A number of theories have been proposed about why drivers react the way they do to cyclists. Some of the explanations are obvious, such as that bicycles are in their way or slow them down. Others are based on observations, which may or may not be true, in part because they’re based on personal bias.
One such observation, which has gained a great deal of popularity in recent years, is the Mary Poppins effect. Those who uphold this theory purport to have proof that drivers are more courteous — and give a wider berth — to women who are riding upright bicycles and wearing feminine clothing.
This may be true. But, not everyone is in agreement about why this happens. There is speculation about it as a question of the rider’s apparent vulnerability. And, some people think it has something to do with the more fashionable, non-athletic clothing these cyclists wear. Most likely, it’s a combination of these things.
The validity of this observation is not in doubt, but as with any good theory, it must be tested to determine whether a driver’s reaction is related only to these things and cannot happen under other circumstances.
To that end, I’ve made some observations of my own. Although I did not disagree with the concept of the “Mary Poppins” effect, I believed from the outset that the effect was not isolated to this situation. In other words, I did not think that this phenomenon was unique to women on upright bicycles wearing feminine clothing.
I have observed people other than cyclists fitting the Mary Poppins stereotype being given a wide berth. And, some of them were also treated well by drivers. What I wondered was, what was the common thread?
Of all of the cyclists I see on the road, the ones who are treated the worst are the lycra-clad road racing types, often referred to by drivers as “Lance wannabes.” Riding on their expensive bicycles, clad in skin tight racing attire, they annoy drivers to no end. Consequently, these cyclists are the most likely to get cursed at, honked at, buzzed, and run off the road.
That group aside, how cyclists are treated varies, depending on a variety of factors. In many places, cyclists in street clothes are treated more respectfully than those in racing attire. Drivers may see them as less athletic than racing types, and as a result, are more cautious around them. This occurs whether the riders are male of female, although preconceived notions about women as weaker and less athletic may get them better treatment.
How drivers react to cyclists is not based solely on attire. The type of bike a cyclist rides also influences drivers. Drop handlebar bicycles are generally viewed as faster, more athletic bikes, so drivers don’t feel the need to take the same degree of caution around them.
Hybrid bikes vary in the type of reaction they get. My hybrid is a flat bar road racing bike. Most drivers don’t know this; all they see is a more upright posture on this bike than on my drop handlebar bike. Once in a less aggressive riding position, drivers appear to see me differently. The problem is further compounded when I ride in different clothes.
When I wear athletic clothes, drivers tend to drive closer to and more aggressively towards me. They seem to equate athleticism with risk taking, quick reflexes and toughness. It’s as if they expect the cyclist to take care of him/herself.
When wearing street clothes, drivers do not see me as an athlete, but as an ordinary person riding my bike to get somewhere. They are more careful driving around me. They also give me the right of way more often.
This view is confirmed by my observations of workers whom I’ve seen riding in suburban areas. These cyclists are dressed in work boots, jeans and sweatshirts or work jackets. Most people would perceive them as using their bikes for transportation, which may change drivers’ perceptions about their riding ability level, leading to more caution around them.
With the exception of female racers, women are generally treated more sympathetically by drivers than men. Feminine clothing is unnecessary, as long as they can easily be distinguished as female, many drivers cut them some slack.
Men, generally don’t get the same level of consideration as women do, although wearing street clothes helps. Riding a more upright bicycle can also help, as does wearing reflective gear. Drivers give cyclists more room when they’re dressed in hi-vis attire, especially when their outfit includes reflective piping or a reflective vest.
What it all boils down to is that as much as drivers stereotype cyclists as being “elitist,” “entitled,” “scofflaws,” in day-to-day life, drivers do make judgments about cyclists, and treat them accordingly. These judgments, for the most part, relate to beliefs about the ability level of the cyclist and whether the cyclist is riding for transportation or sport.
Of course, there are exceptions to these rules, since not all drivers see cyclists the same way. But, what’s clear is that women in feminine clothing are not the only cyclists whose treatment by drivers is better than average.
One other thing worth considering is the cyclist’s riding style. Cyclists who mosey along at a snail’s pace, will face the least resistance from drivers when riding along the side of a road, but will face the most resistance when taking the lane. Cyclists who ride aggressively, will face the most resistance because they antagonize drivers by weaving in and out of traffic and disobeying traffic laws. Cyclists who obey the traffic laws and ride at a moderate pace are the least likely to arouse a driver’s ire.
This variability in drivers’ perceptions about cyclists is all the more reason to increase the number and variety of cyclists on the road. Although there is nothing wrong with using bicycles for racing or fitness, the less bicycles are associated with sport, the more seriously they’ll be taken as vehicles, and ideally, the better cyclists will be treated by drivers.