My Take on the Mary Poppins Effect

How much does your outfit and bicycle affect how drivers treat you?

Lovely Bicycle talked about the Mary Poppins effect in January and London Cyclist brought it back to my mind with a recent guest post from Bike Thoughts From A Broad (love that name!).

For those who are not familiar, the Mary Poppins effect is basically the idea that drivers are nicer to women bicyclists riding upright bikes with dresses and flowing hair. I haven’t read much from men about this, but maybe dapper men on city bikes get the same deference.

My daily experience cycling in Chicago supports the Mary Poppins effect. Generally, drivers treat me well enough that I feel somewhat … respected? or patronized? *shrug* Both are fine with me, as long as I’m safe. Of course, there are always the assholes outliers, but for the most part drivers are okay.

My only disagreement with the general hypothesis is helmets. A major contributor of the Mary Poppins effect, others have posited, is riding helmetless and with free-flowing hair, because of both the relative vulnerability and the “regularness” it exhibits. I wear a helmet ~ 98% of the time I ride in traffic by personal preference and I receive as much deference, if not more, than someone without. The key is a fun and distinctive helmet – red hearts! pink starbursts! Having a distinctive helmet causes drivers to recognize me, and it’s hard to be rude to someone you pass daily.

The Mary Poppins effect is especially on my mind now because I experienced a lack of the effect today. Typically I wear a dress or skirt, but today I wore a navy pinstripe pantsuit with a ankle strap on my left leg. Everything else was the same: I rode an upright Danish bike, wore a helmet covered with red hearts and rode with my typical calm assertiveness, but luxury SUV after luxury SUV after car passed me too closely. The effect was decidedly non-Mary Poppins.

Could simply wearing pants instead of a skirt lead to such a noticeable change in drivers’ behavior? Maybe. Was I more sensitive to the idea of the Mary Poppins effect due to my recent reading? Perhaps. But I felt like there was a marked difference in how drivers treated me, during both the morning and the evening commutes.

I’m really interested in what others have experienced. Men, women, pants, skirts, helmet, no helmet – have you noticed a Mary Poppins effect, or lack thereof?

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201 thoughts on “My Take on the Mary Poppins Effect

  1. Martinez says:

    I recall a study several years back that seemed to conclude that drivers tendedto give more passing space to helmetless riders with long hair. As I’m sure you can imagine, the article was discussed quite a bit in all the ensuing discussion regarding the cost/benefit of helmets.

    I certainly observe very different behavior from cars when I’m in a bakfiets with my daughter (usually singing songs to passing squirrels) than when I’m on a road bike in Lycra (rarely singing songs to the squirrels).

    • Dottie says:

      Yes, I’m familiar with that study.

      Interesting to hear that you’ve experienced noticeable behavoir differences from drivers when riding your bakefiets vs. your road bike. Those are the types of experiences I’m especially interesting, since I do not have such experiences to compare and contrast.

    • Mitch says:

      Next time you’re wearing Lycra and riding a road bike, try singing songs to the squirrels.

      It probably won’t change motorist behavior, but we do have to test each of the variables. And anyway, the squirrels will like it.

  2. It’s hard to say on a case by case basis. Maybe it was just a bad day, or maybe that ankle strap triggered some sort of “rogue cyclist” stereotype in the driver that made them treat you badly – hard to say. Either way, I wish there were LAWS everywhere that instilled fear in drivers for this kind of behaviour.

    On a completely unrelated note, is that bike you are riding in the picture (Fietsfabrik, right?) still available for sale anywhere? I tried to include it in my classic bike manufacturers list, but cannot find a retailer that carries it.

    • Dottie says:

      I was wondering if the ankle strap made all the difference, although it was a glittery baby blue one from Cyclodelic. :) It is unfortunate that most drivers don’t care (and maybe don’t know) about the three foot passing law.

      The Fietsfabrik pictured is no longer available for sale, as far as I know. A real pity because it was an excellent bike.

    • neighbourtease says:

      They’re still sold at Rolling Orange in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. I think they had some kind of major financial problems right around the time they were to open here and I’m not sure how that’s all shaken out but IIRC there are (remarkably impartial) details about the company’s collapse on Henry Cutler’s blog.

  3. Mandy says:

    I’m not sure about drivers, but I do hear a lot more positive comments from nearby pedestrians when I’m riding my “girly bike” (a bright red upright loop frame) versus my black and silver diamond frame hybrid (sporty-looking, even though it’s still basically upright). People also frequently react positively to the fact that my helmet (dark purple) almost always matches my attire.

    Sometimes I do wish there were thought bubbles above vehicles so I could have more insight into what they’re thinking…

    • Dottie says:

      Yikes, thought bubbles above drivers would give me information to shock and horrify, I’m sure. There are some things I’d rather not know.

      I love that your purple helmet almost always matches your outfits. I agree that pedestrians react positively, for sure. I get smiles from pedestrians all the time.

      • Dave says:

        I especially get big smiles from pedestrians when I stop for them at a crossing, or slow way down so they have plenty of time to cross :)

  4. My own limited experience is such that I’ve never been honked at, cursed at, told to get off the road or onto the sidewalk, been the target of projectiles or otherwise harassed when riding a bicycle with upright handlebars. Every one of those things has happened to me more than once when riding a bicycle with drop bars. I don’t wear dorky pants or spandex of any sort. I don’t change the way I ride when on different bikes. I rarely wear a helmet. As far as I can tell, the only differences are handlebars and my posture on the bike. Upright = normal guy doing legitimate stuff. Leaned over = damn roadie playing on the road.

    • Dottie says:

      Interesting! So the bike makes all the difference for you. That’s very interesting. I would think that the clothing would have more of an effect, but maybe not.

      I have been honked at, cursed at, told to get off the road and otherwise harassed while riding my Dutch bike in a skirt, but then I live in Chicago, where there are a lot of assholes outliers.

  5. beany says:

    I have this one very frilly, very bright pink skirt that billows all over the place. Every single time I wear it, drivers nearly crash into oncoming traffic in an attempt to avoid buzzing me.

    I wear pants most of the time though, and I get buzzed a lot wearing them.

    I also quit wearing my helmet for a variety of reasons.

    I am currently hunting for a blood red dress I can wear on my bike because I think it would make a very cool safety outfit to wear.

    I am curious about other’s experiences though.

    • Dottie says:

      The frilly, bright pink skirt sounds awesome. Maybe I need one of those. My bright red dress in the photo above good safety gear.

      • beany says:

        And I got the skirt at the thrift store and I love it. I want a more deeper, darker red than the one you’re wearing, although I want the cut to be very similar.

        • Marcus says:

          Maybe I’ll have to start wearing a frilly pink skirt to ride in. Anyone notice how drivers respond to drag queens?

          • beany says:

            I can’t see any guy worth his salt bothering a drag queen (either on or off their bicycle). Unless they want to get the shit beat out of them.

            There was a video circulating locally of a drag queen fight that happened here a few weeks ago – and it was not pretty. Mascara running everywhere, ripped leggings, wigs all in disarray….

          • dukiebiddle says:

            There was a 5 on 5 drag queen prostitute fight in front of my building about 10 years ago. It was crazy. I would never start a fight with one. They’ve mostly done some serious jail time. They do not fight like girls.

  6. nicolas says:

    I think the Mary Poppins / Dick Van Dyke effect may have big self-image and feedback-loop components. At least they color your perception of whether traffic is hostile to you. I say that as a dude who rides to work in a suit pretty regularly (in France); I don’t ride my hunch-down singlespeed dressed like I live in Wicker Park much anymore, but I don’t remember noticing much measurable difference. The nice vs. asshole driver interactions are more correlated to the day, time of day, etc.

    • Dottie says:

      Dick Van Dyke effect, I like that!

      It’s possible that I was more sensitive to the idea yesterday, as I rarely wear pants, but more vehicles definitely passed by me more closely yesterday than usual, although not necessarily more hostile to me.

  7. I rode to an interview in a blazer and slacks last month and blogged about it on http://www.bikesd.org. Although my blog entry was not on how drivers treated me I did notice a difference from how I am treated when I am wearing my normal jeans and a T-shirt. They gave me plenty of room and even slowed when I indicated that I was changing lanes.

    • Dottie says:

      Nice!

