The Busycle - What it is, Why it is!
The Busycle is the 15 passenger pedal bus that, thanks to the genius of artists, Matthew Mazzotta and Heather Clark, arose from the ashes of Boston, MA area junkyards, dumpster bins and trash heaps. Nor were these two dynamic artists alone in making their idea for a human powered art car real. After receiving a small grant to help them kick off their idea for turning a gas powered vehicle into a people fueled machine, they then rallied a large community of people in Boston around the vision they held. When the short lived Sparqs Industrial Arts Club donated the use of its tools and space to make the Busycle dream real in the summer of 2005, things began to move quickly.
In no time people were learning how to weld, junkyards were being scoured, meetings with MIT professors were being held and scores of Bostonians were fully immersed in matters Busycle. In all, more than 65 people, from many different walks of life, most of whom got their hands dirty, played a part in creating the fun that would result.
At its core is the 1979 Dodge cargo van that Charles River Movers pushed to extinction. After the growing Busycle team stripped it of its body and engine, they outfitted its chassis with discards. Two iron bed frames found at the Harvard recycling dump, were welded into place to form a foundation for its new power supply, people. Comfortable office chairs, many with armrests, that the college had also retired to the dust heap, were bolted into place on top of the sleeping platforms.
Instead of foot stools, the Busycle’s interactive passengers would place their feet on 1970’s era bicycle power trains. Found in the back of Boston area bike shops, 14 sets of pedals, pedal arms, chain rings, freewheels and derailleurs were all held in place by the square shaped steel bars that once supported heavy weight lifting equipment.
As pedaling stations unique to each rider, these connected to the two modified, junkyard drive shafts that would send power to the front of the Busycle. It was the math that the MIT professors worked up that would redirect the energy generated by 14 pairs of legs to the back wheels of the vehicle. The complicated gearing mechanism they helped design interfaces between a Muncie, 4-speed truck transmission, another drive shaft, the Busycle has three of them, and the truck’s differential. The Busycle even has reverse!
As a heavy vehicle that is pedaled, steering it also had to be considered. While the truck’s brakes could still be used, when the engine was removed, the power steering was lost. For this it was determined that an old time, oversize steering wheel would have to be used. More junkyards had to be scoured. In one of them they found a a deceased Mack truck with a turning mechanism they could use that would help them solve this riddle.
In complimenting the Busycle with the trim it would need to make it both presentable and safe, discarded plexiglas from a Boston area hockey arena was used to keep wandering fingers out of the gear train. In order to make it easier to get on, old tables and shelves became its steps. To give it all a finished look, on his own, Matthew used old cabinets and other wood scrap to replace the grille, radiator and bumper that had been hacked off the front of the moving van.
After months of work, that even included a couple of all night work parties, in the Fall of 2005 the Busycle made its first maiden voyage. When Boston Mayor Tom Menino christened its first journey by driving it in a city sponsored festival, Matthew and Heather knew that, with the excitement their art created, that they had to share the Busycle with a wider audience. So the next summer they took it across America where they placed it before art lovers in eight more large American cities.
When it helped us here at the National Bicycle Greenway end our 5th Annual National Mayors' Ride in San Francisco, Heather and Matthew, began to sense that what they had begun as an art project destined for gallery and museum showings, could have greater value to the bicycle movement. When they started seeing the success it enjoyed in the events we were able to produce because of it, and sensed, on a deeper level, that it could really help us interconnect America with safe cycling, they knew that their creation had found home.
What else had Matthew and Heather begun to feel? What had the art project that they initiated become? Based upon how people react to the Busycle, often from what I hear them saying, I will try to articulate the message that most who come in contact with it seem to be getting.
To begin with, it represents happiness. And on some level most everyone knows this will be the all pervasive result when ours one day becomes a nation of people whose lives are centered around the bicycle and not the car.
Not only does the Busycle make all those who ride it smile, it seems to somehow inspire most all who see it in action to smile as well. Because the seats face out, with only the driver facing forward, the people its pedalers see on the sidewalks, in the stores or waiting at intersections in cars, all get to vicariously participate in the joy they see being experienced. They get to see how much fun it is for its passengers to be able to talk to one another as they use their bodies to get from one place to another.
