Named the best biking city in the country last year by bicycling.com, Minneapolis was able to put another proud feather in its bike helmet this summer when USA Today named the city's favorite bicycle superhighway, the Midtown Greenway, the top urban bike path in America. Many of the 127 miles of trails are dedicated biking routes separate from cars and cutting uninterrupted across the city. For any fully developed city, creating car-free highways through the heart of a downtown area can be a difficult task to say the least. Fortunately for Minneapolis, these transportation arteries were developed along with the city as railroads and it only took a change in the times to take them from rails to trails.
Like many American cities that developed in the latter half of the 19th century, economic growth and railroads were inseparable. Radiating from industrial centers, railroads provided the fastest and cheapest way to move people and freight around the country, quickly making earlier forms of transportation obsolete. While many rural communities were often served by a single railroad that monopolized the business, urban centers like Minneapolis were sites of fierce competition, creating impressive rail networks that became a central part of the cities' infrastructure.
For roughly a hundred years beginning in the 1860's, Minneapolis railroad companies like the Minneapolis and St. Louis, the Great Northern, and the Luce Line spent millions of dollars perfecting their valuable networks. They reshaped the land to create the long, straight, and extremely flat routes necessary for efficient rail traffic; they built impressive bridges spanning the city's many lakes, rivers, and streams; and most importantly, they used their considerable political clout to guarantee uninterrupted right-of-ways through the rapidly expanding metropolitan area.
By the 1960's however, the golden age of trains was nearly at an end. Much of the city's once expansive rail system was abandoned and its homegrown railroad companies swallowed up by giant conglomerates like the Burlington Northern and Canadian Pacific. Minneapolis now faced the problem of what to do with hundreds of miles of vacant rail corridors, long, flat stretches of narrow paths connecting the business and industrial districts with important residential neighborhoods and the surrounding suburbs. The government had a plan - what better to replace freight trains with light-rail commuter trains? Local activists, however, had a different idea of what to do with the old rails. Unsurprisingly, the conditions necessary for a good railroad are the same as those necessary for a good bike trail and the city's bikers were determined to make their dream of converting the rail corridors into bike trails. Since the light-rail option was something for the future, city officials gave into the bikers and began converting the rails to trails - but only as place holders for future commuter trains.
Fast forward fifty years and the light-rail project is only just getting off its feet while the bike trails have achieved a level of success never imagined by 1970's car-oriented city planners. National recognition and a changing attitude toward biking and environmental stewardship have led the city to drop its plans to revert the bike trails back to rails, instead finding new routes for the light-rail system, sometimes right next to the bike trials as in the new Southwest Line, creating innovative inter-modal transit routes.
From the rise of railroads to the demise of the trolley system, the history of transportation in Minneapolis is one of constant change, but at least in the foreseeable future, it looks like biking is here to stay.