The Dick Van Dyke Effect

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

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.

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22 thoughts on “The Dick Van Dyke Effect

  1. Ryan Wallace says:

    The primary reason I followed the link to the article was to see John all dressed up, doesn’t seem to work…bummer.

  2. Nate Nykamp says:

    “Effects” such as these are hard to quantify, it’s easy to get tangled up in anecdote so I appreciate John getting someone to follow and observe.

    I think there is a sort of calculation of value that drivers make in deciding how much room to give a biker. Like Steven noted, the biggest factor that determined passing room was how easy it was for the driver to get over. In that case the driver weighs giving a biker adequate room as having lesser value then the time spent slowing down to follow the biker, so the driver passes tight.

    Then I suppose the Poppins/Van Dyke effect would be an effort on a cyclist’s part to increase our value to the driver (Constance’s humanizing factor).

    While I don’t personally notice varying driving behavior based on what I’m wearing (white male, late 20s, for the record), I do notice that drivers are more cautious when I have one of my children riding in a trailer(I really noticed cautious behavior when I had my two children and my wife riding with me on our longtail). To a driver, not only does the bike/trailer combination occupy more physical space on the road, I think that our nature to protect children comes out in driving behavior.

  3. Liz Almond says:

    I’ve noticed that where I live (London), drivers seem to give a wide berth to riders on bike share bikes, perhaps anticipating them to be more wobbly, less competent, and more likely to do unpredictable things like manouevre without signalling. The more competent you look, the less likely drivers are to think it’s important to give you lots of room. Whether intentionally or not, I think on a road bike, you’re more likely to give off ‘proper cyclist’ signals that some drivers interpret as meaning it’s ok to pass closer. FWIW the researcher who did the ‘wig test’ is Dr Ian Walker at the uni of Bath – worth googling!

  4. Thanks Dottie! Yes, it would be interesting to see riders from various demographics experiment with the Poppins / Van Dyke Effect.

  5. Becky Wilcock says:

    I believe the behavior of bicyclists almost tells the driver of a car how to treat him or her, intentionally or not. Cyclists who weave in and out of traffic, fail to use hand signals, aggressively cut in to an narrow, already occupied space at a traffic light are all giving the driver of a car the signal to also act more aggressively.

  6. Imogen says:

    I’m a woman who rides an upright bike, and I definitely think this “effect” has a lot to do with how “normal” one looks. I have very short hair and buy most of my clothes from the menswear section, when cycling to work I am usually dressed in trousers and a button-down shirt, sometimes with a waistcoat and/or tie, and drivers are incredibly aggressive towards me- not only passing far too close but tailgating me, trying to overtake at junctions where I’m indicating right (I’m British, so flip that if you’re American!), and trying to force me off the road. I used to wear skirts and more feminine clothing more often and while drivers were still unpleasant they didn’t seem quite so much like they were trying to kill me.

  7. Doug says:

    This is interesting, but I would be reluctant to draw any firm conclusions from such a small “test.”

  8. Meg says:

    The times I’ve been hit (or forced to hit when cut off by a driver) I was wearing a vintage dress (which is usually what I wear everyday while I bike to work/play) while riding my vintage Motobecane bike. I think it more has to do with the situation than what one wears, unfortunately. I am a very respectful bicyclist (I was a driver for 13 years until I moved to Chicago and discovered the joys of biking and not having to spend an hour looking for a parking spot, so I understand the mind of a daily driver). I’ve observed that cars become dangerous when they are impatient! Twice I have had an incident with a car when there is a long line of traffic and I’m going straight in the bike lane, passing cars with caution. Then a car pulls out of the line suddenly into the bike lane to turn right onto the side street because they’ve grown too impatient to sit in traffic. Yet not looking to see if a bike is coming. I suppose I thought drivers would respect someone riding in their normal clothes rather than bike clothes, showing that we are not pro/avid bicyclists yet rather a fellow commuter just trying to get to where we are going. I encounter incidents with cars just about every other day. Luckily most of them are minor that don’t result in injury, but that’s only because I am the one paying attention and getting out of their way rather than the other way around.

    • Meg says:

      One of those incidents happened on Milwaukee Ave right in front of the Congress as pictured above.

    • LGRAB says:

      That happened to me this morning, by a d-bag driving a Porshe SUV! I was wearing a vintage dress on Oma, not that he gave my existence a moment’s thought. For sure, if I were not an extremely defensive and cautious bicyclist, I could have been hit dozens of time since I started riding in Chicago.