      In her post, Velouria discussed how cyclists dressed professionally may get more respect because it is more obvious that they are using the streets for transportation. In your case, wearing a suit is a clear indicator of work/transportation. You may have gotten even more deference in a skirt suit – or maybe just funny looks. :)

  8. Rick R says:

    I’ve ridden to school (I teach) in both standard cycling clothes (spandex and jerseys) and my teaching clothes (shorts and polo), racing bike and/or commuter with upright bars, fenders, panniers and lights..and by far, shorts & polo with upright bars has the “Bert” effect with drivers, spandex somehow makes them want to get closer, I wear a helmet either way. In and around town it’w whatever I’m wearing and a baseball cap,) I live in a small town.

    • Dottie says:

      I will put shorts and polo on the list of humanizing outfits. Do you ever ride your racing bike with shorts and polo, and if so, do you notice a difference in drivers’ behavior vs. when you wear shorts and polo on your upright bike? I’m trying to isolate the variables here. :)

  9. Bill says:

    I ride in bicycle clothing year round – just depends how much based on weather. Periodically if I need something in the village I might just wear shorts and a T-shirt and jump on a bike but that is still a 1 hour round trip – guess that is the downside to living in the country.

    I know I make judgements based on peoples appearances (yes I realize this is wrong but I am human) so I would have to imagine that drivers do the same. I stick to the same routes on my commute and hopefully the drivers recognize me or are at least a little more cognizant that people do ride bikes.

    If someone waits for me I make sure I wave and thank them and hopefully they remember that the next time they see me.

    The most trouble seems to come when we are in group rides and there are 20 or so and cars act much differently (drivers I should say – cars are always innocent) because of the congestion.

    Helmets – 100% of the time – no ifs, ands, or buts about it. A friend of a friend was goofing around in front of his house on the road and ended up in a coma. You have 1 noggin folks – you can always redo your hair when you finish up. Wear the helmet for everyone’s sake!

    • Dottie says:

      I agree that recognition has a lot to do with it. Part of the MPE for me may be simply that by wearing a dress and riding an upright bike, I stand out from the pack of Chicago cyclists and drivers recognize me day after day.

      In fairness to people who choose not to wear helmets, I don’t think messing up their hair is the reason.

    • dukiebiddle says:

      Is it really necessary to trivialize the choice to not wear a helmet as a vanity matter?* Condescension and trivialization will most certainly fail to sway me to your cause.

      *sorry.

      • Bill says:

        Didn’t mean to come across as condescending and trivializing. Didn’t think I had a cause going on but hey there are worst causes in the world that is for sure!

  10. Steve says:

    I ride a step thru and think i get a little more room on that than i do when i am on my road bike, attach the child trailer to either and cars noticably give me more space.

    • Dottie says:

      Good to hear that drivers give more space when you have the child trailer attached!

      • MamaV says:

        yeah, I also often get more space with toting kids. which is nice. But I DO notice those that buzz my bike loaded with kids and it makes me a little homicidal.

        I rarely get honked at, but I get honked at by myself more than with the kids.

      • Lynn says:

        I have a flatbed trailer, and when I’m towing drivers give me lots more room than normal. The larger and wackier the cargo, the farther they stay away.

      • Bobbie says:

        Right, because adults don’t deserve to not be run over by cars. Only kids and and their parents matter. Silly me for wanting drivers to drive safely around everyone, even meaningless, childless me.

    • dukiebiddle says:

      I think I may get a child carrier and stick a helmeted doll in the seat. ;)

  11. dwainedibbly says:

    I think you’re spot on about drivers being nicer to people they recognize on a regular basis. A unique helmet is a good idea. I do the same thing, for exactly the same reason.

    My main reason for wearing a helmet despite the fact that I’m not totally convinced of the safety benefit is that I don’t want a jury to have any reason to reduce an award to my widow if anything bad were to ever happen to me. (No helmet wars on this thread, please.)

    • Dottie says:

      Ha, I thought I was the only one, as a lawyer, who thought about juries and damages and mitigation re: helmets. :)

      Recognition must play a big part in drviers’ treatment. Extra points if they recognize you as a friendly bicyclists who follows most traffic laws.

      • Dave says:

        I’ve thought about that too…. But I’m too stubborn to wear safety gear just so some jury or judge might rule fairly some day :)

        But that’s just me, I certainly understand that motivation, as much as it sucks that it has to be that way.

  12. I do the dapper thing, but find I’m given more space by cars when I’m wearing lycra and riding the bike that I race. I guess drivers don’t expect to be held up for so long by the types of riders they know can often keep pace with traffic.
    Bike Snob NYC describes the Mary Poppins type as the “Beautiful Godzilla”. Drivers fear her sense of entitlement, that she has learned having had people stand aside all her life, shocked by her beauty.

    • Dottie says:

      The Mary Poppins type is not the same as BSNYC’s Beautiful Godzilla type. Mary Poppins is efficient and capable. She does not gaze whimsically into the distance while riding the wrong way down the bike lane. Anyway, in my experience the Beautiful Godzilla is nothing more than a gendered stereotype. Maybe they exist in NYC, I dunno.

      • neighbourtease says:

        Honestly, most people in NYC ride like assholes outliers, and there are plenty of beautiful women on bicycles here but I remember Bike Snob talking about the beautiful godzilla with much more humor than the comment above indicates. I didn’t really experience it as a gendered stereotype because he’s an equal opportunity satirist.

        • neighbourtease says:

          btw, I meant Steve’s comment, not Dottie’s.

        • Flitcraft says:

          Yup, plenty of outlier riders, but I see many more outlier drivers here. And while I’ve not noticed much difference in motorists’ [bad] behavior regardless of what I wear, I still suggest NYC cyclists always ride in a handsome set of footwear.

          Because when the inevitable passers-by photograph us out lying on the pavement, footwear’s the only article of clothing that will be visible, poking out from under the sheet. At once so tragic, yet well shod.

          Cheerio.

    • What BSNYC describes as “Beautiful Godzilla” are clueless women who don’t obey traffic laws. Hence they are pretty, but wreak havoc. Completely different from the so-called “Mary Poppins” effect, which assumes a cyclist who follows traffic laws.

  13. Carissa says:

    I think the biggest reason has to do with realigning a driver’s stereotype of what and who a cyclist is. To be honest, there are a fair amount of cyclist out on the street who do not ride predictably, which can make a driver nervous and build up resentment toward cyclists. Seeing a pretty girl in a dress blows the perception out of the water. You look like someone going slow and steady, not racing unpredictably between cars and rushing through red lights. (Not that any style of riding is an excuse to drive a car too close to a cyclist.)

  14. Stephen says:

    Hmm. This is a very complicated subject with a lot of very intangible variables. My first reaction was that this would make a fascinating academic study, but no university would easily sanction this based on liability alone.

    Nevertheless, it wraps sex, sexism, feminism, aggression, legal rights, perception, safety, expectations, territory, and even power relationships up in a very hot mess.

    All forms of clothing are a kind of uniform that sends very specific messages. When you dress for battle, you get battle. When you dress to be attractive, you get attraction. When you dress to say “hey, I’m a serious person, but I’m not out to take your lane away from you,” I think you get that kind of response.

    Generally. There are always exceptions.

    As a planner who works on bicycle issue, I spoke to a bunch of young bicycle activists the other evening. We talked at length about dress and its impact on drivers’ perceptions. I deliberately these days commute in work dress instead of kitting out in cycling-specific clothes. Most people recognize that I’m going to work just like they are, and although they may not be mesmerized by my shapely legs and long flowing hair, they still don’t go out of their way to buzz me.

    Fascinating subject!

    • Dottie says:

      Yes, this brings up all those topics you listed and it would be a fascinating academic study. Someone should write their thesis on this subject. Would be interesting!

      • Steven Vance says:

        I think more and more students are writing theses and completing projects on bicycling.

        I did my project on bike parking inequity across Chicago and a classmate of mine is doing his on bike parking access in a specific neighborhood.

        A friend of mine is doing his graphic design thesis on cycling in Chicago (with my help) and I helped some students at UIC obtain bike crash data for their GIS project.

        I’m trying to collect a list of links to these projects for everyone’s benefit and curiosity.

        http://wiki.stevevance.net/bicycling/academic_work

    • Steven Vance says:

      “All forms of clothing are a kind of uniform that sends very specific messages. When you dress for battle, you get battle. When you dress to be attractive, you get attraction. When you dress to say “hey, I’m a serious person, but I’m not out to take your lane away from you,” I think you get that kind of response.”

