Living in the Midway, I consider the U of M Transitway to be the best bike route in the Twin Cities–even better than the Midtown Greenway. It’s our neighborhood’s safe link with the U of M and downtown Minneapolis. We need many more routes just like it. Yet, for some reason, the Transitway is the only route of its kind in the Twin Cities. Here’s what makes it great:
The Transitway is for multimodal transit, not recreation
When it was built in 1992, no one would have considered a road cut through the brownfields of the Twin Cities’ rust belt to be recreational. It’s sole purpose was to efficiently connect the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis and Saint Paul campuses with Campus Connector shuttle buses. Although cars have always been banned, bicyclists are allowed to ride on the street and the U of M buses pass with plenty of room. There’s also a separated trail for pedestrians and bicyclists who don’t feel comfortable sharing the road with buses.
For bicyclists, sharing the Transitway with buses has a lot of advantages. For one, it’s a great winter route. Because it’s a critical link between the two campuses, the Transitway is well maintained all year round and is often one of the first roads to be plowed after a snowstorm. And, unlike many Minneapolis and Saint Paul “bike boulevards” on sleepy residential streets, frequent bus traffic quickly clears pavement and prevents the formation of dangerous ice ruts.
Even more important than plowing, the Transitway was built as a road, not a trail. Which means it has good drainage and doesn’t get covered by sheets of frozen meltwater all winter long, a problem that plagues the Midtown Greenway, the Dinkytown Greenway, and many other critical bike-only routes year after year. Indeed, this time last year the Midtown Greenway, which was built in an old railroad trench, was flooded by knee-deep ponds of half frozen meltwater for days on end.
Another problem that’s recently plagued the Midtown Greenway, the Cedar Lake Trail, and the Dinkytown Greenway has been extended and often repeated trail closures. Because they’re only intended for bicycles, local authorities seem to assume that these trails are primarily recreational in nature or that their users can easily find other routes. The Transitway, however, seems to get a lot more respect. In fact, I don’t ever recall the Transitway being closed even once in its 28 year history, even when the Green Line was being built right next to it. Last fall, a maintenance crew even had a flag team to direct traffic when they closed the eastbound lane. Imagine that!
All of which speaks to the desirability of partnering bicycle and bus infrastructure. If we want reliable & dependable bike infrastructure all year round, then we need more routes like the Transitway.
The Transitway is connected and becoming even more connected
When I commuted to downtown Minneapolis via the Transitway in the 1990s, the Dinkytown Greenway didn’t yet exist, so I had to either jog over to 5th Street or trespass through the Dinkytown trench where the Greenway now runs. It was an isolated and welcome corridor of car free travel.
Today, we can bike from the Midway to downtown almost entirely on off-street trails. In a few months, the Transitway will also connect to a new off-street trail on Como Avenue, which will in turn connect to the brand new Wheelock Parkway Trail and the Gateway Trail, which goes all the way to Stillwater. The idea of biking from Minneapolis to Stillwater without once sharing the road with cars is pretty amazing.
The Transitway also connects to bike lanes around the U of M at 27th Avenue SE, Oak Street, and 15th Avenue SE. And, if Governor Walz’s budget priorities win out this legislative session, it will be a key connection to the proposed Bridal Veil trail, the long sought missing link to Minneapolis Grand Rounds parkway.
The Transitway will also almost connect to the new bike lanes on Energy Park Drive, which will unfortunately begin just a couple blocks east at Everett Court. Hopefully Ramsey County will build a short trail along the south side of Energy Park to complete the connection.
We also need to complete the link between the Dinkytown Greenway and the Stone Arch Bridge on the east bank of the river near the U of M Steam Plant, which has been a defacto bike route since the dawn of time despite signage to the contrary. It’s the last missing link in the East River Road trail system that extends all the way from 494 to 694.
Peak usage flex.
Since its inception, the Transitway has been an integral part of the State Fair’s park & ride program. It’s also been used to shuttle fans to Gopher, Vikings, and MN United games at the TCF stadium. Because it’s a dedicated road for transit, it can easily scale up for peak events.
One problem with this, however, is that the Transitway is (maybe) technically closed to bicycles during the fair, although there never seem to be any signs to that effect and many “bike to the fair” maps list it as a viable route. In any case, the trail running alongside it remains open but has heavy pedestrian traffic during the fair.
Whether it’s allowed or not, any cyclist who tries to ride the on the road during the fair will have to deal with aggressively antagonistic shuttle drivers. Last year, a fair shuttle driver passed me with less than a foot of space between my handlebars and his 30mph bus. Since there was no oncoming traffic at the time, the only reason for his aggressive driving was intimidation. Clearly, better training and a better plan for sharing the roadway is needed. Given the State Fair’s long term inability to promote safe biking routes to the fair, however, improvement here is doubtful.
But, the fact is that the Transitway keeps peak event traffic off of University, Snelling, and Como avenues, a huge benefit to all the people who need to walk or bike across those streets.
It may be hard to imagine, but when the Transitway was built, most of the land between the U of M and 280 was occupied by abandoned grain elevators, industrial ruins, empty fields, and vast parking lots.
Today, the area boasts hundreds of apartments, Surly Brewing, the TCF Bank stadium, and a Fresh Thyme grocery store. The massive Malcolm Yards development will bring a marketplace/food hall, more apartments, a climbing gym, and office space to several of the area’s long abandoned warehouses and grain elevators.
Certainly, the adjacent Green Line has a huge impact on these developments, but the Transitway deserves a lot credit, too. There’s a reason Surly has dozens of bike racks–it’s incredibly easily to bike there.
Of course, the downside to these developments is that they’ve also greatly increased car traffic crossing the Transitway. For example, despite large stop signs on either side, drivers going to and from Surly on Malcolm routinely cross the Transitway without stopping and often fail to yield to bikes. Some even turn illegally onto the Transitway looking for a shortcut back to the suburbs.
Climbing the Hill
As any cyclist knows, if you bike from Minneapolis to Saint Paul, you’ve got to pay the hill tax. Marshall, Franklin, and Como avenues both have fairly steep climbs that seem to discourage Minneapolis folks from fully exploring Saint Paul. The Transitway, however, offers a long gentle climb, especially if you hop off before the bridge over the railroad near the State Fair.
A 28 year legacy
After 28 years, it’s unfortunate that the U of M Transitway’s success hasn’t been reproduced elsewhere in the Twin Cities. No where else do we have a corridor for bikes, buses, and trains without cars, except perhaps the Nicollet Mall, which makes so many concessions to car traffic at every intersection that busing or biking along it is a wholly frustrating experience.
As Saint Paul and Minneapolis pursue climate action plans, we should be looking for streets suitable for conversion to transitways. This would mean removing cars and creating space for bikes and rapid bus service. Doing so would improve ridership and create dependable year round routes for cyclists. We have 28 years of history to guide us toward a more sustainable future.