Meet the visionary making Traverse City a healthier, kinder, more bike-able place to grow up—the unstoppable Ty Schmidt.
This story is featured in the August 2018 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy.
A bold idea planted itself firmly in his mind: share with his community—with the world—his family’s decision a dozen years prior to live unconventionally, to commit to acquiring fewer things to ultimately enjoy a fuller life.
Ty Schmidt couldn’t shake the thought of throwing his hat into the ring as a TEDx Traverse City speaker, not even after his wife Johanna expressed her apprehension.
“It was the night before the deadline,” Ty remembers. “And I was like, I don’t know, I don’t know. Should I do it? She told me not to … She just says I do too much and then I worry and I stress out, and that’s what happened. And then that’s all I think about and I get weird. And she was right.”
But because he couldn’t just let it go, he submitted his idea. And then, the official pitch night arrived, with Ty and 19 others vying for three top spots. “Everyone did so good. Like there’s no way I’m going to get picked. You get three minutes and you go out in front of each other and you pitch your talk.”
A few weeks later, though, Ty received the good and nerve-wracking news: He’d be speaking at the daylong May 2017 TEDx event, the 7th annual “meeting of innovative and inspiring minds.” He began crafting his message: Less Stuff. More Time. Change the World.
“I put so much work and time into it. I must have practiced a thousand times,” he says. “It was a really cool experience, to sit down and surmise your life in six minutes. That process was neat. It was an honor, and they were really cool. They make you feel like a rock star.”
It was during this 7-minute, 19-second TEDx Talk—watched not only by the live audience that May evening, but also by more than a thousand online—that Ty shared how he believes living on less leads to more time, which allows us to pursue game-changing passions. In the years since “opting out of the insanity that is American consumerism and into a life that prioritized balance,” as he puts it, Ty, 42, has turned his focus to his community in myriad ways, inspiring not only those around him but communities beyond Traverse City and even Michigan.
As co-founder with wife Johanna of the nonprofit youth cycling and pro-bike, pro-walk advocacy group Norte, he’s made both the proverbial and literal pathway for his passion for “getting kids off the couch, off their screen, outside and onto their bikes.” And, in turn, building stronger, better connected and more walk-bike friendly communities.
And in Ty’s case, seeds planted in his mind don’t simply stick with him—they grow and sprout and blossom and spread. Sometimes, in ways unexpected.
Norte’s evolution since its inception in 2013 includes increasing amounts of advocacy, particularly on behalf of areas of the city that don’t receive as much attention as downtown. Part of Norte’s grassroots methods are to recruit, train and empower “neighborhood champions” to take charge and be the change. And the initiatives keep coming: creating a summer bike camp; establishing a youth mountain bike team and youth leadership council; applying for a $2 million Safe Routes to School infrastructure grant (news of whether Norte received this coming any day now); getting more girls riding through an after-school mountain biking program; pushing for an extension of the pathway along Three Mile Road in Traverse City; expanding Norte programs to communities such as Northport and Elk Rapids; and building an all-new clubhouse called the “Wheelhouse,” among others.
As Gary Howe, a former Traverse City commissioner and author of an urban planning blog, puts it: “Ty is unstoppable.”
I met Johanna Schmidt before getting to know Ty, eight years ago this summer, when I was writing an article about bicycle commuters. Johanna, Ty and their two boys, then 6 and 3, rode their bikes often—to school, to work, to the library—from their home near downtown.
The couple, both physical therapists, also shared a full-time job at Munson Healthcare, which allowed them to spend more time with their boys. They’d also pared down significantly, going from two cars to one and eliminating extra costs like cable TV, dinners out, vacations, the latest gadgets.
Of the stories I’d heard from bike commuters for my piece, Johanna and Ty’s stood out. They seemed particularly committed to their lifestyle, to not only biking more but living on less.
About a year or so later, their oldest son, Carter, was in the news with his bike-powered composting business. Carter, then 7, had begun picking up neighbors’ kitchen scraps, composting them, and providing in return 5-gallon buckets full of locally-grown compost. All for $10 a month.