      I like this.

  15. neighbourtease says:

    I’m a believer in the Mary Poppins Effect based on my experiences versus those of friends, men especially, who ride more sporty bikes in more athletic gear. I have a loop-frame bike and a beater mixte. I haven’t experienced a different in treatment between bikes — I don’t wear a helmet and have medium-long dark blonde hair. I never wear anything techy.

    When I have my son with me drivers are truly deferential and very chatty in a non-creepy way, which is nice for a change.

    • dukiebiddle says:

      But there are more variables. The guys are more likely to jump lights, run stop signs and ride fast enough to pass the same cars over and over again; which all, in my experience, exponentially increases the likelihood of motorist hostility.

      Dottie’s take on being treated differently in a dress and a pants suit is interesting, though. I wonder if it is at all related to the (theoretical) difference in the way professional women are treated in the workplace wearing the same clothes. Counter-logical as it may be, could the drivers be treating a lady cyclist in a pantsuit more equally and more respectfully by not giving them an infantalizing berth of road space?

      • Dottie says:

        Interesting hypothesis re the pantsuit. A high percentage of drivers seemed not to give me even the legally required 3 feet of road space, let alone an infantilizing berth. Although now that you mention it, I often get a wide berth on a regular basis. But when I drove a car, I always gave a huge berth to cyclists if at all possible, and I never meant it in an infantalizing way.

        • dukiebiddle says:

          I was definitely using the word in a controversial way. But it does raise an interesting point. I see other commenters here indicate that they expect women to be given more space on the road than men, and that when they clearly look like ladies that more space is given to them. What is that all about, from both ends? Why would a motorist, consciously or otherwise, feel inclined to give women more space and take their safety into greater account? Either society thinks it’s okay to try to kill men, or that’s inherently infantalizing. It’s one or the other.

    • Dottie says:

      I’m happy to hear that drivers are extra deferential when you have your son with you. Makes me feel better about humanity. I don’t notice a difference in behavior whether I’m riding my loop frame or my mixte, either. I think the key is sitting somewhat upright and wearing a dress.

  16. Thom says:

    Fascinating Subject indeed! My mind gets fat from all this food for thinking.
    Umm…….to identify all the variables in this conundrum, do we need to consider the DRIVERS as both men and women? Experienced or new to the road? Gay/Straight? Do they react to vixen-ism in the same way? How about guys in tights?
    I guess beyond all that, Drivers either see you or they don’t. If they see you, they either like/respect you or think you’re being the jerk. If they don’t see you, God help them/you.
    Viva Aretha: R-E-S-P-E-C-T!

  17. Bill - Iowa City says:

    I ride year round. MTB in winter. Road bike, mostly, when there is no snow or ice, anywhere to be seen.

    About 3 years ago, my daughter asked me to fix up her old Schwinn “girls” step thru bike that she had trashed through neglect in college. Just to see how it works, I commuted to work one day. I was shocked at the room I received from cars going around me. The courtesy extended at 4 way stops. My co-workers who bike commute call it the PeeWee Herman or Paper Boy Effect.

    I put on a high seatpost to make me even more upright and visible. Added a Selle San Marco seat, and use the bike to go to the grocery store, farmer’s market, and at this particular moment with early spring in the Midwest, my daily commuter. And, again, my commute ride is WAY, WAY less stressful than on the MTB or road bike

    Incidentally, it is a rather rare bike in the fact that it has the freewheel in the pedal crank. It’s know as FSS, or Front Shimano System. Pretty cool.

    My daughter keeps asking for the bike back…but I tell me daughter that she (the bike) isn’t happy if it’s not ridden on a regular basis.

    • dukiebiddle says:

      I ride a vintage ladies 3 speed sometimes. Likewise with with my utility bike, drivers are rarely hostile while I’m riding it. On both bikes, sometimes I’m dressed professional casual and sometimes quasi-homeless, and never with a helmet. Neither professional or homeless elicit hostility; but when I’m riding my road bike and wearing more close fitting recreational wear (and a helmet, although I’m not convinced that is *the* difference maker) I do seem to have to deal with a bit more motorist aggression. I think it’s just a perception that professionals, and homeless, are viewed as somewhat valid road users; while roadies are viewed as recreationists and *not* valid road users.

    • Dottie says:

      This is an awesome story. :) I’m surprised to hear that so many men have such different reactions from drivers based on the type of bike and riding position.

  18. Kat says:

    Hmmm…I can’t say that I notice this effect, other than a different sort of “reverse-Poppins” effect, in which if I’m all gussied up drivers tend to catcall or honk at me. This is flattering, sure, but I tend to startle easily and the unexpected loud noises make me feel really unsafe.

    On many routes where I live, drivers are pretty hostile to cyclists just as a matter of course, so I’m not sure if my city is the most representative area for this sort of analysis.

    • Dottie says:

      Street harassment is a whole other issue/problem that women cyclists have to deal with. Sorry to hear that you have to deal with that. I’ve only gotten that kind of street harassment on a bike in Chicago once or twice. I think a lot of that depends on the city/area where one is riding.

  19. Matthew Sterling says:

    What a great discussion! I have definitely experienced the Dick Van Dyke effect. I started doing a lot of my bike commuting and more utility type riding in a tweed jacket last fall and have been amazed by how much less abuse I get from Minneapolis/St. Paul drivers. I’m still a little conflicted about this. Part of me wants to do all of my riding in a full lycra skin suit just to thumb my nose at the outliers (what a great euphemism). Another part of me loves how well the tweed jacket goes with my handlebar mustache and I have to admit that rude, aggressive and often illegal treatment from drivers becoming the exception rather than the rule is a welcome change.

    I still do a lot of lycra clad riding on a road bike. Based on years of experience I have found that about one negative interaction with an outlier per road bike ride is typical. My bike commute is on a Surly LHT with drop bars and the average negative interaction is more like one in five rides. Style of dress is typically loose fitting knickers and a sweater or t-shirt. Now that I’m sporting the tweed jacket the negative interactions seem to be more along the lines of one in twenty rides. In all cases I do wear a helmet. Frustrating to think that the same people who are able to respectfully share the road with me will so drastically change their behavior when I’m suited up differently.

    • Bill - Iowa City says:

      Back in the…..day….Because I was a CYCLIST by damn…I ONLY road my road bike with lycra racing kit…EVERYWHERE…ALL THE TIME. Goodness, to ride anything else? That would have been beneath me (sarcasm intended).

      A trip to Italy in 2005 changed my mind. I expected to see all these beautiful works of bicycle art by Colnago, Pinarello, De Rosa and more. I saw none. In a week, I witnessed one “team” of about 10, dressed in lycra, on a group ride. I saw literally thousands and thousands of bikes exactly like the vintage Schwinn step thru I mentioned in my previous post.

      A cyclist is a cyclist is a cyclist….

    • Dottie says:

      Yes, that is frustrating! I can understand your conflicted feelings about wanting to ride in lycra all the time just to thumb your nose at those drivers. Again, I’m very interested to hear the extent to which male cyclists experience the Dick Van Dyke effect based on their bike type. The tweed and handlebar mustache combo sounds awesome. :)

      • Matthew Sterling says:

        Thanks, I’m not pretty enough to try pulling off a truly stylish look so I just go with eccentric.

        All of my personal cycling experience is with fairly traditional road bike setups. Minneapolis has had a lot of success with a bike rental program called Nice Ride MN. I think it’s pretty similar to Velib. Everyone I’ve talked to who’ve used the bikes sound like they’ve gotten treated very well by drivers and I can’t think of any cases where I’ve heard drivers complaining about the nice riders being out on the streets. Could be some version of the Mary Poppins/Dick Van Dyke effect. Nice Ride MN address is below.

        https://www.niceridemn.org/

        • Dottie says:

          That’s cool. I guess drivers understand that those using Nice Ride are simply normal people trying to get somewhere – like everyone else on a bike in the city.

  20. cris says:

    I am generally skeptical about the Mary Poppins effect since I, for one, have not noticed any difference in how I’m treated regardless of what i ride. I started out on an urban hybrid and never owned any bike specific clothing, went through a phase where I rode only drop bar bikes and either spandex or shorts and t-shirts, and now my city riding is either on fixed-gear conversion Raleigh with albatross bars and an upright posture, or a drop bar road bike and also alternating between bike-specific clothes and normal office wear.

