Put the Focus on Walking and Rolling to School

University of Michigan student’s thesis research hosted by local non-profit Norte.

At the end of this school year, Norte wants to know — how did you roll?

During July, Norte is hosting parent focus groups, asking Grand Traverse area families to share their experiences with walking or biking to school during the year. The focus groups will be facilitated by University of Michigan student and Norte Systems and Communications Coordinator Jessie Williams.

Williams, a Traverse City native, is a student in the Honors program of UM’s Program in the Environment and an incoming Master’s student at UM’s School for Environment and Sustainability. She is conducting the groups as part of her senior thesis project, “The Formation of Active Transportation Patterns Among Participants in Northwest Michigan’s Norte Youth Cycling.”

“It’s important as a community to see what needs aren’t being met, and how we can learn from the successes of the past to fill gaps in access,” Williams said. “Norte has a proven track record in helping communities improve access for folks of all abilities. This research will help to continue that momentum in building safe and active ways to get to school.”

The region has seen a significant increase in active commuting by students since Norte’s inception in 2013 — with approximately a 463% growth in student participation in Norte’s walk and bike school programs since their first year. Norte’s Eastern Elementary Walk and Roll Ambassador, Keelan McNulty, advocates for continued infrastructure and program improvement. He helps lead a daily neighborhood bike train throughout the school year.

“Norte has paved the way in our neighborhood for kids biking to school. We are the next generation of elementary students and parents keeping the tradition alive,” said McNulty. New infrastructure to Eastern Elementary is part of a $2.1 million Safe Routes to School Infrastructure Grant currently being implemented in Traverse City. “We’re thrilled to have plenty of new sidewalks and paths on our route to school. Over the last few years, the daily ride has just gotten better and better.”

Williams’ study aims to receive input from both those who make walking or biking a part of their routine and others who commute by car or another method. In addition, Williams said that it is imperative to hear from those who have factors limiting their ability to commute to school actively — such as safety, distance, or access to a bike.

The focus group sessions will be a unique opportunity to measure the impact of Norte’s Safe Routes to School grant-supported programming, which has a particular focus on encouraging safe and active commutes to school among kids. Norte’s Executive Director, Ty Schmidt, encourages parents and guardians to share their experiences with Norte programs and the community.

“First, we’re extremely proud of Jessie and look forward to learning a ton from her research,” said Schmidt. “I encourage everyone to participate and share their perspective on what it takes to get their children to school and how we, as a community, can make it better.”

The first Walk + Roll Focus Groups are already underway. You can join in-person focus groups every Friday in July at the Norte Wheelhouse at 12:30 pm or on Zoom on Monday nights. The Monday night online focus groups are at 7:00 pm and require pre-registration. If you’d like to register, email