Today we are pleased to present a guest post from writer/reporter John Greenfield, who co-writes Streetsblog Chicago, the region’s best transportation blog, among many other things.
[This article also runs in Checkerboard City, John's transportation column
in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]
I first heard about the “Mary Poppins Effect” back in March 2011 from local bike blogger Dottie, also known as The Martha Stewart of Chicago Cycling. “This is basically the idea that drivers are nicer to women bicyclists riding upright bikes with dresses and flowing hair,” she wrote on her site Let’s Go Ride a Bike. “Who could be mean to Mary Poppins?”
Mary Poppins’ commute
On the other hand, it’s believed that motorists are less likely to operate safely around people wearing bike-specific clothing, bent over drop handlebars on a racing bike. “A cyclist dressed ‘normally’ looks more human to the driver,” wrote Dottie’s Massachusetts counterpart Constance, who coined the term for the phenomenon on her blog Lovely Bicycle two months earlier. “The more ‘I am human! I am you!’ signals we give off when cycling, the more empathy a driver will feel towards us. Dehumanization, on the other hand, makes it easier to cause harm to another human being.”
Dottie speculated that nattily dressed men on upright city bikes might enjoy the same benefits, known as the “Dick Van Dyke Effect,” after the debonair actor who played Mary Poppins’ gentleman friend Bert in the beloved 1964 Disney film. Van Dyke, who grew up in Danville, Illinois, also starred in classic musicals like “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” as well as the 1960s sitcom, “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”
Dick Van Dyke on a bike!
I was interested in testing out the theory by my having one of my male bike buddies pedal downtown in a suit, then in Spandex, while I followed behind taking notes on motorists’ behavior. There were no takers at the time, so I added the idea to my potential story list and promptly forgot about it.
Fast-forward two-and-a-half years to Tuesday of last week, when I was scanning the headlines over my morning coffee. Lo and behold, a Tribune story described how Van Dyke miraculously escaped unscathed after his Jaguar caught fire on a Los Angeles freeway the previous afternoon.
“Somebody’s looking after me,” he told a TV reporter from local station KTLA5, looking chipper as ever. “At first I thought I had a flat. Then it started smoking, then it burned to a crisp.” Later that day he tweeted, “Used Jag for sale REAL CHEAP!!” How many eighty-seven-year-olds do you know who use Twitter?
Inspired by Van Dyke’s obvious joie de vivre, I resolved to test out his eponymous effect, even if I had to serve as my own guinea pig. My blogging partner Steven Vance agreed to follow behind me with a camera as I rode downtown and observe how closely drivers passed me.
John Greenfield tests the “Dick Van Dyke Effect” (photo by Steven Vance)
That afternoon I put on the pinstripe suit I bought in Bangkok and a straw fedora and began riding my Dutch-inspired cruiser down Milwaukee Avenue from Logan Square at 2:50pm, feeling like William S. Burroughs, the well-dressed author of “Naked Lunch.” When we come to a stoplight, Steven tells me that some drivers are crossing the yellow line to give me plenty of room as they pass me. As I roll past a bus stop at Oakley Avenue, a young man on the bench gets a load of my get-up, grins and nods his head in approval.
We turn east onto Chicago Avenue and roll into River North. Around Wells Street, Steven reports that a cabbie switched lanes in order to pass me. We continue south on Clark Street, where motorists are generally driving in the other travel lane rather than sharing lanes with me. When we arrive at Daley Plaza, we remark that no one had honked or catcalled at me the entire time.
The following afternoon I squeeze myself into some Spandex, which I never wear in real life, strap on a helmet and wraparound shades, and mount my skinny-tired road bike. As Steven and I depart at 2:50pm again, I feel less a distinguished Beat writer and more like a space alien, and more than a little self-conscious. We take the same route and, despite my garish apparel and insect-like posture, I seem to get a fairly similar reception from drivers.