    As I think I mentioned to V in her post, if anything, I think Mary Poppins is more or less limited to women and only if women look especially feminine. My girlfriend rides exclusively on an upright hybrid, and but she’s usually wearing pants and prefers her hair to be cut short. We both seem to have the same number of war stories from our commutes.

    To chime in with another poster — we both do get a very noticeable amount of slack when we use our flatbed trailer, but I suspect that it’s because the trailer presents a much wider footprint to the driver. Psychologically, I think most driver look at a bike towing a trailer and think it’s too wide for sharing a lane safely.

    • Dottie says:

      That’s interesting to hear. Several men commenting here have noticed the effect, so it does not seem to be limited to women. Maybe your location plays a big factor here. You’re in Boston, right? A city not known for patient drivers.

      • cris says:

        well, in BostonCambridge it’s a combination of impatient drivers and narrow roads. I ride the same roads as Lovely Bicycle and cycler, and we all have different takes on this. Though, of course, in the vein of anecdata + confirmation bias cocktails, The Girl and I may just not be noticing because we’re just accustomed to the aggressiveness.

        The other way to look at it is that the Mary Poppins effect seems to presume that drivers are like some alpha road predator who chooses, either subconsciously or semi-consciously to harass a cyclist based upon behavior. While that does occur with some jerky drivers, I don’t think it’s a significant portion of road users; and certainly not enough to explain your experience with the pants vs. skirt dichotomy. I, for one, certainly don’t know any people who, when behind the wheel, actually think “Oh, look, guy on a road bike. I can totally squeeze past him. Oh, wait, girl in a skirt with dutch bike. I need to give her space.”

        I think that a number of close calls occur with drivers who are distracted or not accustomed to seeing cyclists. I still believe that most car owners, if given a choice, do not want to hit a cyclist. Sometimes they don’t get that choice because of a variety of factors (they aren’t paying attention or because the cyclist does something rash or because a road or intersection has poor visibility) … if dressing in skirts and having flowing hair or riding upright have an effect, it’s likely because it’s presenting a wider profile of the cyclist to the driver, and so the driver is either noticing or subconsciously giving more space because the skirt “looks” bigger … like the way that hitching a flatbed trailer to our bike only adds, maybe 6 inches of lateral footprint to the left of the bike, but usually results in a few feet of additional space from cars.

        • Dottie says:

          I agree that drivers would prefer not to hit a cyclist, but they also know that they can pass us very closely without hitting us. The perceived size factor does make a lot of sense. Someone riding an upright in a skirt takes up more road space, at least visually.

          The more I read and think about the issue, it seems a major factor is that a driver is slightly startled out of his or her drivers’ coma when seeing something different in the path. In both Boston and Chicago cyclists are a common sight, but a cyclist who stands out in some way as particularly human could make a driver more aware of the fact that there is a vulnerable road user ahead. The driver may slow and give more passing room as an automatic reaction.

  21. Sara says:

    This is too funny. I had an experience recently where a man in a car told me what street the bike lane was on as there was not one on the street I was on. I really think he was concerned for my safety and was trying to help me. I was wearing a dress and no helmet (bad, I know) and I think that had something to do with it. I’ve never heard of the MP Effect but it might apply in this instance!

    • ridon says:

      that’s kinda funny! last week, i was about to make a left turn on a street with a bike lane and was stopped at a 4 way stop. this man whose car was to the right of mine rolled down the window to tell me the bike lane was on the right. i said: “yeah i know. i’m actually going to make a left turn as soon as this bus in front of us moves.” he nodded and said, “oh, sorry.” i think he genuinely was worried and not telling me in a condescending way.

      i’ve found that in streets with medium traffic where the drivers don’t see me until they’ve picked up a lot of speed will pass me really close or right hook me. if it’s stop and go, they can tell that i’m a woman (long ponytail in the back), they’ll give me the right of way (i’ve had a lot of cars make a left turn into my path because there are no cars behind me). when the warmer weather hits, they’ll be more aware of cyclists. and i’ll look less androgynous with less layers bundled up.

    • Dottie says:

      I know we just talked about this in person, but I’m gonna reply to your comment, too. :)

      My initial reaction would have been annoyance, for sure. But I can see how the guy thought he was helping, especially since you were on LaSalle and Wells is only one street over. If someone really didn’t know the city, that person certainly would benefit from the tip, since Wells is 1000x better for bicycling.

  22. cycler says:

    Traffic is like a river, you can never do the same commute twice, and I am actually surprised how infrequently I recognize other bikers, let along other cars, so it’s really hard to get any sort of real data. It’s all anecdata or at best epidemeology, which the Scientist assures me isn’t “real science”.
    I commute almost exclusively in skirts and dresses (have a hard time finding pants that fit well, and just am more comfortable that way). I wear a (bern muse) helmet 99% of the time. About twice a month, I wear pants (usually jeans) to a job site and then ride to work afterwards. I do feel that I get treated a little worse( closer passes, more likely to honk or tailgate) when I’m wearing jeans.

    Recently I was riding in light rain that turned into a douwnpour. I had to break out the emergency poncho-bright yellow and super geeky. I got really scarily buzzed several times and honked at when I was riding in the yellow poncho. Partly I was taking the lane because visibility was so bad and I wanted to stay out of the door zone, so people were a bit hostile because of that. Despite aggressively controlling the lane, I got really closely passed, out of what I can only believe was an attempt to “teach the freak a lesson”. I really think that people thought I was a freakish “other” and didn’t feel that they had to respect me as a human.

    My theory is that professional clothes make you look both like a “normal human” and like the kind of respectable person who the cops (or a jury) would take seriously, and who would be willing to call the cops/ file a suit if necessary.

    That doesn’t explain the difference between a skirt suit and a pant suit though.

    • dukiebiddle says:

      Oooooh, my neighbors on both sides of me are epidemiologists. I’m going to tell them what you said, and they are soooo gonna wanna fight. ;)

    • Dottie says:

      I can see how drivers would treat you as a total “other” in a bright poncho in the rain. I think drivers assume anyone bicycling in the rain is a total nutball.

      I rarely recognize cars on my commute either, but I know there is at least one co-worker who drives by me every day, and she did not realize it was me until she saw me walking in the building carrying my Nutcase helmet. She said, “That’s your helmet? I didn’t realize that was you!” So now I am much more aware of the fact that people notice and remember me, even though I don’t recognize them (all cars look the same to me).

  23. [...] her blog Let’s Go Ride a Bike, Dottie writes about the Mary Poppins Effect, saying she failed to experience it on her latest ride after wearing a [...]

  24. Eli says:

    I agree with Kat: when I bike in skirts (which I do fairly often), the only difference I notice is the catcalls. Then again, my hair is shortish (and always under a helmet anyway), so it might not be “helping” me.

    Also, I wear fairly flowy skirts, rather than the kind that most people would perceive as business skirts, so I might be lacking the efficiency needed to pull off a Mary Poppins.

    • Dottie says:

      Sucks to hear about catcalls. I wouldn’t assume that people in Minneapolis would be particularly crude. I never get catcalled in Chicago.

    • Jim says:

      When in serious training mode I got the infrequent catcall. It felt great!

      Once I noticed a car in the adjacent lane pacing me for a long time. We were going about 33mph. It pulls up, the passenger rolls down her window and said, “You have the nicest calves I’ve ever seen.”

      I thanked her…Big smiles all around.

      • Dottie says:

        That’s a cute story to read. :) Unfortunately, I could not have an experience like that without feeling threatened and uncomfortable. The dynamics are very different between men and women.

  25. stan says:

    I think if you are wearing a dress (especially w/o a helmet) 1) you look like an inexperienced cyclist, so people may give you a wide berth. “She’s not a freak. She’s just trying this biking thing out.” 2) you don’t look sporty and thus don’t look like competition in traffic…like someone who would blow through a stop sign and do other annoying things that p/o some drivers. Looking especially pretty or gentile vs. a business suit would magnify the effect.

    • Dottie says:

      “She’s just trying his biking thing out.” I kinda like that. I wouldn’t mind if drivers thought that, as long as it makes me safer.

  26. AJL says:

    Great post. I wish I could ride in skirt/dress but sadly my commute requires lots of atheticism (hills in Seattle) and frequent rain, even in summer.

