The Boston Globe
On a bicycle built, and run, by many
By Kimberly W. Moy, Globe Correspondent
When Heather Clark and Matthew Mazzotta set out to come up with the craziest art project they could think of, little did they know the company they would be keeping, both real and virtual.
Since hatching their idea more than six months ago for a ''busycle," a human-pedaled bus, they've received advice from engineers in the Netherlands and South Africa, a mechanic from Australia, a bicycle sculptor from Baltimore, university professors, Boston-area bicycle clubs, and a junkyard scavenger and tinkerer who has appeared on the British television program “Junk Yard Wars”. A pastry chef has volunteered time on weekends.
Even the City of Boston called them up, eager to see the funky-sounding contraption recruit riders from various neighborhoods and participate in fall bicycling and other events.
''Basically the whole project has come about because of the Internet," said Clark, 27, a Brookline resident who manages affordable housing projects.
''The second we said, 'Let's build something with bicycles and engineering,' the whole community came out like a roaring river," said Mazzotta, 28, a Jamaica Plain carpenter.
Thinking they had invented the concept, the artists -- who had no engineering experience and little metalworking skill -- received e-mails alerting them to earlier human-powered vehicles. The Dutch have several, including a beer bike, with a movable bar.
But Clark and Mazzotta, who have been friends since collaborating on a high school art project a decade ago, say the project combines several interests: environmental sustainability, use of recycled materials, and community interaction. ''In terms of symbolism, the concept of converting an existing vehicle to pedal power is pretty exciting," Clark said.
''We're interested in grass-roots activism and people coming together and making change in their communities," she said. ''We're also interested in people challenging themselves to come up with different solutions, being sustainable, being less reliant on foreign oil, having a more positive environment for children to grow up. And just how do you have more fun?"
On a practical level, the busycle might have a hard time competing with other forms of transportation. It will probably manage 13 to 15 miles per hour on level ground and three-quarters to to 1 mile per hour up a modest hill of, say, 5 percent grade, said Jeff Del Papa, a self-described ''natural scrounge" involved in the project.
''I wouldn't go up Beacon Hill," said David Gordon Wilson, an MIT mechanical engineering professor emeritus of mechanical engineering and author of the book ''Bicycle Science." ''I mean, they could do it, but it wouldn't be very exciting. People would be walking by you . . . "
Harnessing the energy of 14 bicyclists and a driver to tool around town on the frame of a van was ''quite an engineering problem," because of the weight of the vehicle and the people, said Wilson, who has served as one of the team's advisers. He and other engineers recommended finding a transmission that could provide very low gears, such as those used in many pickup trucks.
''We decided the driver is only responsible for steering and brakes, because that's pretty important," Clark said after showing a short film at a sneak preview at a Cambridge bar in late July, as a crowd of 100 chuckled.
Beyond sweating out the engineering, though, the project has been an organizational feat, with materials, space, and people to sort out on a deadline, Mazzotta said: ''It was like starting a business from scratch in one month.
The last Sunday in July signaled a small victory, with the arrival of a newly found truck transmission that afternoon, though otherwise it was a slow day, filled with calculations and measurements at their donated workspace at Sparqs Industrial Arts Club in Woburn.
Having spent $100 on the transmission, $20 on a master brake cylinder, ''plus a lot of pizza," Clark said, the cocreators have been relying on lots of donated parts, including the 3/4-ton van.
Volunteers have helped with everything from brainstorming the design to alerting the pair to the Woburn studio space.
''I was starting to offer certain things -- and I hadn't even met the guy," Dave Martinez, a bicycle and pedicab mechanic, said of his initial enthusiastic conversation with Mazzotta.
''I'm reminded of [Alexander] Calder, who would build a maquette and give it to a structural engineer, who'd figure out how to build it," Del Papa said. ''This is a time-honored system."
On that Sunday, Del Papa split his time between readjusting the brake pedal and working with the crew to design a set of recumbent seats. The adjustable seats should allow children to ride as well, Mazzotta said at the sneak preview.
The team has been trying to expand its volunteer circles even further, by recruiting people to ride the busycle and to provide ideas for routes.
The busycle is also a metaphor for larger themes, including its use of found and donated items and asking for help from neighbors and friends, said Meg Rotzel, director of the nonprofit Berwick Research Institute in Roxbury, which has supported the project through a stipend, artistic feedback, and publicity.
''It'd be very difficult to ride the busycle without 14 other people riding with you, both in body and mind," she said.
For more information, see www.busycle.com and www.hubonwheels.org. The busycle is scheduled to participate in the Hub on Wheels event at Franklin Park today, and today's parade celebrating Boston's 375th birthday.