  9. My experiences riding in traffic concur with the observations that space given is proprtional to space available and impatience/aggression is an enormous risk factor for anyone in the way. At the NCSL ride last month, our police escorts froze an intersection for the 140-odd of us to pass through. When the light turned green, one the motorists (third or fourth in line) duly proceeded to crash his car into the stout bumper of the Jeep ahead. Call it poetic justice but be aware that his kind are numerous. In the course of three years of making street fashion portraits, I’ve often had to walk across busy thoroughfares in the company of Mary Poppins-types whom you might imagine would stop the traffic. They often do not, even in the zebra crossings, and motorists of both genders are at fault. Look good and keep a good lookout!

  10. spandex_is_comfotable! says:

    The disdain showed towards those of us who choose to squeeze into spandex or adopt an insect-like posture is pure prejudice. I have seen multiple new cyclists discouraged by this kind of “normal” clothing and cycling fanaticism. Not every cyclist is skinny and fit enough to be comfortable being “chic” on a bike. Nor is every cyclist comfortable balancing on a bike while wearing heels. Moreover, for many newer cyclist so-called “normal” clothing can promote chafing and discomfort. Likewise, many of us who ride for longer distances or have significant elevation gain prefer the geometry and low weight of a decent road bike.

    • No disdain for those who want or need to wear Lycra to ride, but how can you argue that you need to be skinny and fit to wear your everyday clothes to ride a bike? They’re certainly more flattering for most people than skintight Spandex. If we want to mainstream cycling, it’s important to let people know that you don’t necessarily need to buy bike-specific clothes or a racing-style bike to get around town. If that kind of gear enhances your ride, however, you should use what works for you.

      • spandex_is_comfortable says:

        “but how can you argue that you need to be skinny and fit to wear your everyday clothes to ride a bike?”

        The range of motion required on a bike is very different from the range of motion required when walking. My better half never wears “work clothing” on a bike because she is more comfortable in stretchy sporty clothing. It’s time to recognize that, for many, bike specific clothing is both desirable and comfortable. For example, I often wear pedestrian-specific shoes and clothing when I go on a walk. Why should cycling be different?

        “They’re certainly more flattering for most people than skintight Spandex.”

        There are an awful lot of people in the USA who wear spandex for fashion and comfort. In fact, I think my better half looks quite fetching in ubiquitous yoga-wear.

        “racing-style bike”
        Drop-bar leisure and touring bikes are hardly “racing-style” bikes. They are utilitarian bikes that are preferred by many everyday riders in may nations. In fact, one of the major reasons that the Dutch and Danes prefer old and heavy steel bikes is due to the prevalence of bike theft. In most of the USA one can lock up a surly crosscheck for half a day and return to find it still there. In Amsterdam, not so much.

        “It’s important to let people know that you don’t necessarily need to buy bike-specific clothes or a racing-style bike to get around town”

        And I think it’s important to let people know that it’s OK to wear comfortable and sporty clothing on a bike. It’s also OK to ride a bike that can be lugged up stairs and pedalled up hill without being drenched in a rive of sweat.

        • LGRAB says:

          Interesting. I agree that everyone should be comfortable with however they choose to ride or dress. In my experience, our society is very supportive of the idea that people should dress in bike-specific gear and ride fast bikes. Most bike stores, magazines, websites and blogs out there encourage that type of riding. That’s one reason we started this blog – to inspire and encourage people who prefer to wear their work clothes and ride upright bikes. There is no right or wrong, we are simply representing one perspective.

          • A Ruston says:

            It’s true, there is no right or wrong, but you have to admit there are voices out there (eg: a certain abusive Danish blogger) trying very hard to dehumanize anyone who wears cycling specific clothes.

      • ridonrides says:

        John, you looked really dapper in the suit and hat (did your hat stay on?). I don’t think anyone is anti-spandex. But you have to admit that a commute that necessitates bike-specific clothing is probably in the extreme category. Most bike commuters I know live less than 7 miles from work. The one extreme commuter I know rode from Evanston to downtown Chicago (guestimate to be 20 miles). He had to Lycra up. People have a misconception that you have to be at a certain fitness level to commute the 7 miles or so to work, but I think they’d be surprised at how leisurely it can be.

  11. ScottUKEireLover says:

    Yes, I think there is something in the Dick Van Dyke effect! Congratulations to John for an entertaining article! When riding my Gazelle Basic with work clothes I do find drivers more considerate than when I am on a mountain or road bike in more casual or sporty atire. Additionally people in general seem more inquisitive.

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