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.
Divvy bikes are taking over Chicago! On Wednesday, I had plans with my friend Sara for dinner and a movie after work. Just that morning, I saw a brand new Divvy station near my home and before heading out to meet Sara, I realized that I could easily Divvy the whole night long.
There’s the starting Divvy station:
The Divvy station across the street from the restaurant:
And the Divvy station a block from the movie theater:
Here’s Sara with her Divvy-colored Pashley. :-)
And coming full circle at the end of the night, I returned my Divvy.
I’m excited as new stations continue to pop up daily.
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.
On Sunday, my friend Maria and I went to a screening and panel discussion of Koyaanisqatsi at indie theater Facets. Koyaanisqatsi (subtitled “life out of balance), a sequence of images set to a score by Philip Glass, is described as such:
An art-house circuit sensation, this feature-length documentary is visually arresting and possesses a clear, pro-environmental political agenda. Without a story, dialogue, or characters, Koyaanisqatsi (1983) is composed of nature imagery, manipulated in slow motion, double exposure or time lapse, juxtaposed with footage of humans’ devastating environmental impact on the planet. The message of director Godfrey Reggio is clear: humans are destroying the planet, and all of human progress is pointlessly foolish.
Sounded wonderful in a beautifully depressing way – sign me up! For a better understanding of the film, watch the short trailer below:
For me the film displays an overwhelming grimness and hopelessness for the human species. City life is portrayed as absolutely Kafkaesque, with a focus on endless streams of cars and people being sucked into and spit out of public transportation like so many hotdogs on an assembly line. By the end, I felt ready to flee Chicago for a quiet country cabin in the middle of nowhere.
However, this feeling of oppression lifted as soon as I stepped outside and started riding my bicycle home. Nothing seems so grim while bicycling down tree-lined streets in the sunshine and fresh winter air. I really think I would not have lasted in the big city this long (6 years and counting!) without my bicycle, because being stuck on a crowded subway train or in car traffic every single day is oppressive. Bicycling allows me to break away from all that.
(Here is what I wore on my bike, before piling on the winter layers.)
You can watch all 1 hour and 26 minutes of the film for free on Hulu. Warning: if you watch, be sure to have some kittens, puppies, or bicycles nearby afterward to cheer you up.
Has anyone else seen Koyaanisqatsi? What did you think?
This morning, my friend Elizabeth posted a response on Bike Commuters to a dumb op-ed stating that winter bicyclists are “insane” and “suicidal.” I love how her response is so reasonable. Unfortunately, this particular poorly written op-ed is only a drop in the bucket of ridiculous stuff written and said about winter bicyclists.
My own personal response is: calm down and stop being so lame! You sound silly. Winter bicycling is perfectly rational and enjoyable.
So when I returned home from work this evening after bicycling 6 miles in 10 degree temps (-12 C), I made a quick video demonstrating how simple and normal the whole thing is. Pretty dorky, but I’m embracing my inner Liz Lemon in remembrance of 30 Rock.
My bike ride this evening could not have been better. As I cycled along the lakefront, the setting sun turned the sky soft shades of blue and pink over the placid, icy blue lake. Salt covered the trail, rendering the danger of ice moot. I was not cold; I was happy. And here is what I wore.
What would you say to those anti-winter-bike goofballs?
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.
Deciding to ride a bicycle for transportation in a place like the US, after years of driving a car everywhere like everyone else, required that I step back and really question the system that I’d accepted all my life. Through this, I realized the absurdity of using a ton of metal to carry myself a couple of miles. This one change has naturally led to reconsidering other aspects of modern society.
Fresh on my mind, following Black Friday, is consumerism. I love a good sale and I am far from a minimalist, with my collections of tchotchkes and overflowing bookshelves, but I feel that objects I bring into my home should have meaning and reflect my beliefs. I do not always live up to this standard, but I’ve been making a conscious effort to buy clothing that was made in the USA or another country known for craftsmanship and decent working conditions, like the UK, France, Italy and Canada. I know this is a complicated issue and many lives are improved by factory jobs overseas, but I personally feel better spending my money in a way that does not support corporations’ race to the bottom. (See “Garment Workers Stage Angry Protest After Bangladesh Fire” and the Clean Clothes Campaign.) Of course, I am lucky enough to have the time and resources for this, but so do most Americans. No one is perfect (I’m typing this on an Apple computer, with its Foxconn manufacturing issues, after all) but that should not stop us from thinking about the issue and making small changes where we can.
Finding products that fit my criteria is, unfortunately, harder than it sounds, but prevents me from buying a lot of crap – avoiding fast fashion and focusing on quality over quantity. And over time, I’ve built quite a nice collection. Last Friday, I realized that everything I was wearing was made in the USA. This made me happy. :-)
(Hint on Steven Alan: twice a year he has online sample sales. The fall sale just ended, unfortunately. My skirt was $30 marked down from $225!)
As Mr. Dottie pointed out, the only exception to the outfit above is me: made in Germany. And here is my wonderful mother who made me, visiting Chicago for Thanksgiving. :-)
In regards to bicycles, I have one made in the Netherlands, one in Germany, and one in Taiwan. As much as I absolutely love my Betty Foy in every way, part of me wishes that I saved my money longer to buy a made in the USA frame, like a Sweetpea or ANT.
How do you feel about this issue? Do you have any shopping rules to counter thoughtless consumerism?
If you have tips on favorite businesses that manufacture in the USA, please share in the comments!
Yesterday morning, 32-year-old attorney Neill Townsend was biking to work when a man in a Nissan Altima opened his car door into the bike lane and Neill’s path, causing him to swerve suddenly and fall under a flatbed semi truck passing to his left. He died on the scene. The man who opened the car door was cited for a traffic violation. You can read more about Neill’s life and a vigil held in his memory in this Chicago Tribune story.
I mourn for Neill and his family and friends. This sad news has shaken me, as I bike past the exact spot every day. The bike lane lines are faded to almost nothing. There are severe pot holes through the bike lane that force bicyclists either to swerve far out into the main traffic lane or inch closer to parked cars than is comfortable. There is a high school where parents park in the bike lane to drop off their kids.
This exact type of collision occurred only one block over in 2008, when Clinton Miceli was doored and struck by passing traffic. The city needs to build protected bike lanes to the right of parked cars, which would avoid collisions like this. At the very least, it needs to keep existing and heavily used bike lanes well-striped, buffered, and free of dangerous potholes. Drivers and passengers need to take a second to look for coming bicyclists before swinging their car doors open. The city must do more to educate and remind drivers of this. Bicyclist should try to avoid the door zone, but I well know that is not always possible in Chicago. The entire bike lane where the incident occurred basically is the door zone. Grid Chicago wrote a more detailed examination of this infrastructure problem.
Biking home from work yesterday with this tragedy fresh on my mind, I took care to bike extra far from parked cars. Almost immediately, a driver in an SUV honked at me. I assume he wanted me to move over to the right. We have a long way to go in Chicago.
Over the years, I’ve considered getting a bumper sticker for my bike. Something fun and positive like, “Thank you for seeing me!” or “Have a nice day!” or “Put the fun between your legs!” (I am not that forward!!). But this is the first bike bumper sticker I’ve ever sported:
The sticker is not made specifically for bicycles, of course, but my Velorbis has a convenient license plate-like area perfectly fit for such a sticker. Instead of peeling off the backing, I stuck some electrical tape on the back side and so far it’s holding up well.
I’m ridiculously proud of/smug about this bumper (fender?) sticker.
Have any of you ever sported a bike bumper sticker? If so, what did it say? ;-)