The Enlightened Urbanist: Deconstructing the Perfect Gatekeeper

There is neither an individual nor a group of people preventing me from using community green spaces, parks or trails. So why do I feel intimidated?

I’m not like you. I mean, I am not one of you. At least I don’t think of myself in that way. For a number of reasons, I see myself as falling outside of the vibrant community of self-proclaimed urbanists. I am neither “in shape” nor athletically inclined. I am horrified by the idea of running for pleasure. I have a form of muscular dystrophy that makes it hard for me to gain or repair muscle, and my general weakness can be intimidating. I often fear being unable to keep up with my peers, and I am likely to remove myself from physical activities whether or not I am actually capable. 

I own a bike, but it does not have fat tires. In fact, the bike I like most isn’t even a good one; I paid $10 for an antique Schwinn at an estate sale outside of Bayfield, Wisconsin. I don’t possess a snazzy U-lock, or a saddle bag to hook to my bike. Having the right gear has always felt like something of a prerequisite for engaging with the community in the ways I would like. 

I support public transportation, but I have a bus pass that can go unused for weeks at a time. I have the privilege of access to a car. Because of this, when I have the choice between waking up an hour earlier to catch the bus or sleeping longer and making a quick drive to work in my car, I choose to hit snooze once or twice.

The issue of safety has always lingered in the back of my mind. Though I grew up riding Metro Transit to school and know the routes well, I also know that I have been followed home, been hassled and felt unsafe. As a small, female-bodied person, I have been told in various verbal and non-verbal ways that I am a target for victimization; I am delicate. On top of that, the expectation that we women should show up at our destinations without wrinkled clothes, tousled hair and sweaty pits makes it difficult to pedal a 5-mile commute to our workplace. The reality of being a female urbanist seems even more out of reach. 

The truth is, when I think about the people whom I see using this city’s infrastructure, I get a sinking feeling in my gut. Knowing that my own patterns of behavior and physical limitations will not allow me to be that avid participant, bearing witness to all the new bike paths as they are paved in real time, I have settled nicely into a somewhat bitter place. In this place, things are “too far gone” to be restored, and I am daunted by the possibility of setting out for a jaunt on my bike and being miserably stranded by my tired body or a mechanical issue on my rig I have not yet learned to fix. So, you see, I am not the urbanist I perceive you to be. I am not like you. Though I wish I was. 

The “you” I am describing is the community of active urban residents. These urbanists bike, walk and jog, proliferating onto the increasingly vast network of urban trails. It’s easy for me to see these self-sufficient humans as monopolizers of the city streets and spaces I do not yet have the confidence to explore. I don’t think I am alone when I homogenize this group into the “you” that intimidates me. The face that I have ascribed to this intangible gatekeeper is an educated, white man. He is likely tall, skinny and bikes everywhere, in all weather. He has a big Adam’s apple and carries a saddle bag. I make up that he has chosen this lifestyle as a result of his ethical and socio-political leanings, rather than economic barriers to owning a car.

I am sure I could continue painting a rather vivid picture of the type of person who will read this very article. It is based on assumptions and generalizations, but I would be surprised if these characteristics were not at least partly accurate. And though I am not one of you, I am not alone in thinking this. I have many friends who identify as female, BIPOC and LGBTQIA+, who feel the streets are dominated by groups that they have largely felt alienated by in other facets of their lives.

What Convinced Me to Venture Out?

What changed my mind? Well, a friend did! Here is when my story’s trajectory and my stereotypes were altered. I made a new friend, Max Singer, who also happens to write for So Max can be described by nearly every one of the aforementioned characteristics. He has an excellent bike — one so exquisite that he gets recognized on the street for it! His tall, slender frame can be seen out and about on this purple bike, bopping around from place to place. He knows every Metro Transit bus line and route by heart. He lives and breathes the values he holds regarding transportation and community infrastructure. It’s as relentless as it is admirable. However, in the context of a friendship, these qualities I once found so intimidating (dare I say irritating) morphed into something more endearing.

With the foundation of curiosity and rapport, I felt more open entering the spaces I worried about entering. Having a friend on “the inside” demystified the both real and perceived barriers to biking in my neighborhood, most memorably. Because Maxwell knew me, he offered me practical advice and assistance through the things I felt most daunting. I was concerned about getting back on a bike since it had been quite some time since I last rode. My hesitation was exacerbated by the fear that I would not have enough physical strength to cover ground on my bike.

Maxwell reminded me of Nice Ride bikes, and noted that they have pedal assist. I think he even offered to pay for my first ride to allow me to bike around the block to see if it was something my body could manage. Sure enough, it provided enough assistance that I was able to do something I had not done in years: ride bikes with my friends and keep up. It was a wonderful feeling to bike alongside these capable and athletic urban dwellers and explore my city in the way I so desperately wanted to. 

Max helped turn on a lightbulb, and initiate a series of realizations. If my body was truly capable of doing the things I desired (with newly discovered accommodations), perhaps I didn’t need the “right gear.” Perhaps building up my strength on a Nice Ride would allow me to hop back on my vintage green Schwinn. Maybe it was never about “the right gear.” Maybe, like anything, if I make time for it, I will reap the benefits. And maybe my safety concerns can be remediated by biking in numbers. (I have at least one friend, after all!)

What Is an Enlightened Urbanist?

I am using a new term to describe those like Max, people who recognize the role they play in increasing urban traffic among those who don’t normally walk, bike, bus or hike. An Enlightened Urbanist is an active community member who accesses urban environments and assists others in their own pursuits. Enlightened Urbanists recognize the privilege in their niche, and use that privilege to myth-bust. Enlightened Urbanists understand that they may be perceived as gatekeepers, and thus work twice as hard to combat the notion.

Enlightened Urbanists share a collective vision of a more accessible city:

  • One where women and LGBTQIA+ individuals feel safe walking home from the bus stop without being harassed.
  • One where people with mobility difficulties don’t have to RSVP “no” to the group bike ride.
  • One where people don’t care about the newest gear.
  • And ones who are willing to take the time to educate without being condescending. Max’s willingness to adapt to my needs and slow his normal pace was a gift more wonderful than anything I could ever purchase. 

So, dear reader: Where do we go from here? What do I want from you?

I want you to try slowing your pace. I want you to think about a person in your life who is close to you, and who could benefit from your emotional labor. Is that person like me, an urbanist trapped in the body of someone afraid to be an imperfect one? Maybe you have a friend who thinks that, because of the body they have, they don’t belong on Twin Cities streets. No one is too old, too fat, too out of shape or too far gone to experience our streets.

Dear reader, I know that you are not merely an urbanist or a multimodalist; you are enlightened. You hold in yourself the inherent power to correct the misperception that you are an exclusive club. Though perhaps unfairly, the burden of correcting this misconception falls to you, the perceived gatekeeper.

So reach out your hand! The Ruth’s among us are waiting for you. To all the Max’s out there, thank you. And to my Max, thanks for being my buddy, and thanks for helping me unlock a new view of Minneapolis via bike!