Ultimately, Carter’s Compost would spark much more than just a Traverse City bike-powered neighborhood bucket-slinging operation.
“Carter was always wanting to make money and was always selling stuff out front—random things, like he would pick out rollie-pollies from the compost pile and sell them three for a buck. He would make 10 bucks!” Ty says. “I’m like, this is great. This kid likes to ride his bike, we’re already composting, he likes to make money. It just blew up and it’s still going.”
“All of those people that we met and friends we made and our neighbors—we were out in the neighborhood, and I realized when you are outside of a car, you’re waving at people, you’re stopping and chatting, and we got to know all of our neighbors. Not just in Oak Park, but in Boardman and Central,” Ty says. “We helped other kids start their own bucket-slinging operation—there’s one in Slabtown and Central and kids have started them in other communities.”
And a lightbulb went off: “Look at all of these kids being active.”
“I commute to work all year round. But I do not expect anybody to turn into a smart commute hero and start biking 10 miles to work. I just want them to walk one or two blocks. If we can start there, and especially with the kids. I’ve seen that if you empower them to be active, they will bring along the neighborhood, bring along the community.” —Ty Schmidt
When Ty, who grew up in Dauphin, Manitoba, and Johanna, a Leelanau County native, moved from Tucson (where they met) to Traverse City in 2006, they began to notice things like insanely long carlines “wrapping around neighborhood schools” and few kids walking or biking to school. Having fallen in love with bicycles out west, the lack of kids on two wheels was troublesome.
They started inviting neighborhood families to drop their kids off at their house so they could bike with them to Eastern Elementary School, where their boys attended. Ty would lead the “bike train” in the morning and Johanna would pedal home with the group in the afternoon.
The group was small to start—two to three kids joined—but soon enough it was six to eight. Then it really took off. The train was very social, they say, with kids chatting and laughing. It was also important to Ty and Johanna to take the opportunity to teach bike safety along the way.
Then, another lightbulb moment. “What if this could happen at all of Traverse City’s neighborhood schools?”
Ty and Johanna contacted friends and talked them into forming their own bike trains, leading to the formation of Norte and its first program, Bike Mas, at Traverse Heights Elementary School, funded in 2014 by a mini-grant from Safe Routes to School. “It was once a week for four weeks and it went really, really well, the idea of teaching bike safety through adventure,” Ty says.
Eventually, the program expanded to other in-town public schools—Eastern, Central, Willow Hill—and more recently, Norte administers Safe Routes to School programs in partnership with local private schools. Another newer program: Estrellas, or “stars” in Spanish, which gets preschoolers riding balance bikes.
“We’re at 15 schools,” Ty says of Norte’s youngest riders. “In my mind, I’m going to turn them into walk-bike junkies. I’m starting them in preschool and taking them all the way to seniors in high school.”
Anne Schwartz, a Traverse City mom of three, watched in awe as Ty connected with the preschool riders.
“He simply walked into the gym, started lining up mini bikes and awaited the mob of eager little people,” she says. “The kids showed up in a crazy whirlwind and like second nature, Ty directs the volunteers and kids to strap on helmets and ride. Mind you, we are talking about 20-plus four-year-olds and three adults attempting to work together and ride bikes. For many of these tikes, it was the very first time on a balance bike. Over and over, I hear Ty say, ‘bums down and long strides.’ Within minutes, this circus show was running like clockwork. It was so impressive to see. I loved every minute and the kids did, too.”
“The whole idea of ready to learn is your brain turns on, you’ve got better cognitive skills—that’s our sell to schools,” Ty says of kids riding their bikes to school. “Put a little energy into it and I promise they’ll arrive to school a little better and ready to go.”
Before long, Norte also established a clubhouse, an official home and community bike shop at the Civic Center. Sharing tools, benches, bikes and knowledge, the clubhouse has grown so much that it’s moving to a larger Civic Center space, a fixer-upper building that’s 100 years old.