When we reach the plaza I ask Steven for his conclusions. “I think whether a driver passes a cyclist with more or less space is based ninety-nine percent on how much open space the driver has to the left of his or her car,” he says. “There didn’t seem to be a Dick Van Dyke Effect.”
“However, I did hear about a guy who bicycled wearing men’s clothing, and then made the same trip wearing a dress and a wig,” Steven added. “He found he got better treatment when dressed as a woman. That would be the next thing to try.” But that’s an experiment for another day. Oh, the things I do for science!
Thanks for the research, John! I was surprised that there was no discernible difference in driver behavior, but happy to hear that drivers treat different bicyclists equally well (or equally poorly?). We’d love to hear the experiences of others out there, especially men in relation to the possible existence of the Dick Van Dyke Effect.
Also, some have astutely commented in the past that part of the effect may be based on race, class and conformity to societal norms. I am working on a follow-up to address those issues, so please share below if you have thoughts on this.
Jana of Bike-a-bee, who I wrote about last year, was attacked this week while riding her bike in Logan Square. A passenger in an SUV leaned out the window and grabbed Jana by her backpack, dragging her on her bike for several seconds. When she crashed into a parked car and hit the ground, she could hear the men laughing as they drove away. They have not been caught, but the police have upgraded the incident from hit-and-run to aggravated battery.
This incident is horrifying, a sad reminder of how awful some people can be and how vulnerable we are on the roads.
This week I came upon a video on Facebook by Bicycle Dutch called “U.S. Cycling from a Dutch Perspective.” The video may have already made the rounds, but I’m posting it here because the (lack of) infrastructure and driver behavior in the U.S. and Chicago in particular have been on my mind lately, with several people I know being hit by drivers in the past year (including, of course, myself).
As the video says, “This situation makes clear why you are 30 times more likely to get injured as a cyclist in the U.S. than in the Netherlands.” This is a outrage and needs to change.
A few more choice quotes from the video:
“It almost looks as if these people are riding a race, rather than going home after work. They’re trying to outrun other traffic. It really seems like a chase.”
“There’s a lot of cycling here despite the infra[structure], rather than because of it.”
“There could be a good future for cycling in the U.S.”
Chicago announced its plan for a large scale bike share system almost two years ago. After a long wait, the system – now called Divvy – went live on Friday!
Only a fraction of the stations are open during the first phase – none near my home – but many others are scheduled to open soon. A total of 4000 bikes at 400 stations is planned for the first two years.
Even though I have my own bikes, I became a member. I anticipate Divvy being useful when:
I want to bike to a bar and cab or transit home.
I take the L in the morning due to rain but the sun is shining by the end of the day.
I don’t want to leave my bike locked outside for an extended period of time.
I need to get to court or a meeting during the middle of the day and taking my bike out of my office and down the elevator would be too much trouble.
I want to travel with a friend who does not have her own bike.
The annual membership is only $75 and includes unlimited, free 30 minute rides. Daily passes are available for only $7.
While Divvy will be useful to me personally, I’m most excited about the system because I believe it will radically change the culture of Chicago for the better. I was skeptical of bike share until I saw how Velib is used by everyone in Paris. Now I am anxious to see the same happen in Chicago. The more people ride bikes, the more people will understand what it’s like to ride a bike. Empathy from Chicago drivers – imagine that!
Here’s a quick video I made of the process to join Divvy with an overview of the website. I will make a video of using the system soon.
Death can come to us at any time. A meteor can come dashing in from a whirling asteroid belt. The very universe could blink off, just as it once blinked on. In a moment, in a breath, it is over. But living under the stars—a miracle and a wonder that Bobby cherished close in his heart—is not inherently dangerous. So it should be with cycling.
Yesterday afternoon I had a meeting across town, which led me to a different route for the commute home. I was able to take advantage of the newish separated bike lane on Elston Avenue. I first wrote about this lane in the fall, but have not had occasion to bike it since.
