A portion of Last Chance Gulch from Placer to the Downtown Walking Mall was closed to traffic Sunday afternoon — automobile traffic, that is.
A few hundred people took bikes, scooters, skateboards or their walking shoes downtown for the summer’s end Open Streets event, put on by BikeWalk Helena.
The event aims to create a fun, public environment that encourages more community members to walk or bike around town. Sunday marked the fourth Open Streets in two years, in partnership with the city and Downtown Helena, Inc. The last one was held in May.
“A lot of cities around the nation have this initiative,” said Bike Walk Montana Director Melinda Barnes. In Montana, Missoula has hosted its own, larger event since 2010, including one also on Sunday.
Barnes said the notion of closing downtown streets to automobiles began in Bogota, Colombia, in the 1970s, where the events are called “Ciclovias.” The streets are reserved for nonmotorized users and spawn all kinds of activities and demonstrations. The idea is to provide “healthy activities in a car-free zone,” Barnes said. “We try to make this available for all ages.”
“All over the world they do this. It’s like a street party,” said Laura Erikson, a BikeWalk member and event organizer.
While some activities were geared towards bicycling and walking, Sunday’s Open Streets event featured an eclectic array of offerings. In one area, hula hoopers stood next to jump ropers, who played alongside kids using wands to create giant bubbles. There was a station to peel and core apples, throw clay pots or try one’s hand at boxing.
And an afternoon shower that sent adults for cover didn’t deter a group of young people playing a game of lacrosse of Placer Ave.
Many of the bicycles were decorated with streamers in preparation for a bike parade at
1 p.m., by which time the rain had cleared.
Near the end of the line, Will Harmon constructed a series of wood rollers in the street that were popular among bicyclists. He was teaching some young riders to use their momentum and body weight, rather than the bike’s pedals, to carry them over the bumps. “It’s a roller coaster for a bike,” he said.
The rollers simulate elements of dirt “pump tracks” used by mountain and BMX bikers, Harmon said. These ones were just wide enough to fit a bike with training wheels, so riders as young as 2 were spinning over them.
Harmon is part of a group planning to build a large bike park in Centennial Park. The city has encouraged the project, he said, which will turn a section of muddy grass into a more usable space and give kids a place to ride. Called Vigilante Bike Park, it will begin to take shape later this month when volunteers move dirt to construct a pump track.
Harmon said he hopes the future park and events like Open Streets add to the bicycling opportunities around Helena, like its trail system. Helena has “some of the best trails in the Pacific Northwest,” he said, “and you can bike to the trails.”
“We’re going to make it a bike destination,” he added.
In addition to promoting outdoor activities, Open Streets also celebrates public spaces and aims to support local businesses, Barnes said. She noted that a number of downtown businesses opened their doors for the afternoon, and plenty of vendors served food.
“If you came down here on a typical Sunday afternoon, you wouldn’t see near this many people,” Barnes said.