    I don’t notice much of an effect at all, even when I obviously look feminine (pink or pastel spandex, ahem, accentuates my curves) and have my hair in a ponytail. Drivers here just don’t seem to care so long as you are in front of them “blocking” their way.

    This summer I was tooling through my neighborhood on a liesurely ride in my street clothes (tank top/shorts) and was seriously hassled by a driver for not moving over so he could get by (there was not room for me to do so).

    At least here, I have not experienced this effect.

    I have been known to stop conversation when I dismount my motorcycle and take off my helmet…but that’s another discussion.
    ;-)

  27. Steve says:

    After I got my Workcycles Transport I expected a little more width because the bike is so impressive, and has better lighting than my old bike. But I was wrong – pick up trucks and mini-vans still try to wing me here in Grand Rapids, and drivers of smaller cars treat me really well – younger drivers and seniors give me the most clearance. Middle age people give me the least. I haven’t really drawn any other conclusions. Good topic!

    • Dottie says:

      Interesting to hear about the difference in how drivers treat you based on their demographics. Luxury SUV drivers are the worst, in my experience, and they are everywhere on the north side of Chicago.

  28. RobW says:

    Wow, what an interesting theory, and lively followup. In my area of the south, it seems that clothing does not change the attitude of the driver near as much as me slowing down so they can pass in the no passing zone, as illegal as that is. Most roads down here have the outer white line, and maybe 1-6″ of shoulder, so taking the lane is the norm. If i am forward focused, and they sneak up on me, they let me know it, plain & simple. Jeans or slacks coming home from church made little difference… sorry, not testing a skirt on a ride in these parts! :-)
    I have found one thing that commanded a great deal of driver respect/fear, and that was my TourEasy Recumbent pulling my Bob Trailer with the propane tank from my gas grill for exchange. I was graciously given not only the shoulder i was on, but a full lane of clearance beside me, very few ventured closer. :-) (ok back to topic) I’m not sure of the validity of the theory, but love the imagery. I certainly do like seeing ladies looking excellent, the bicycling is a plus. When a lady can look great AND bicycle, wow!

  29. Jake says:

    During November and December, I deck-out my road bike with LED Christmas lights, and a little glowing plastic Santa on the rear rack. Nothing but positive responses from motorists and pedestrians with that get-up! I wish I could say the same for the other 10 months of the year…

    • Dottie says:

      Lovely. Who could be mean to such a happy site? Only a monster. :) Maybe you could deck your bike out with flowers for the spring.

  30. N says:

    Guy’s are nicer to hot girls and I think girls are more attractive without helmets.

  31. Simply Bike says:

    This has been such an interesting post and interesting comments following it. I wish I could chime in with something more substantial, but I don’t think I’ve noticed the Mary Poppins effect here. I also can’t fully say since even on my roadbike, I am often sporting heels and skirts, so I don’t know how drivers would treat a more ‘sporty’ and less ‘feminine’ looking cyclist. But in general, I feel like drivers here are pretty bad. Even when I’m wearing a work outfit (dress, heels, etc) and riding an upright vintage bike, I don’t ever feel like I get something approximating respect or friendlyness from most drivers.

    I think the MP effect must be very context and location specific. The fact that there isn’t much of a cycling culture here and that many people in town love their big cars and their pick-ups, means that we’ve got a long way to go to seeing the MP effect take hold.

    S.

    • Dottie says:

      That’s too bad. I hate the thought of drivers not being friendly to you. You are the friendliest! Location does have a lot to do with it, based on the comments, although I haven’t been able to pin down a common set of factors that the different bike-unfriendly locations share.

  32. seejenbike says:

    I definitely notice then when I wear regular clothes, not spandex and neon that is, that I am treated kinder by cars. However, if I am not wearing a helmet I feel I am treated worse regardless of what else I am wearing.

    It bothers me that I am treated differently due to my gender though, it shouldn’t matter, nor should the clothing you wear.

    • Dottie says:

      I think you’re the first in the comments to mention that you’re treated worse without a helmet. Maybe some drivers see helmetless cyclists as less serious road users.

  33. francis says:

    I think a flowy dress provides more visible surface and also takes up more horizontal space… thus the driver moves a bit further away to avoid catching the dress with their rear view mirror or other car part.

    • Dottie says:

      There’s gotta be something to that. Makes sense. Also, a flowy dress is so out of the ordinary for a driver to see ahead of them, I think it snaps them to attention and they automatically give more space when passing.

  34. Stephen says:

    I’m a professional who works with (and for) the public, and I generally wear professional clothing. I pick my clothes carefully for public meetings–you want to dress to engender respect and seriousness, but you don’t want to intimidate. Ties and jackets are appropriate for certain venues, and dressing a bit down works better for others.

    I think the same dynamic works for bicycle commuters. When I wear bicycling clothing on my commute, I perceive more of a general lack of respect/hostility then when I wear street clothes (e.g., nice ones). I hesitate to extrapolate that to the female gender, since I’m a man, and it’s anecdotal only, but since I began riding in professional street clothes and shoes (sans tie but often with a blazer), I’ve received no negative reactions from drivers that I can remember. A few buzz me a bit now and then, but I try to avoid those roads nowadays anyway.

    And then, living in a town full of lawyers, maybe they think I’m one and they just don’t want to harass or hit me anyway?…:-)

  35. Kagi says:

    Yep. I never wear overt bike clothing, but (compared to casual jeans, etc.) I’m usually treated better when I’m wearing my usual tweed jacket / repp tie professor drag. And better without helmet than with.

    But if you want to be treated _really_ well, try full academic regalia — in a cap and gown, you can get away with anything!

    Any men/women of the cloth out there? I’m pretty sure that a clerical collar will get you VIP treatment, too.

  36. Lauren says:

    I noticed this entry on Pacific Coast Cycle’s blog, and thought about this discusion:

    http://pacificcoastcycles.blogspot.com/2010/03/talk-radio-may-be-bad-for-your-health.html

    Though it’s not specifically about the Mary Poppin’s effect, it still talks about the relationship between bicyclists and motorists. He states that “gasoline makes people stupid,” and while that seems like an odd statement to make, I think there’s definitely a good point. When you get in a car, you just go. Being able to go whenever I need to gives a sense of entitlement.
    On a bike, you have to work to move anywhere. They are seen as a lesser vehicle and therefore have no place in getting in the way of a motorists sense of perpetual motion.
    As someone who drives a car and rides a bike, I think I can definitely understand this mode of thinking.

  37. Dan says:

    I bike with my kids a lot (often one of them is on the back of my Yuba cargo bike) and that makes the biggest difference. Though it’s interesting, because while I generally wear a helmet, I don’t always (and have long hair) so sometimes from behind I think people assume I’m a woman until they pass me. The change in reactions is sometimes noticeable at that point. But I’ve never tried biking with a skirt on an free flowing hair at the same time. I’ve had all the typical rude things while biking (including a bottle rocket launched at me)–but I wouldn’t always assume the honks aren’t friendly. Sometimes they are friends saying “hi,” or just friendly people showing their support for biking.

    • Dottie says:

      Have you ever gotten “typical rude things” with you kids on the bike with you? That would be awful.

    • I see a larger difference in motorists’ attitude toward me as a cyclists when I have a child on the bike. When we’re on the tandem, we get treated like royalty. Literally, most drivers with whom we make eye contact are smiling at us. It’s like an elixir that cures all cycling-motorist ills!

      It was similar when I had a bike-mounted child seat, but not the same. With the seat, I was treated with much more respect and consideration than without a seat, but nothing invokes a smile like a kid with her dad on the tandem! No joke!

  38. Julie says:

    I talk about this “effect” on my blog but I didn’t know what it was called. I notice the difference in the politeness of cars around me, and I make a conscious effort to choose visible, lady-like clothing every day! I’ve even given-away a jacket that was very black and masculine because I had an especially aggressive time from other cars.

    • Dottie says:

      Your blog is awesome! I love that you make a conscious effort to be ladylike on a bike. My ladylikeness factor has certainly gone up since I started bike commuting. Most non-cyclists would assume that bike commuters have to start dressing grubby for the ride, but obviously you and I know that’s not true.

      • Julie says:

        Aww, thanks! Your blog was big in helping me learn how I could do it! Ladylike on a bike!

        I’m also thankful to you for being an example of helmet wearing, politeness and safety.

  39. Steve A says:

    So, does one get a prize for making the 100th comment?

