Little Patuxent Parkway, one of Columbia's busiest roadways, is usually not a place that's safe for kids on bikes.
The parkway forms a belt around the Mall in Columbia and the city's town center before feeding into Route 175. To the west, it passes by Howard Community College and Howard County General Hospital before making another loop near the villages of Hickory Ridge and Harper's Choice. Commuters, residents and people headed downtown whisk by as they drive along the city's main artery.
This Saturday, however, a local nonprofit is teaming up with the Howard County government and other community organizations to imagine what one segment of the parkway would look like if it became more accessible to bicyclists and pedestrians.
From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., the outer lane of the parkway loop in Clary's Forest will be temporarily closed in both directions for Open Streets Howard County, a free event featuring kid-friendly activities, food trucks and information booths that aims to raise awareness about the possibility of building a community with more "complete streets."
The event, which is also sponsored by Columbia Association and the Hickory Ridge Community Association, will have a climbing wall, Zumba classes and bike trick demonstrations, among other activities. Attendees will be encouraged to walk or bike the cordoned-off lane of the Little Patuxent loop.
"It's an opportunity to be engaged in the community and experience how all the different modes of transportation can work together," said Nikki Highsmith Vernick, the president and CEO of the Horizon Foundation, the Columbia-based public health nonprofit that's organizing the event.
The event is also intended to showcase how simple exercise like walking and biking can be incorporated into a daily routine, Highsmith Vernick said.
Cathy Eckley, a physical education teacher at Swansfield Elementary School, will be out on the street Saturday as her students run and bike around the loop.
Eckley, who lives in Clary's Forest, teaches a bicycling unit to her students as part of her P.E. curriculum.
"There is absolutely no question in my mind it is the favorite thing we teach all year long," she said. Kids learn the rules of the road, how to wear a helmet, biking signals and other skills as part of the class. Over the eight years she's been at Swansfield, Eckley has worked to amass a small fleet of bicycles by writing grants.
She sees Swansfield as the perfect place for biking to take root. Eighty percent of the student body is able to walk or bike to school, and the farthest student lives about 2 miles away.
"We are a true neighborhood school," she said.
Mike Sapp, another Clary's Forest resident, is also an avid bicyclist.
He and his two children, ages 10 and 13, will be riding their bikes at Open Streets Howard County.
Sapp, who occasionally bikes to work across town in east Columbia, said he wanted to encourage cycling in Columbia and in Howard County more generally.
"A lot of Columbia is okay for biking," he said of his own community, but "the problem with Columbia and cycling is there are choke points that are very difficult to navigate. Even for experienced cyclists they're not necessarily safe situations."
Displays at Open Streets will highlight ways roads can be made safer, which include crosswalks in addition to designated bike lanes.
The intent is not just to advocate for changes to one specific segment of roadway, said Ian Kennedy, director of communications for the Horizon Foundation.
"There are any number of roads this could be done to," Kennedy said.
County Executive Allan Kittleman will participate in the Open Streets opening ceremony.
"If we can improve our transportation and access to transportation, that is a good thing," Kittleman said. "Hopefully this will provide a better understanding to anyone who comes there of different approaches to moving people around."
Advocates of bike- and pedestrian-friendly streets have been busy planning for future infrastructure changes: BikeHoward, a master plan to guide bicycling improvements in the county, was released last fall, and a similar plan for pedestrian improvements, WalkHoward, will be presented to the county council this fall, according to the project's website.
Kittleman said Saturday's event represented a "beginning" to the process of improving bike and pedestrian infrastructure throughout the county, which he called "a work in progress."