Laura Otwell: Traverse City’s Pro Walk/Pro Bike Matriarch

This story first appeared in the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

When Johanna and I moved to Traverse City from Arizona in 2006 and bought a house on Washington Street, we knew we were moving into a great neighborhood, but we didn’t know that we were moving three blocks away from someone who would become one of our favorite people.

Laura Otwell, a Detroit girl and graduate of Cass Tech high school, is a special human being. A mom of three incredible girls, Laura, is smart, kind, generous, and humble. She is curious, thoughtful, empathetic and a long-time advocate for stronger, better connected, and more walkable, bikeable neighborhoods. I repeat, Laura Otwell is an extraordinary human being.

Laura started Smart Commute Week in 1995 and served on the TART Board of Directors in 1998, where she led their bike advocacy efforts. She was also instrumental in the founding of Norte in 2013. She was an original Team Orange Board member before joining Norte’s staff for a year as an Americorps VISTA in 2016. 

Ever passionate about providing better opportunities for kids to walk and bike more, Laura was there in 2016 when Norte began the process to assist the City of Traverse City with their ambitious $2 million Safe Routes To School grant. This grant will improve access and connection around ten in-town schools. It will transform the way neighborhood kids get to their neighborhood school and finally come to fruition this summer.

An ardent champion of fairness and equity, Laura was also a supporter of the $4.9 million sidewalk acceleration project, primarily in the Traverse Heights neighborhood. You can see an outcome of that advocacy right now on Hannah, Bates, Grant, Centre, Barlow, and Boyd Streets. These new sidewalks are a gamechanger for improved opportunities for active living and social connectedness in a neighborhood that’s been underserved for generations. They will provide safe access now and for generations to come.  

Laura fully realizes that she’s building on the work of those who came before her. This history includes the work of the talented June Thaden, who she describes as “Quite the gal!” However, I don’t think there’s any doubt that Mrs. Otwell is the current matriarch of Traverse City’s Pro Walk/Pro Bike movement. A movement that continues to gain momentum with a revisioned 8th Street, a pedestrian-only Front Street, a shared Washington Street, and an easier to cross Parkway.

Laura is a natural grassroots community leader who knows that actions, not slogans or fancy words, is the key to real enduring change. She knows that change can be hard and unpopular, but others’ resistance is part of the deal when we sign up to disrupt the status quo.

As we see the light at the end of this pandemic tunnel, I look to Laura for inspiration on how we should navigate this new normal.

Let’s prioritize our public spaces, including our neighborhood streets, and give more to this fantastic place we call home than we take from it.

Let’s contribute more to our neighborhoods’ health and measure success on the ideas we spread, the causes we stand for, the lives we help transform, and how others fare because of our efforts.

Let’s go to bat for inclusion, fairness, dignity, and equitable mobility options. And for each other. Our neighbors.

Let’s be more like Laura. Our Pro Walk/Pro Bike matriarch and an exceptional human being.