  40. Steve A says:

    Re Mary Poppins. Let us remember that Mary was “practically perfect in every way” which would certainly explain extra motorist consideration…

  41. Angelo says:

    I find the harassment depends more on traffic and location; some may just change over time.

    I normally ride upright English 3 speeds (MTB if there’s much snow), and don’t own lycra. Wearning chinos or jeans or the occasional suit and upright bikes don’t reduce harassment. (As a man, I haven’t tried dresses or skirts)

    In suburban Delaware, people generally follow normal traffic rules and let me do the same. I find I get more profanity if I am stopped at red lights or in congested traffic (i.e, when cars in front of me are slowing me down, following drivers tell me to get out of the @#$% road).

    Harassment has increasing with more bike lanes I find miserably designed. Many motorists are convinced bicyclists cannot leave the bike lane to make turns, avoid parked cars, or use streets without bike lanes. (all problems I’ve had)

    In fairness, riding with a friend I have noticed more honking and profanity when she stops at red lights (in her car).

    • Dottie says:

      Yes, it helps to remember that drivers are pretty awful to each other a lot, too.

      I’ve had the experience of drivers honking at me to get out of the road, even while we are all in a line of stopped traffic and I’m not slowing anyone down. Morons.

  42. Dave says:

    It’s a bit hard to pinpoint the cause, as I’ve always ridden upright bikes, in non-cycling clothes, sans helmet, and I live in the inner part of Portland, but I feel like 99% of the time, I’m treated with respect, or at least patience, by drivers I come in contact with.

    Of course I also intentionally avoid roads where I would be holding up traffic and having to be mixing it up with lots of cars. One nice thing about Portland is that avoiding busy roads is usually easy to do.

    • Dottie says:

      PORTLAND! The dream is a live there. Cue jealously. :)

      • Dave says:

        And not just the dream of the 90’s, either :) The dream of the future. Well, that’s Amsterdam, to be honest, but Portland is moving that direction.

        Any plans for a visit? :)

        • Jen says:

          Yes, come visit! Having just moved to Portland from Seattle I can agree that drivers treat bikers with way more respect than when I was biking in Seattle regardless of clothes or helmet.

  43. Bettina says:

    All this is very interesting! My work commute from the train station to my office involves riding through a park, so I don’t usually get that much exposure to car traffic and haven’t noticed the Mary Poppins effect in drivers. Also, as a European (German), I think drivers are quite used to bikes (the fact that this might actually make them less rather than more careful is a different story).

    I have, however, noticed it quite a bit in pedestrians. Especially elderly people are a lot less likely to complain about having to share the sidewalk with cyclists (shared sidewalks are quite common over here) if they’re

    – a woman
    – wearing a skirt/dress
    – or some other professional looking outfit (e.g. a suit)
    – riding an upright bike.

    Jeans, bike clothes, and a ‘sporty’ bike immediately prompt comments about reckless cycling, respect, etc., even if you’re just riding normally.

    Have you experienced the pedestrian variety of the Mary Poppins effect?

    • Dottie says:

      Hello to Germany!

      I have experienced the pedestrian variety of the Mary Poppins effect. I rarely ride on sidewalks because it’s illegal in Chicago for adults, but when I do, I don’t get any mean looks and of course I slow to a crawl.

      But I have been yelled at by a prim elderly woman walking her tiny dog in the park. Bicycling in this park is allowed, I slowed to about 3 miles per hour and gave her at least 5 feet of passing room. She got really pissed and yelled after me, “You’re supposed to ring your bell! You’re supposed to warn us! You didn’t ring your bell!!” Maybe she and her dog had a bad experience in the past, so I can’t judge her, but it was pretty out there.

  44. Janice in GA says:

    So the bright clothing/helmets/etc that are supposed to make us visible and keep us safe are just markers for cars to target?

    Wonderful. :(

    I don’t wear skirts or heels or ride w/o a helmet or ride an upright bike. I’m pretty SOL, I guess. :( About the most I can say is that I rarely wear lycra.

  45. bongobike says:

    Long, flowing hair, classic girl bikes, skirts and heels get you better treatment? This bald fart with a goatee gets treated fairly well while riding his recumbent, I’m happy to report. I think there are two main reasons for this: 1. Austin has fairly respectful drivers; and 2. I ride like a vehicle on the road, obeying the rules, behaving predictably and generally riding carefully. I think #2 is the most important factor. I don’t do stupid things, so I don’t piss off drivers.

  46. dwainedibbly says:

    So, to recap, I need to:

    1. Dress like a nun
    2. in a brightly colored, long, flowy skirt
    3. with a baby carrier on back of my bike
    4. with a doll in a real baby helmet
    5. after I shave my facial hair

  47. dwainedibbly says:

    We need a control group for this “Mary Poppins effect” thing. Perhaps the World Naked Bike Ride here in Portland in June could serve that purpose? ;)

  48. Apple A Day says:

    I never really thought about this before! I ride a mint green upright bike and pretty much only ever ride in my street clothes which are usually a tench coat, a brightly colored scarf, short cotton skirt and boots. A lot of people smile at me when I pass (I assume that’s because I smile a lot when I ride but it’s also possible that a young lady riding a bike in a dress is charming.) and cars usually give me a pretty wide berth.
    I’m usually only ever beeped at by pickups or SUVs, they seem to be the only ones who are annoyed at sharing the road with me. Once one pulled up next to me on a quiet street and said, “Hey honey, you’re taking up too much of the road! Move over!” He could have just passed me, but I got called honey and lectured. I should have just ignored it but I detest being called “honey” so I shouted back, “Maybe your car is too big!” Then he passed me very fast and very close by, just to make a point. I wondered at the time if he assumed I didn’t belong on the road because I was a cute girl on a cute bike. Now it occurs to me he might have been even ruder if I’d been on a road bike.
    Yikes!

  49. Scott says:

    I definitely notice this when riding in a jacket and tie (my usual riding gear). Peds smile at me all the time, and drivers are noticeably more courteous. It may help that I do not break traffic rules. When I tell drivers they passed me too closely, they sometimes say “sorry,” which never happened when I was dressed like a hipster doofus on a fixed gear.

  50. Gerwerken says:

    My husband and I both ride. We have had experiences where the same car treated the two of us differently. In one instance both of us were in spandex, helmets, and on road bikes (his bright green, mine pepto pink). The SUV that passed us gave me at least 4 feet of passing room. When they passed him, about 20 feet ahead of me, they passed very close, honked the horn, and cursed out the window. We were both traveling at the same speed, on the same road, following all laws, and in both cases there were no other cars on the road.

    Was it all the pink bike?

  51. [...] if they’re women, riding upright, and wearing street clothes” (per GGW). Here are some general thoughts on it; Tales from the Sharrows also snarked on the “phenomenon” in a post the [...]

  52. James Reynolds says:

    Mainly when the bicyclists are wearing skirts or dressed to the nines, I think a lot of it has to do with psychology.

    The “Male Gaze” has a long history in literature (like it or loathe it, it’s there), so a lot of men will slow down and pass more safely, not to pass safely, but to get a better look at (what appears to be at least) the woman bicyclist. The end effect of them passing safely is a bonus, though they really should do that for everyone all the time.

    In my personal experience, some female motorists I know will slow down and pass safely to see what clothes the (what at least appears to be a female) bicyclists is wearing. It’s not so much about the bicyclist or the fact that they’re bicycling. For them , it’s about the clothes they wish they themselves had.

    Sometimes it is about the bicycle itself. When I’m designated driver for my wife and we pass a bicyclist, I always note their bicycle, and I have noticed I always slow down and pass with even more than the usual safe distance just to get a glance at the bicycle if it appears to be one I like (usually touring or cargo bicycles [I love Surly Big Dummy bicycles] or bright ones (orange or yellow or lime green).

    Spandex wearers seem to get treated the same (badly, no matter how safely and proper they’re riding. In fact, the more legally they’re riding the more they tend to get harassed by ignorant and uneducated [about bicycling] motorists.) here in North Alabama regardless of gender.

  53. Although not completely comparable, scooter riders have some of the same jousting incidents, as do motorcyclists. The analogy is not perfect, bikes are more vulnerable…but.

    The way one rides, the way one conducts oneself, and even your internal mind state affects the motorist that you share the road with. that’s a truism. Bike, scooter, MC< even when driving a car.