Riding in this lane is like butter. The separation from cars makes all the difference, of course. Other benefits are not being placed in the door zone and the relatively small number of cross streets, alleys and parking lot exits. I would love a set-up like this on the busy streets that connect my neighborhood to downtown, where I often feel like a hunted animal during open season.
You can see previous videos of me biking along Chicago’s protected bike lanes here:
Chicago now has a protected bike lane going through one of the busiest areas of downtown, the first of its kind in the central Loop district. The lane is on Dearborn, a one-way street that formerly had three travel lanes and two parking lanes. My experience bicycling on this street was always pretty scary: drivers exceeded the speed limit and constantly changed lanes with no warning and there were often conflicts with turning vehicles.
With the new protected bike lane, everything is different. Dearborn feels miraculously safe.
Dearborn now has two main travel lanes, two parking lanes, and a two-way protected bike lane. The protected bike lane is directly next to the curb, separated from car traffic by the parking lane and bollards. The two-way bike lane allows bicyclists to use Dearborn to go both north and south, while cars can go only north. Bicycle-specific stoplights are included at every intersection, next to the regular stop lights. Conflict with turning cars is now eliminated, as cars may turn left only on a green arrow. When the bicycle light is green, the car turning arrow is red and vise versa. The turning arrow is activated only when a sensor picks up the presence of a waiting car. Brilliant!
Two-way protected bike lane on Dearborn
Stop light for bicyclists and dedicated left turn arrows for drivers
The Dearborn protected bike lane opened for use on Friday. Here is a video I made of the inaugural ride. I cut out the time waiting for stop lights and increased the speed twofold. If you pay attention, you’ll see a clueless SUV driver ride in the lane for a block. The final part of the video shows the crappy bike lane after the protected bike lane ends. I hope the city extends the protected lane further in the spring.
Prior to the inaugural ride, there was a press conference. The speakers included our kick ass CDOT Commissioner Gabe Klein and Mayor Emanuel. For those really interested in the wonky side, here is a video of their speeches (and you can sometimes see me in the background looking very serious).
Here is an illuminating video that Active Trans put together, showing the before and after conditions.
Hat tip to the always-excellent Grid Chicago for making me aware of these videos and for their top-notch reporting on the Dearborn lane and other Chicago developments.
I am so, so, so hopeful about all of this! All I want to do is get to work and back safely, efficiently and happily on my bicycle – finally, those in power are investing in this as a worthy goal. I look forward to more serious improvements in the spring when construction season restarts in Chicago.
PLEASE say thank you to the politicians for the Dearborn protected bike lane.
I got back on my bike last Friday. The morning was beautiful.
I felt great during the whole ride, including the bits on the street. Thank goodness for the Lakefront Trail, where I don’t have to worry about cars. I’ll be taking this route much more from now on, since my peaceful side-street route turned out to be not so peaceful.
Last night I took city streets home – a similar route as usual but avoiding the intersection – but it was too soon. I was fearful and started crying a bit for no reason as I went along. Typing that out is embarrassing, but there you have it. I’ve always been super defensive and cautious, but now I feel like I cannot trust any intersection situation no matter what. Plus, I think the night and everything felt too similar. I’m back on the Lakefront Trail today.
For anyone who’s gone through something like this, how did you feel getting back on the bike?
Thanks so much to everyone for your support this week! Every comment and email means a great deal to me.
I have not told anyone outside of my bicycling circle about the hit and run. I want to avoid hearing – from now until the end of time – “I can’t believe you’re still riding your bike” and “OMG be careful!!!” This would come from a place of kindness and concern, but I just don’t want to hear it. So I am very grateful for all of you and for my women-who-bike group: people who really get it.
Here are some photos from Decembers Women-Who-Bike Brunch a couple of weeks ago. Strong, fabulous women who are leading the charge and having fun doing it.
If you are in Chicago and would like to join our Women-Who-Bike brunches, please email me at LGRAB@letsgorideabike.com. If you’re not in Chicago, I encourage you to join – or start! – a local social bike group. The benefits of community cannot be understated.