We have heard people call ours a people powered hayride. Others have remarked about how we look like a an over excited centipede with what looks like our legs going in a million different directions. One person, in describing our vehicle to a friend, referred to it as an over sized wagon with a bunch of overgrown kids on it. And we do have fun on the Busycle, especially when you add a few bike horns, bells, whistles and other noisemakers to also keep us safe as we roll through intersections.
It is this joy that people want to spread. Like any good thing, they want to make sure others know about the fun they either saw in action or experienced themselves. And when this sentiment gets connected to the National Bicycle Greenway, people can’t help but feel that our dream of an interconnected two wheel America will produce the same kind of delight.
Maybe it’s just the inner satisfaction of knowing that, in riding the Busycle, we are not taking anything from the planet. In being seen by all those who have to work to miss us, we know we are showing them, the highest art from of recycling. While those recyclables found at the curbside still need fossil fuel energy to make them useful again, often as they require even more petroleum products for shipping and packaging, our machine only uses the energy of a few hours of welding. And once it is built, there is truly zero waste.
There is zero waste because the Busycle is built from what others consider to be waste. If we need “new” tires, rubber that can no longer perform at speed or in the wet works just fine on our vehicle. If a crank, pedal or chain, etc, should break, most any rusting bicycle will have what we need. Should one of our chairs become less than comfortable, there is a ready supply waiting to be claimed in dumpsters and second hand stores in pretty much any big city here in America.
Or maybe those in cars that see us are inspired to smile because they are able to laugh at themselves. Perhaps they know that ours is a spoof on materialism. While they give of their life force, working to keep their vehicles reliable and often times in step with the latest of trends, we are having fun with with a lot of things they no longer have use for. This, as the result is a machine, our Busycle, that scores high marks on all the coolness charts that exist somewhere for people to view.
Nor is it very much possible for a breakdown to leave us stranded. For that matter it is impossible for us to be unable to get somewhere because we ran out of gas or blew an engine. Should one of our pedaling stations go bad, whether due to a human or mechanical failure, we can still keep the wheels rolling. And we can lose almost half of our power supply, seven or eight posts, before we cannot easily get to wherever it is that we are headed.
In terms of the human energy needed to move our machine around, even that works to make ours a vehicle people can’t help but love. It’s for everyone! The young and the old, the fit, the skinny and the fat, the rich and the poor, the white, the black and everyone in between all enjoy the Busycle. All that’s required is for all those who ride it to expend a small amount of effort to achieve the result of reaching each destination we are headed for.
Nor is an excess of muscle an added benefit. While the Busycle can climb most of the gentle hills found in a city, if one were to push too hard, there is a very good chance, since it is not a weight machine, that broken bicycle parts will be the result. All that we need is for those who ride with us just to contribute what is comfortable for them to give.
Here at the National Bicycle Greenway, this is how we see our coast to coast network of safely bikeable roads and paths getting built. It is not a one person job but a job that requires a shift in consciousness. Toward this end, we see people at all levels in both the government and private sectors playing however large or small a part they want to play to make it both practical and eficient to get places on a bike all over America. As yet one more message our Busycle seems to be sending out, this is likely what Matthew and Heather were sensing when they knew their prized creation would be in good hands with us here at the NBG.
As a community building tool, the Busycle seems to be asking people to forget about what makes us different. Instead, it feels as if we are compelled to root for one another as each of us pushes just a little bit harder to get through a green light or ascend even the slightest of road grades. United in purpose when we are on the Busycle, it is this feeling of wanting to be a powerful one that is the love that resides at the very core of our being
Outside of its home here in Palo Alto, in the large San Francisco Bay area cities of San Francisco, Berkeley, Mountain View and Redwood City, we have heard the familiar refrain, “Our city needs one of these”. What is it that the people who say this know? Are they feeling that not all vehicles should be private? That there should be at least one public human carrier that brings the community together instead of divides it?