  54. Bill says:

    I ride a recumbent in the Portland, Oregon area. I feel that the unusual shape of the bike makes me more visible. I have ridden for about 4 yers, and can count the number of negative comments/actions on one finger. I do get lots of comments, but more often “nice ride” “Is that as comfortable as it looks?” I also do a lot of local rides/events dressed as a pirate, a bike-a-neer if you will. I get lots of attention, but it is usually only to honk and yell “YARRRRR!” I do agree that the standard road bike with the drop bars and spandex, seem more invisible to some drivers, and an offense to others. The relaxed bike, work clothes, or costumes make one a fun guy to most folks, and not worthy of some of the negative feelings that the “regular” cyclists might get.

  55. Glenn says:

    It may be all in my head, but it seems like cars give me more space when my jacket/vest is open and flapping in the breeze than when it is zipped. May be something to do with the random movement and unpredictability of long hair and/or flowing clothing that affects the driver’s subconscious.

  56. Susan says:

    So, if I’m a cute white woman that conforms to patriarchal gender norms about how to display my normative femininity on a bicycle (by dressing a certain way), I’ll be safer and subject to less public harassment, injury, and death? Alas, riding a bike is still going to be taken as provocatively transgressive by a country that’s setup the roads, the laws, and how the laws are enforced to privilege automobiles.

    This reminds me of other civil rights debates in other communities. Phrases that come to mind, “straight acting” and “passing complexion.” Both of these phrases imply that there’s something wrong, non-normative, or less-than about being gay or black for instance. Does the Mary Poppin’s effect suggest that there’s also something wrong with being a bicyclist? Yes, yes it does.

    While I don’t suggest that Ms. Dottie (the poster) has set up society this way, the hidden assumptions behind the “Mary Poppins” effect seem pretty creepy in this light and I wonder if the “Mary Poppins” effect is in fact pretty damn reactionary?

    • Jim says:

      Please, any effect that makes humans treat other humans with more respect I’m for.

      • Tegan says:

        I cry poopins on the Poppins Effect! See this post [http://letsgorideabike.com/blog/2010/06/jerk-season/] wherein our intrepid heroine, the very same who suggests the Poppin’s effect, is in fact harassed by SUV driving jerks because she is both a bicyclist and obviously a woman! The point being that “conforming” or “fitting in” to a screwy idea that’s based on one powerful group’s definition of “human” is a poor substitute for actual social change (aka, a bicyclist no matter their look, race, sex, class has the same right to be safe and unharmed as anyone else on or in any other mode of transport).

        • Dottie says:

          The Marry Poppins Effect refers to an overall level of respect that drivers give to cyclists, such as passing us with more room and in general paying more attention to our presence as human beings. The occassional individual sociopath who takes his anger out on cyclists has nothing to do with it.

    • Dottie says:

      The Mary Poppins Effect is simply putting a label on something that many people have experienced. No one is saying that it’s right or good, simply that it HAPPENS.

    • Pilar Abril says:

      @Susan:

      This post is old but I’ll put my two-cents in. Susan brought up a a few very valid points that nobody else seemed to comprehend. Seems at least someone has been reading up on how gender and race studies To say long blond hair garners the best response from drivers is admitting that being white alters the behavior of drivers. Likewise, to say that wearing a dress garners the best response as opposed to pants obviously means that being a female alters drivers’ behavior. They’re intertwined. Long blond hair is the ultimate representation in Western culture of innocence and fragility. White womanhood is also placed on the highest pedestal in terms of deserving protection and consideration.

      To say neither race nor gender have anything to do with the Mary Poppin’s Effect, if willful ignorance or obliviousness. And also, it’s derailing Susan’s by refusing to address her points and trying to dismiss her critical analysis by claiming those two factors don’t make any contribution to the study’s findings.

      And yes, if the Mary Poppin’s Effect keeps some people – and that is *some* people – from an unpleasant experienced with an aggressive driver, well then kudos on that front, but it also carries a more subtle, insidious message about society as a whole.

    • Pilar Abril says:

      @Susan:

      This post is old but I’ll put my two-cents in. Susan brought up a a few very valid points that nobody else seemed to comprehend. Seems at least someone has been reading up on how gender and race studies To say long blond hair garners the best response from drivers is admitting that being white alters the behavior of drivers. Likewise, to say that wearing a dress garners the best response as opposed to pants obviously means that being a female alters drivers’ behavior. They’re intertwined. Long blond hair is the ultimate representation in Western culture of innocence and fragility. White womanhood is also placed on the highest pedestal in terms of deserving protection and consideration.

      To say neither race nor gender have anything to do with the Mary Poppin’s Effect, if willful ignorance or obliviousness. And also, it’s derailing Susan’s by refusing to address her points and trying to dismiss her critical analysis by claiming those two factors don’t make any contribution to the study’s findings.

      And yes, if the Mary Poppin’s Effect keeps some people – and that is *some* people – from an unpleasant experienced with an aggressive driver, well then kudos on that front, but it also carries a more subtle, insidious message about society as a whole.

  57. Sally Guyer says:

    I’m 51 & have cycled for years, since a child. When my son (now 18) was born, I went through a phase of wearing helmets, hi-viz etc. I was surprised at how mean many drivers were. After some years, I wanted to wear a skirt one day and felt quite daring cycling in a skirt – and without a helmet – I anticipated more problems than usual. To my surprise, drivers were extremely courteous and careful with me. I have reflected on this a great deal in the years since as I’ve done my 10 mile commute and I conclude this:- when you’re cycling in your normal clothes, you are instantly recognisable as a human being that drivers relate to. You look like someone they might pass on the street or see in a shop or share an office with. When people who ride bikes dress in a way which would be considered ‘strange’ in any other context, they alienate themselves from those who drive cars. I find it fascinating that the countries with the highest level of cyclists don’t have a fixation with wearing helmets and make it the drivers’ responsibility to drive with care around people riding bikes. I’m very concerned with being safe on the roads but I think many are misguided and going about it the wrong way in English-speaking countries such as the UK, the USA, Australia & New Zealand. I believe being visible and noticeable to drivers is the crucial aspect to being safe while riding a bike and I also believe that all road users, including those who cycle, need to practise what used to be called C.A.T. – Concentrate, Anticipate, Tolerate.

  58. [...] My Take on the Mary Poppins Effect [...]

  59. martha p says:

    What a trail of comments, I can’t believe I missed this. So a couple late anecdotal points –
    – riding my Oma in Chicago has been very much like driving my ’74 VW bug in Chicago. it is impossible to drive aggressively in either, and at the same time, each is distinctive, appealing, and they seem to make people smile, wave, pull over and talk to me.
    – and a bit of practical advice from my husband, who informed me one day when I was thinking twice about my helmet, “it’s not your helmet we are looking at.”

  60. Karl says:

    I don’t notice much of a difference. Mind you I don’t own any tight fitting “cycling” clothes so that might be the reason. When I ride my flat-bar road bike on work days wearing formal office attire I am treated the same on the road as when I am riding to University on my blue fixed gear bike and hi-viz long sleeve shirt. I always wear a helmet as the police like to fine you in Australia. I am also a guy, so no flowing hair or dresses from me.

    Some days I do well and drivers are very courteous, other days I am cut off and endangered a few times on the one ride. Just seems there are a lot of jerks out there no matter what or how you’re riding.

  61. [...] bike bloggers have been talking about this as the Mary Poppins Effect. Lovely Bicycle and Dottie from Lets Go Ride a Bike have noticed motorists treat them better when they wear dresses. I can’t testify to that, but [...]

  62. RC says:

    This post was the first time I’ve heard of the Mary Poppins effect, but it fits my experience exactly in one part of the city where I live (Atlanta) and not at all in the other part of the same city where I used to live. On the other side of town, no one else was riding in the street, but there were lots of sidewalk cyclists. Riding in the street on my hybrid, wearing business casual clothes (mostly dresses but sometimes slacks) for 10 months/12, I got honked at or variations thereof about 3 out of 5 commutes.

    In my new neighborhood, I haven’t been honked at yet! I rode a road bike for my commute for several months, and now am riding a super adorable “city bike” Linus mixte. I haven’t noticed a difference in how closely I am passed varying by attire or bike, but I have noticed a pronounced increase in smiles and nice (non harassing) comments by pedestrians, and especially when I ride transit. I’ve also experienced an increase in harassing comments – oh well. Apparently I seem more approachable overall than when I’m riding the road bike. “Can I ride” is by FAR the most common comment. I used to respond with “sure, get your own bike!” but have arrived at the point where I just, well, let it ride. A mildly disapproving look goes a long way when you’re Mary Poppins.