The Grand Traverse County Parks and Recreation department will fund a new roof and other, major reconstruction efforts, like tearing down an exterior wall and fence. Cosmetic improvements to the inside and outside will be funded by community donations. Norte is working to raise $25,000 to update the “Wheelhouse” and also create a scholarship to help people learn bike repair skills.
Note: Norte is celebrating its new Wheelhouse at a pre-grand opening party for supporters (any donation—big or small—gets you in the door) on Friday, August 31. The nonprofit has raised just over $23,000 of its $25,000 goal. RSVP.
In 2016, Norte launched a summer camp for kids. The weeklong camps, taking place in early June through August, takes kids on a bike train through the city each morning—adventures that include bike safety and fun exploration.
Cari Noga, a mom of two in Traverse City, signed up her then 10-year-old son Owen that first year.
“At the time we were struggling to find a group activity he liked that could foster social connections,” Noga says of Owen, who is autistic. “Both basketball and baseball had flopped and some other ideas, like drama, seemed to fizzle when I mentioned his challenges. But when I asked Ty if he would take Owen, he didn’t hesitate. As any parent of a kid with disabilities will tell you, finding a place where your kid is welcome is absolutely priceless.”
It wasn’t Noga’s first interaction with Ty and Norte; they’d met several years prior at an Eastern Elementary School playgroup, and her family was an early subscriber to Carter’s Compost.
“As a family, we also have done the Wednesday TC Rides ride to Little Fleet for going on three years. Hands down, it is Owen’s favorite activity, though we miss the Pleasanton pizza food truck this year! It’s also nice to have something all four of us, including our daughter, enjoy.”
Over time, glimpses of the orange and blue Norte logo have become increasingly prevalent in the community. You’ll see it on T-shirts worn by kids attending the summer bike camp, and on the jerseys that members of the Norte Youth Mountain Bike Team don while out on the trails.
Schwartz counts her family among those in the community who have become changed as a result of their involvement with Norte. “I personally have watched my 14-year-old Norte varsity team member go from riding casually to racing the full 30-plus mile Iceman [Cometh mountain bike race] in one year,” she says. “In fact, our whole family has been so impacted by Norte, we all have become avid bike racers in just a few years. It has changed our lives.”
Avid cyclist and racer Nate Farran, who met Ty during a fat tire bike photo shoot in winter 2014, recently signed on to help with the Norte mountain bike team.
“We have over 100 kids that signed up for our Norte Youth Mountain Biking Program this spring,” Farran says. “While standing at practice with Ty and the other coaches, it’s a very fulfilling feeling to watch these athletes accelerate and grow within a safe and organized system. Without Ty, we wouldn’t have that. Maybe local cycling clubs and teams would’ve caught on, but not like this.”
No one is more surprised about Norte’s growth than Ty himself. In mid-2017, Ty decided to leave his physical therapist position to focus entirely on Norte, serving as executive director.
“It blows my mind. Some days I wake up and … I feel like the timing is right,” he says. “You know, I just feel like we made certain choices early on, like this whole idea of spending less to work less—those decisions early on allowed us to do things that we were really passionate about. Not that I’m not passionate about physical therapy, it’s a great gig, but you know, again, to do more, to get more involved and having kids who are in it, making our community better, not just for our kids, but our neighbors’ kids, for friends’ kids and people’s kids I don’t know.”
Norte’s mission has evolved as well.
“It was ‘inspiring Traverse City youth through bicycles,’ ” Ty says. “But now I think it’s ‘youth inspiring Traverse City through bicycles.’ And hopefully soon, Northern Michigan. I think the dreams are to really make Traverse City the best we can. But there’s no reason we can’t go to other communities in Northern Michigan. Instead of 1,000 kids, why can’t it be 10,000 kids?”
Another seed, surely planted.
Heather Johnson Durocher writes from Traverse City. She is the founder of the travel and active lifestyle site MichiganRunnerGirl.com and also hosts a weekly podcast. // Courtney + Michael Kent are owners of The Compass Points Here, a photography and videography company based in Traverse City.