Monday, December 28, 2009

Being Noticed

Like a magpie, I have always been attracted to shiny things, such as the disco bakfiet I saw in Amsterdam...

Ooooohhhh shiny!

Now, the streets of Amsterdam are teeming with bicycles and everyone there, except the tourists, has finely developed multimodal traffic skills. A disco bicycle would get slightly more attention than the average set of wheels. On the streets of Atlanta, bicycles are much less common and traffic skills are rudimentary. Most people rely on strict instructions from signals and signage along with vaguely threatening vehicle language (as opposed to body language). So around here, I tailor my appearance to be highly visible and highly respectable.

I've noticed that motorists are vastly more courteous if I am dressed up. This includes business clothes or fashionable casual outfits. I'm certainly not a fashion hound, but I have my own style and I don't like to look sloppy. I have also noticed that the number of rude or aggressive drivers decreases from rare to nonexistent if I don't wear a helmet (which I usually don't these days. I don't want to kick off the great debate, so I will leave it at that). So I always try to dress nicely when I go out.

This is as casual as I get...note the festive bow

Anyway, from looking at other cyclists while I pedal or drive around, I have formed my own theories about visibility. I believe that the most important factors for a motorist to see and "understand" a bicyclist on the road are shape, contrast, and color in that order. By "understand" I mean that the motorist identifies the object ahead of them as a person operating a bicycle, so they can act accordingly. This is important, and different from simply noticing an object which may or may not require reaction on their part.

Ergo, I opt for classic cuts in solid colors, including some bright colors where possible. I think this gives me a recognizable human silhouette. My upright riding position not only feels safer but also adds to the human-ness of my appearance, from behind and at intersections. When I compare this with images of hunched-over riders covered with logos, I feel like there is a big difference in visibility. Of course, in the scientist world, it doesn't mean anything until we've conducted at least 30 studies and done a meta-analysis. Thoughts?

Perhaps in line with my philosophy, there is talk of having a Bling Ride around here.


  1. In my experience, there definitely is a difference in motorists' interactions with the everyday bicyclist and the athletics-only crowd. The latter is intimidating; they exude aggression and focus, and being around them even makes me a bit nervous.

    I ride in casual clothes, or slacks and suits if it's for work, and I get many different reactions. When dressed up, I several times have had motorists talk to me at lights about that fact. I know from that they are paying attention. Also, if I'm suited up, I'm going to be more careful: I don't want to mess up my suit.

    As for the lack of helmet, you said "these days." Does that mean in winter, or in general? No lectures here: you're a highly competent city cyclist, and, like you, I trust more to instinct and personal observation than studies.

    There really are no helmets that blend form and function well. The interesting, attractive ones -- the multi-sports -- offer poor ventilation.

    I am totally down with the Bling Ride. I would like to see a Seersucker Ride post-Memorial Day to kick off summer. Or close it.

  2. Good call on the seersucker! I like the principle of the Tweed Rides they have elsewhere, but it just doesn't seem native to Atlanta. I've been trying (as a yankee transplant) to think of things that tie into the myriad local cultural traditions.

  3. I totally agree with you about colors and dress. I wear the same clothes to ride my bike as I would if I were driving a car usually (plus some layers if it's cold or rainy). And I don't wear a helmet unless i'm going a really long way or riding on busy streets or in a hurry. I find that motorists are nicer too when i don't wear a helmet - they give more passing space and are generally more courteous. I'd say it's either because I then don't look like those hardcore spandex annoying ppl, or because they're more afraid to hit me without protection.

    The most important thing like you say is visibility. I always wear my neon green Chrome bag, turn on my front/rear lights, and lately started using Tireflys (great for side visibility, I also tend to sit or stand up on my bike when going through busy intersections.

  4. Those Tireflys are great, Court. I have a set somewhere in the house, but I haven't used them in months, as I can not find them. Nite Ize makes a similar set, which fit in the spokes like reflectors.

    I saw Bike Brightz the other day, which are a poor-man's version of the Down-Low Glow: LEDs at a fraction of the cost. I am curious about them and may try it out. They're only $20. And you know they are awesome, because Brightz has a "z."

  5. A diamond bicycle - that would really get American motorist's attention!

  6. There is probably a fine line between getting attention and getting so much attention that you cause a wreck... The disco bicycle is probably the latter. I had some kind of flashy lights that went on my valve stems - are those the Tireflys? All I know is that they were way too crazy for me! I felt like a rolling laser light show.

  7. the tireflys aren't that crazy really. and they serve a good purpose by giving more dimension to your bike as far as visibility. also, it's nice cuz you don't have to remember to turn them on (motion activated) and if they get stolen it's no biggie cuz they're $5 a pair. but if i could find something good enough to put on a laser light show on my bike, i'd go all out with that and ditch my front/rear lights. maybe have some motion activated speakers pumping pink floyd, yeaaaa