    • Dottie says:

      “A mildly disapproving look goes a long way when you’re Mary Poppins.”

      Ha – love that!

      Interesting to hear how this response varies based on the part of Atlanta you bike in. I assume that in the area where a lot of bicyclists ride on the sidewalk, drivers think you should be there, too.

  63. Bruce G says:

    I’ll go with the Mary Poppins effect. Show me how you fly with that umbrella!

    There are never too many attractive women (as long as they aren’t jerks) so I would tend to be protective of them.

    The last thing I want to be is a MAMIL. Middle Aged Man In Lycra. The whole race thing is, as Sally Guyer said, quite alienating. Now I do like to go 20mph and beyond on my drop-bar bike when in traffic. But there is no need to dress the part.

    Mary Poppins was a slim and smiling woman, and that makes her sexy. Bicycling can help more women become slim and smiling, multiplying the Mary Poppins effect. Well, I am in favor of it.

    • holly bilski says:

      I’m middle-aged, fattish, and I also have ample evidence to suggest that I am less than attractive. I wear sweatpants and frumpy t-shirts on my bike, or whatever it is I happen to be wearing that day. But I experience the Mary Poppins effect as well. I have a lavender and white cruiser with a big, dumb basket on the front, and I let my hair fly every which way sans helmet. I think it just cheers people up to see me for whatever reason.

    • holly bilski says:

      I’m middle-aged, fattish, and I also have ample evidence to suggest that I am less than attractive. I wear sweatpants and frumpy t-shirts on my bike, or whatever it is I happen to be wearing that day. But I experience the Mary Poppins effect as well. I have a lavender and white cruiser with a big, dumb basket on the front, and I let my hair fly every which way sans helmet. I think it just cheers people up to see me for whatever reason.

  64. Casey says:

    Never heard of this idea before but I do believe its true. I normally ride an upright Schwinn to work wearing office clothes. When I’m running late thought (ugh bout twice a week) I grab my old Peugeot road bike. On the road bike I get buzzed constantly and no respect/space at lights. I’m a 28 yr old man but I’m thinking the reason I’m safer on my Schwinn is as my co-workers say I look like “grandpa” and I’m fine with that.

  65. [...] since I sit upright on my bike l kind of  have the Mary Poppins effect going on.  This girl and this girl have both posted on this subject and it is basically that people are generally nicer to you [...]

  66. Anonymous says:

    Do you really cycle in heels, in chicago?

    • LGRAB says:

      Sometimes. If I’m wearing heels that day, I’ll cycle in them, it’s not hard. But I’m more of a flats person because I don’t like walking in heels.

      • It’s true. It’s easy. People stop me nearly every day to ask how I ride in heels. My stock reply is that it’s waaaay easier than walking in them! They’re so pretty, though. I love them. Good thing I ride everywhere… ;)

        I think a cyclist has to command respect. Usually cars give you about as much room as you give yourself, so if you ride a meter from parked cars, as you must for safety, they will typically give you a meter on the other side. If you give yourself half that much room, they will, too.

        Yes. I definitely notice the Mary Poppins effect, and not just with traffic. I meet people in all walks of life who recognise me because I ride dressed for work, and usually in heels. The other day I arrived at the naturopath’s office and he asked if I ride up Hornby in the mornings, because he’s pretty sure he took a photo of me. Sure enough he had. (It’s also a great way to make friends, because you do see a lot of the same people daily, don’t you?)

        People don’t do that when I’m kitted out in a skin suit on my go-fast bike.

        What a great conversation. Your blog rocks! Thank you.

    • LGRAB says:

      Sometimes. If I’m wearing heels that day, I’ll cycle in them, it’s not hard. But I’m more of a flats person because I don’t like walking in heels.

  67. Christopher says:

    Being a guy, when I’m on my old Schwin 3speed I experience the Mary Poppins effect, I only feel like Mary Poppins, And in my head i’m going “weeeee!” like the little pig in the Geico commercial.

  68. Christopher says:

    Being a guy, when I’m on my old Schwin 3speed I experience the Mary Poppins effect, I only feel like Mary Poppins, And in my head i’m going “weeeee!” like the little pig in the Geico commercial.

  69. Victoria See says:

    New to the blog, saw this pop up as a “Related Article” …

    I came to a similar realization this weekend. As a female cyclist in Dallas, I find a low-cut top to be my best defense. Men are more likely to notice (and stop for) boobs than they are to notice (and stop for) a bicycle.

    Of course I feel dirty and objectified and like I’m conforming to the restrictions of the patriarchy but I live to bike another day.

  70. lowercase_see says:

    New to the blog, saw this pop up as a “Related Article” …

    I came to a similar realization this weekend. As a female cyclist in Dallas, I find a low-cut top to be my best defense. Men are more likely to notice (and stop for) boobs than they are to notice (and stop for) a bicycle.

    Of course I feel dirty and objectified and like I’m conforming to the restrictions of the patriarchy but I live to bike another day.

  71. holly bilski says:

    There has to be a lot more to this than attractiveness. I am really not attractive (except, thank goodness, to my husband) and yet I’m treated very well by most drivers unless I’m in a section of Sacramento near a college. I never wear a helmet and I never dress very nicely, but I ride a funky cruiser. I am 100% sure that my helmetless status is part of it, but not all of it.

  72. [...] drivers treat cyclists. Second, I was relying on the cuteness of the bike to convey some of that Mary Poppins Effect I read so much about again because I was in unfamiliar surroundings. The last reason I chose the [...]

  73. Snarfy says:

    I mostly feel the Mary Poppins effect from airline pilots, when I’m flying around with my umbrella :D

  74. Snarfy says:

    I mostly feel the Mary Poppins effect from airline pilots, when I’m flying around with my umbrella :D

  75. Djalias says:

    I like how willing you are to attribute your observations to either the truth or heightened sensitivity due to your own mind. The mark of a smart person, if you ask me. :)

  76. [...] a skirt gets more respect and is more visible to other road users than other cyclists. Anecdotal evidence supports this. Lycra just isn't for [...]

  77. cak says:

    Absolutely! The dress is the difference.  Next time you wear a lady-like dress (even in a non-bike riding situation) take notice of how the men notice and treat you accordingly!  They will do a double take a make a grab for the door that they were going to let slam in your face just a moment ago before they realized that it was a lady behind them.  They will step aside in deference and –dare I say it?–let their chivalry show!  It’s fun to observe and even better to experience!

  78. [...] a sturdy basket on the handlebars could relieve back pain and also help with road safety. http://letsgorideabike.com/blog/2011/03/my-take-on-the-mary-poppins-effect/. [...]

  79. [...] I’m not just talking about the Mary Poppins Effect – where all girls in skirts on upright dutch bikes get more respect in the road.  No matter what [...]

  80. jb says:

    I notice this in a summer vs. winter way. Drivers definitely treat me different depending on the season. Winter is a balaclava where no one can see the face and hair, and other seasons are helmet and hair, etc., even though I don’t wear dresses in any season.

  81. Chuta says:

    I ride my bicycle daily. I normally wear ‘bike-friendly’ attire (jeggings, short skirts with leggings, tank tops, etc.). The other day, I decided to wear long, flowy flowered sundress and have never had such positive responses from drivers. Ever. Some even leaned out of their windows and commented on how much they liked my dress or smiled and waved as they drove by! It’s a shame that it takes looking super girly to accomplish friendly biker-driver interaction during an entire bike ride.

  82. [...] über den sogenannten „Mary Poppins-Effekt“. Darauf hatte ihn eine Bloggerkollegin von Let´s go ride a Bike  gebracht. Dabei geht es um die Frage, ob Radfahrer/innen in unterschiedlicher Kleidung anders [...]

  83. Bruce says:

    How about a helmet covered with a wig to enhance a safer Mary Poppins effect?

  84. downstate says:

    If I wear a dress downtown in my town to meet clients, I will get my own lane to myself. If If I am kitted out to go meet my team, I will have some driver’s mirror a foot from my elbow.

  85. [...] My Take on the Mary Poppins Effect, on Let’s Go Ride a Bike [...]

  86. I usually wear dresses or skirts, and feel that drivers give me more space.

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