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Crain's Chicago Business Article on The "Mary Poppins Effect"

What do you think?


In bike lanes, 'Mary Poppins' gets wide berth (link)

Bikers call it the “Mary Poppins Effect.”

Dottie Brackett, 30, commutes by bike from her home in Roscoe Village to a downtown law office. When she wears athletic attire or rides a bike that forces her to hunch over the handlebars, cars often pass uncomfortably close. But dressed in street clothes and riding an upright bicycle, a curious change occurs: She gets as wide a berth as if she were the famous nanny pedaling along. Because, after all, “who could be mean to Mary Poppins?”

“The Mary Poppins Effect is a matter of humanizing the bicycle rider,” says Ms. Brackett, who co-authors the blog “It helps drivers realize bicyclists are people too.”

In the 1970s, cyclists began donning exercise clothes along with helmets, says a spokeswoman for the League of American Bicyclists in Washington, D.C. But bicycle commuting, a trend that correlates with cyclists wearing street clothes, is on the rise. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 1.3% of Chicago's working population rode to work in 2010, a 159% increase in the past decade.

Cyclists disagree on whether there's a corresponding “Dick Van Dyke Effect” for dapper gents. But 33-year-old Ravenswood resident Julie Hochstadter, who runs, an online community for Chicago bikers, says two factors can amplify the Mary Poppins Effect: helmets and a trailer designed to carry a child.

“Even if I don't have a kid in it, which I usually don't . . . everybody is so respectful,” she says. “It would be nice if cars did that all the time.”

© 2011 by Crain Communications Inc.

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I tend to agree that if you are wearing street clothes and riding an old cruiser type or dutch-type bicycle, it seems that motorists  give a bit more leeway when passing and some even smile as they go past you.  On the other hand, when I ride a racing style bicycle and I am in shorts and t-shirt, motorists seem to resent my presence, cutting past my bicycle very closely and more aggressively- I rarely get a smile in this instances. 


I also notice that when I wear my light up led vest and my bicycle is lit like a Christmas tree with blinkies and headlights, I also get a wide berth from cars as they pass.  Towing a child trailer is the best, though, as I believe that motor vehicle drivers have a innate fear that there are children inside, and make sure to pass you with lots of room to spare for the most part.

It's very rare that I wear anything other than street clothes when I ride, so I can't really say. I'll pay attention to the differences, if any, in the future though.
I have been thinking about adding a child bike seat just to be treated better on the road.

Well, I'm nearly always in lycra whether commuting or riding, and have only experienced the 'extra wide berth' when wearing this jersey:

True story: stopped at a light, woman in passenger side rolls the window down and says very courteously: " excuse me, are you partially sighted or what? It's amazing you can ride". I had to laugh, and explained to her that is was a pro team (ONCE is the Spanish organization for the blind)


I think the space given to the cyclist is all about the driver involved, not the cyclists' clothing. Claiming how others respect us on the road according to our clothing is another shade of 'blame the victim'.


This theory could be proved, however, if all drivers immediately parked their cars if we started riding in the nude?

I completely believe in the Mary Poppins effect and use it to my full advantage, mostly just to ensure that people see me and I remain visible and therefore more safe while commuting to work. I usually wear dresses or skirts, have wide handlebars, sit upright on my bright cruiser, usually have a work satchel slung on my back, ride slowly and yield/stop whenever necessary. This combination sends drivers the messages that I'm a human being, a woman, an employed person on her way to or from work, and sharing the road. (Also, that if you crash into me, I know how to take steps to collect far more from you than your measly auto insurance policy could ever pay. Ha, ha. Kind of.)


Regarding helmets -- I think that the anecdata out there supports that NOT wearing a helmet makes drivers give you wider berth than wearing one. I still wear one, though I bought a city helmet to replace my aerodynamic one. I'd love it if Chicago got to the point where I felt safe enough to ride without one.

I've been riding a tricycle for the past month because Im recovering from an accident, and the wide berth of my vehicle has never angered a motorist.  When I rode my agile little single speed though, I was constantly harassed.
I'm gettin my nanny outfit...
When I dress up like Mary Poppins, people usually give me lots of room and stare.

A.K.A Paul said:
When I dress up like Mary Poppins, people usually give me lots of room and stare.
Interesting theory.  Seems like drivers give me the most room when I'm pulling my cargo trailer, regardless of what I'm wearing.

@Michelle Stenzel: Anecdata is a fantastic term. Let's remember the subjectivity of all our responses.


I propose the only thing that would keep motorists from threatening you on the road would be the sight of a large handgun in a holster, preferably on your left hip to give it maximum visibility. 


I've been cycling in this city for about 30 years, attired in both in cycling-specific and street clothes. I've perceived no difference in how wide a berth motorists give me depending on my attire. I think the overwhelming majority of people operating motorized vehicles never act as though they care there's a physically vulnerable human being two feet to their right as they plow down the road at 40 mph.


You can obey every traffic law or break them. You can make eye contact with motorists or ignore them. You can dress like a bike racer, a dandy, a stock broker, or a super hero. It seems to make no difference in the balance. Unless the person behind the wheel is a cyclist more than half the time they're on the road, you're essentially a target, and a relatively unimportant one at that. 


@Anne Alt: Just a few days ago a friend of mine was repeatedly hit from behind by an impatient motorist as she waited at a stoplight with a large cargo trailer in tow. Seems even increasing our footprint on the road might do precious little to mitigate the violence motorists feel entitled to perpetrate.

Nanny's with hats and heels are hot....That is why they don't get run over.


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