BY DAVE FOLEY
It was the line-up of cars jamming the school driveway dropping kids off that really bothered Ty and Johanna Schmidt. They wondered why more of them weren’t riding bikes or at least walking to school. This wasn’t a crowded metropolis – it was Traverse City, Michigan, a community with many neighborhood schools, a well-connected sidewalk grid, bike routes, a thriving cycling club and plenty of open country for pedaling.
Ty and Johanna began biking with their kids to and from school. Soon others from the neighborhood joined them.
“I began to think that maybe this idea of bike commuting might be something I could establish throughout the city,” Ty Schmidt said. “That was how Norte started.”
Five years later, “The Great Traverse City Bike Train Experiment” has 18 bike trains connecting 10 schools to a dozen neighborhoods. The trains run on Fridays until Thanksgiving and then start up after spring break. Leading each train is a Norte volunteer, who not only guides the kids to school, but teaches bike safety along the way. At the end of the school day, the volunteer meets them for the ride home.
The program quickly expanded beyond kids pedaling to school. First came the Youth Mountain Bike Team. Although racing was a component of the club agenda, bike handling skills were taught and bike tours helped kids explore cycling opportunities in Traverse City. As interest grew, the junior varsity team composed of sixth through eighth graders was established as a lead into the varsity team of high-school students. This year Ty has added a farm team made up of third and fourth graders. Establishing the farm team is part of a plan to have cycling opportunities from preschoolers to adults.
For the youngest, the Estrellas is a learn-to-ride experience for the pre-kindergarten set. With Norte’s 60 balance bikes available, the program now extends into 15 pre-schools. During the summer last year over a hundred Estrellas’ riders participated in Norte’s weekly balance bike program.
If you are out in the community, what you’re likely to see is evidence of the Bike Mas Project. During the school year, it operates out of elementary schools before morphing into a summer camp when school is out. This is where I got my introduction to Norte last August.
About a dozen of us pedaled away from the Norte Clubhouse. Once out on the street, Ben Boyce, Norte’s program director, took the lead, with a college student employee bringing up the rear. Safety is emphasized. Everyone took the street riding serious – hand signals were used and we rode single file. Stopping at a cemetery, Ben talked a minute about cornering and then the kids practiced the maneuver. The idea is that these young riders will become “bike handling ninjas,” picking up skills that will make crashes less likely. We then biked on to a playground for a “swings and slides” break. Recent rains had created some great puddles, so these were too tempting and the group raced through them throwing water everywhere. It was perfect day for this since the next part of the camp program would be devoted to bike cleaning and maintenance.
Although much of the program is focused on kids, every Sunday all are invited to a family-friendly mountain bike (fat-bike in winter) ride on the VASA trail system. With loops ranging from 3k to 20k, everyone can pick a ride tailored to their needs. There’s even a short circuit for balance bikers. There might even be hot cocoa, cider and donuts available at the end.
Last year the Norte Clubhouse became a reality. Located on the Civic Center’s grounds, the Clubhouse is the start point for rides. With a wall full of tools, this is also where the bike maintenance classes are held. More than 130 Clubhouse members having paid the annual membership fee of $10 or family rate of $25.
While it’s great having a base for its operation, Ty emphasizes that the “changes start downstream. It’s the ‘neighborhood champions’ that keep us going.” The Norte staff counts on folks living near the local schools to help find volunteers and bring attention to infrastructure projects like repairing sidewalks, creating bike lanes and identifying the safest routes to school. This year an $800,000 Safe Routes to School grant is available to begin to tackle these infrastructure needs.
Another aspect of making Norte a grassroots organization is its Youth Leadership Council. It’s made up of a small group of kids aged 13 – 18 who are dedicated to helping Norte advocate for a stronger, better connected and more walk/bike friendly Traverse City. Members commit to a one-year term where they help plan events, mentor young cyclists, volunteer at Norte events and help with community outreach activities. These activities include a free bike-valet service where cyclists can leave their bikes while they attend community events or working to shovel off cross walk curbs for pedestrians and cyclists.
“What we’re trying to do is to change habits,” explained Ty. “Making it so cycling and walking become the preferred ways of getting about. Need wheels? We’ve got 90 in our bike library ready to be lent. We want everyone to have access to a bike. Our goal is to weave active transportation into the fabric of Traverse City.”
I think they have succeeded. As an observer who spends a fair amount of time in the Traverse City area, I have been amazed at how Norte has taken off. You can hardly take a ride without seeing cyclists wearing jerseys emblazoned with the orange and blue Norte logo. It’s likely that soon I’ll be seeing the Norte logo closer to home, as Ty is working on a plan to expand the Norte program into five nearby counties.