has evolved,” says Soren Jensen, executive director of the coalition. “A version that has rails embedded in turf would be relatively low impact and help to keep the green in the greenway, and would be the quietest and least disruptive option for people on the trails or living nearby.”

The Midtown Greenway’s trails are plowed and fully accessible throughout the year, which is appreciated by a growing cohort of winter cyclists.
The Midtown Greenway’s trails are plowed and fully accessible throughout the year, which is appreciated by a growing cohort of winter cyclists.

Spurring Real Estate Growth

Greenway transit may be dependent on the vagaries of politics and public funding at multiple levels, but in the meantime real estate development in the area is booming. Five residential complexes, totaling more than 1,200 units, were under construction in the fall of 2012, which is especially remarkable given that private real estate development was still emerging from the recession that began in 2008.

In fact, throughout that recession, development continued along the greenway. Altogether, between 2005 and 2014, $750 million in building permit activity occurred in the Midtown Corridor (that is, within a quarter-mile [0.4 kilometer] on each side of the greenway), according to a long-term evaluation of the Community Works initiative produced in 2014.

One development even provided a sunny sequel to the shuttering of Sears on Lake Street. In 2006, the gigantic facility reopened as the Midtown Exchange, with international dining and shopping at the Midtown Global Market, a headquarters for a major midwestern health care provider, a hotel, and more than 300 affordable and market-rate residences. The northern side of the Exchange includes entrances to the greenway and offers meeting rooms and patios that overlook it.

Photo. Cyclists on the Midtown Greenway pass signs and arrows attached to the fencing that read “Eat Street.”
The temporary signage shown here was part of a series of design experiments in 2015 to help people make connections between the greenway and nearby destinations.

Although much of the residential development is situated along the western side of the greenway in such in-demand neighborhoods as Uptown and LynLake, smaller developments are in the works for the greenway’s midsection. In addition, Greenway Heights, 42 affordable apartments designed for working families, opened in 2015, just east of the Midtown Exchange.

The greenway’s effects on real estate are not limited to new construction. Property values overall in the Midtown Corridor increased, on average, by 98 percent between 2001 and 2013, compared with an average of almost 82 percent in nearby areas. Ultimately, the greenway has delivered on the Community Works mission to build long-term value in struggling areas through investments in green spaces and public works infrastructure.

A Greener, Growing Future

The value of the Midtown Greenway goes beyond attracting development and boosting property values. Preserving and adding to the natural component of the greenway remains critical because nearby public green space remains limited.

“We are pleased about the development that’s taken place–this is almost entirely infill development, so it’s making the city denser and bringing in new residents,” says Commissioner McLaughlin. “But that means we need to balance private development with green spaces and public spaces, or else we’ve defeated the purpose of the greenway. So we are careful about preserving the original vision for it.”

Keeping the balance includes several thriving community gardens, along with nearly 5,000 trees and shrubs planted by volunteers at annual Arbor Day celebrations. In addition, several private development projects resulted in plazas and public promenades built at street level. The promenades are accessible around the clock, like the greenway and city sidewalks.

It is all part of a long-term goal to increase activity not just on the greenway but also nearby. In spring 2016, Hennepin County completed a study that focused on improving connections between the greenway and Lake Street and surrounding neighborhoods. The study also identified 10 public places suited to placemaking efforts that would draw new users and contribute to neighborhood identity.

More than three dozen bridges connect local streets above a sunken stretch of the Midtown Greenway, creating a light-and-shadow experience for bicyclists and pedestrians.
More than three dozen bridges connect local streets above a sunken stretch of the Midtown Greenway, creating a light-and-shadow experience for bicyclists and pedestrians.

“That feeling of being in another world on the greenway is great, but it also means that it can be difficult to orient yourself to the rest of the city,” says Lisa Middag, a county planner who led the study.

To better integrate the greenway and its surroundings, the Hennepin County study recommended a consistent wayfinding system to help people navigate to and from the greenway and safety improvements for cyclists and pedestrians at street level. Another recommendation of the study was to work with underserved communities to encourage codevelopment of public spaces that are welcoming to more diverse users, so they can benefit by using the greenway for commuting, relaxation, or exercise.

“[The greenway] gets a lot of attention as a commuting route, but it’s also a great place for families to ride or walk,” says the coalition’s Jensen. “In fact, it’s great for anyone who’s learning to ride–it’s the ultimate protected bikeway.”

He believes that ease of use helped the Midtown Greenway play a catalytic role in Minneapolis’ recent bike renaissance. After all, biking in the city increased 53 percent between 2007 and 2015. For most of those years, two of the five busiest locations for pedestrian use were on the greenway, where pedestrian traffic increased 26 percent during the same period.

Check Out @midtowngreenway!
Local bicyclists are quite active on social media, and especially vocal about their pride and joy, the Midtown Greenway.

Screen capture. Twitter user @VarsityBikes tweeted: “Beautiful @midtowngreenway makes up for the harsh wind Pedallessoil.” The tweet included a photo of the snowy Midtown Greenway at dusk with a cyclist on the path. Screen capture. Twitter user @Janellie23 tweet: “@midtowngreenway @StreetsMN thank you! The Midtown Greenway is a tremendous asset to our community.”
Screen capture. Twitter user @case_face tweeted: “Landed a bike high five on the @midtowngreenway this morning. Bike high fives are some of the best high fives.”

Ease of use also seems key to continued success, given the ambitious plans for more protected bikeways at both the city and county levels.

“To meet our goals for bike use, we need to increase the numbers of people who feel comfortable enough to bike more places, more frequently. That makes protected lanes essential,” says Kelley Yemen, Hennepin County’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator. More people on new bikeways and the now-iconic greenway will reinforce each other as biking in the region continues to grow.

Transit service would further boost greenway usage. Many people eye the bridge that once carried Milwaukee Road trains over the Mississippi River as an eventual expansion and connection into St. Paul’s bike network–though there are numerous hurdles, not least that the bridge is still owned and used by a private rail company.

Still, it’s nice to dream. Especially when it does not diminish what the Midtown Greenway is today: as USA Today summed it up, “Exhibit A in why Minneapolis is considered the best bike city in America.”


Julie Caniglia served as a communications specialist at Hennepin County from 2014 to 2016, and currently works for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board as a communications representative. She has written extensively on urban planning, design, and livability topics, as well as arts and culture in the public realm. She received a B.A. in art history from Carleton College.

For more information, see midtowngreenway.org or hennepin.us/midtown, or contact Hennepin County Community Works at 612–348–9260.