Minnesota's Dinkytown Greenway

Posted 04/01/14 by Laura Stark in America's Trails

Photo © Bike Walk Twin Cities

Trail of the Month: April 2014

"It isn't the longest bike trail in the city, but it is probably one of the most important," said Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, clad in shorts and running shoes on a bright August day last summer before an energetic crowd celebrating the opening of the Dinkytown Greenway.

Although only a mile long, the new paved greenway provides a key piece in a biking network that connects the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. First envisioned 20 years ago, the long-awaited project was eagerly embraced by the community.

"I could not believe the size of the turnout," says Steve Sanders, the University of Minnesota's alternative transportation manager. "By far, it was the most I've ever seen."

Paul Ogren, project manager and engineer for the City of Minneapolis, had the same impression. "I was expecting 50 people, and 250 showed up."

Photo of Dinkeytown Greenway Grand Opening courtesy of Cordelia Pierson
So with virtually no opposition, what took so long?

"The Dinkytown Greenway has a long history," says Sanders. "It was first planned back in 1994, and there's always been recognition of it as an important piece of infrastructure. But we couldn't come to an agreement with BNSF Railroad, so the original route had to be changed."

When negotiations with the railroad fell through, Ogren rolled-up his sleeves. With the loss of the potential use of the BNSF corridor for a rail-trail, the route had to be redrawn. But where?

"We had to try something entirely different," Ogren states. "All the neighboring property belonged to the University of Minnesota, so we made a series of designs, even going into the field with a can of spray paint to try and figure out how to fit in a trail."

The University of Minnesota (U of M) was fully supportive of the effort, and the trail now rests entirely on the school's property. Sanders notes that school administrators were "bound and determined" to make it happen. In particular, he points to the support of Kathleen O'Brien, vice president for university services. "She said, 'If our stuff is in the way, we'll move it,'" he affirms.

Buildings, loading docks and parking facilities made finding a suitable pathway tricky. "The Dinkytown Greenway has a railroad corridor on one side, and its paving goes right up to the walls of some of the university buildings on the other side," says Ogren. "It's shoehorned pretty good." But, with such a collaborative and cooperative relationship between the City and the University, the trail eventually got done.

Critical to the project's development was funding from the Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program (NTPP), a federally funded initiative launched in 2005 that provided $25 million to each of four communities across the country, including Minneapolis, to make biking and walking infrastructure a priority of transportation planning and to measure any resulting changes in transportation behaviors. Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is one of three managing partners and was involved in the program's design and inception.

In Minneapolis, Bike Walk Twin Cities (BWTC) is the local entity for this federal transportation initiative. "The Dinkytown Greenway, long in everyone's eyes, finally got done thanks to the persistence and funding that came from BWTC," says Hilary Reeves, communications director for the group. "Funding from the pilot program kicked into reality an incredible expansion of on-street bikeways and trail connections that really make it possible to get anywhere needed on a bike."

Part of the greenway's new route runs through an old railroad trench, with the Dinkytown commercial district (for which the trail is named) visible 30 feet overhead. A staircase—the slope was too steep to put in a ramp—will be built this year to connect riders in this "Dinkyditch," with Dinkytown proper up top. The vibrant community (once home to a young Bob Dylan) offers an eclectic mix of stores, restaurants and coffee shops. Different theories swirl about its unusual name, but the most popular one is that it's named for the small engines—called "dinkys"—that were once a frequent sight in the area's railroading past.

Photo of Dinkeytown Greenway courtesy of City of Minneapolis

The trail begins near TCF Bank Stadium, home of the Golden Gophers college football team, and continues through the U of M campus on the east bank of the Mississippi River. On the east side of the stadium, a connection can be made to U of M's Transitway, a three-mile bikeway that connects the school's Minneapolis and St. Paul campuses.

The university has truly embraced bike commuting for its students and employees (the school is one of the top employers in the state). It offers a full-service bike center on campus—just blocks from the Dinkytown Greenway—that has bike parking, bike repair facilities and showers. A dozen bike-sharing Nice Ride stations also dot the campus. According to Sanders, the amenities have made alternative transportation so popular at U of M—bike use has gone up by 40 percent between 2009 and 2013—that the University has actually had to remove car parking to make room for more bike parking.

Sanders also notes that new housing is springing up next to the Transitway. "It's a vibrant place where a lot of redevelopment is happening. They advertise the bikeableness of the area and the fact that you can hop onto this network and go places."

The Dinkytown Greenway is a boon for the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood, which abuts the university and has a high percentage of renters, largely students, whom Cordelia Pierson, president of the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association, says are "very interested in biking and walking access throughout the neighborhood and to the Mississippi River."

Photo of walker on Bridge 9 courtesy of Cordelia Pierson

She adds, "The trail's name is kind of funny right now because it doesn't access Dinkytown and it isn't green." But both of those issues are soon to change: In addition to the new staircase to access Dinkytown, the neighborhood association is fundraising to plant native prairie grasses, flowers and trees along the trail to bring a sense of vitality to an otherwise utilitarian corridor. Public art and wayfinding signage are also in the works. "We want to help the greenway thrive, so people aren't just passing through, but want to visit and stay," she says.

The trail's location adjacent to TCF Bank Stadium may also help bring in some new fans. "The [NFL's] Vikings are moving to the stadium next to the Dinkytown Greenway," says Pierson. "For the next two years, while their new stadium is being built, they'll use this one, so we're thinking of doing a 'Biking to the Vikings' promotion. Getting football fans on bikes can't be that hard."

Fortuitously, two months before the Purple People Eaters begin playing in August, the METRO light rail system—which welcomes bicyclists with onboard bike racks and station bike lockers—will christen its Green Line that will run through the heart of the U of M campus and include three new stations within a half-mile of the Dinkytown Greenway. This opens up a variety of mixed transit opportunities for residents all over the city, including connections to the famed Mall of America, the Metrodome and the airport on the system's existing Blue Line.

As the trail heads west, it crosses Bridge 9, once used by the Northern Pacific Railroad, but now open for bicyclists and pedestrians. The bridge—a dusky pink of faded U of M maroon—offers spectacular views. Lush tree tops line the Mississippi in vibrant green strokes, while white paddleboats offer splashes of brightness against the dark river.

Photo of Bridge 9 from below courtesy of Cordelia Pierson

It's an understandably popular place, especially now that it connects to the Dinkytown Greenway. BWTC, which takes annual biking and walking counts at dozens of locations throughout the Twin Cities, noted in their 2013 report that bicycling on the bridge increased by 53 percent from 2012 to 2013, when the greenway opened.

On the river's west bank, the trail ends at Bluff Street Park, but will be extended under the I-35W Bridge to 13th Avenue South this summer. From there, it's a short hop to the heavily used bike lanes along 2nd Street that lead to downtown Minneapolis.

"The Dinkytown Greenway's Phase 2 went out to bid, and we wanted to start construction," says Ogren. "But the weather hasn't cooperated. We had eight inches of snow three days ago."

In Minneapolis, this is par for the course, but the hardy biking culture is a year-round endeavor. "If you're a cyclist, these paths are open to ride all winter long," says Reeves. "You can count on that. They have the same priority as roads."

The cherry on top of the project is that the greenway connects to the Mississippi River Trail, a vast biking route that will one day span the country along America's most iconic waterway. Minnesota, 1 of 10 states in the network, is in the process of signing its more than 600-mile portion of the route (a mix of on- and off-road segments) from the Iowa border north to the river's headwaters in Itasca State Park, a project that will be completed by 2015.


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