Is it wrong for people to want something they can power and not those fuel sources that only add filth and take away from the quality of life they experience? And even if the planet’s ecology is not of their concern, would they not feel better about the mess on their streets if not all the trips on them were being made solely for personal reasons; if people were truly helping one another to get places?
In driver’s training classes, they now tell us that the best way to drive is to help your fellow motorist get to wherever it is that he or she is trying to travel. When motoring about, we are advised, for example, to take our foot off the gas when someone is trying to change lanes, get on a freeway, or slow down to make a turn. And yet when we are in our private motor cars with our own agendas and reasons for traveling to the various places we go, this is hard to put into practice. It is often as though every one is out for him or herself as we get impatient with many of those with whom we share the road.
On the Busycle, all those on the street become our friends. We see any of those moving slow enough to exchange with us as potential allies to our cause of reaching our destination. Should they choose to become a part of our team, we are either having too much fun or are too busy with the job each of us has to do to worry about the size of their contribution. And an interested participant would never be unable to travel with us because they were lacking in money. All Busycle rides are FREE! If one is willing to pedal, he or she is welcome to join in the fun.
In the mind’s eye, it becomes easy for some to take the example the Busycle sets to the next level. There will be those who wonder how we can make more and faster Busycles. Others still will see the human powered local transit system that can result. These will be the transportation builders of tomorrow.
Nor do we feel disconnected from our fellow Busyclists when we are out for a ride. This is so because we are sharing in the journey, often with laughter, of moving through the challenge at hand. When the lay of the land rises to a gentle grade before us, as a group mind we feel the need to exert however much added effort is needed. When the road gives way to a gentler expenditure of energy, we flow into that rhythm as well.
It is the ebb and flow that keeps us connected to one another on a Busycle ride, that many are reminded of when they return to their motor vehicles. When they see our vehicle in action, or read about it at the many events we participate in, they remember how much fun they had helping people, many of whom they had not known, to get places. When people come together as strangers to move a vehicle they cannot move themselves then return to driving their cars, they seem to have manufactured a new supply of tolerance for other car drivers. More than once, I have heard former passenger/riders tell me they’ve found themselves seeing their fellow motorists as possible friends needing help to get somewhere. If this sentiment lasts only for a day or two, it is a move in the right direction.
After a Busycle ride, we can’t help but learn to be far more grateful for any level of speed our cars or for that matter, our bicycles, are able to produce. This is especially so as we glide over those rises the Busycle taught us to recognize were even there. In our cars, the appreciation we feel for the fact that our vehicle is doing however little or much of the climbing work that may be required and not our own two legs, can help us to slow down more.
When we were on the Busycle, we had already begun the process of slowing time down. In the absence of speed or performance measuring devices, as we settled into our comfortable office chairs, we began to enter a warp in time. It was in that place that the clutter of the appointments, schedules, deadlines and other demands of our fast paced lives gave way to the celebration of life our ride would become. It is the horns that sound their approval and the people that smile and cheer for us, that remind us that just being alive is cause for merriment.
Having been taught by the Busycle to make both strangers and time our friends, when we return to our cars, we tend to have a greater supply of patience for both. In our motor vehicles, when we see them bunching up ahead, once in a while we may stop thinking of such traffic tie ups as being filled with enemies that could delay us. Instead, we just might find ourselves reminded of those rises in the road that we had to join with others to patiently pedal our way over. And when the road becomes clear again, when all the lights are green or the freeway is moving smoothly, the thanks we give can remind us of the exultation that took place when we got the Busycle over a gentle climb and easy pedaling returned.
When our legs help us to feel even the gentlest of any of those rises we may happen to encounter, whenever the size and shape of the earth dictate how little or how much effort we expend, our bodies reconnect to the planet. It is from this base that our connections to one another radiate out from a more simple, far less complicated foundation. Despite the fact that we have largely removed ourselves from the earth by paving over much of it for our roads, markets, workplaces, homes, even exercise venues, we emphasize the disconnect we feel from one another and the planet when we don’t use our own physical selves to move around on it.
When we use our bodies to get places, instead of thinking of ourselves and one another as machines, we are reminded of our humanness. On a bicycle, for example, it is the sweat on our forehead or the muscles in our legs reminding us they are there that reinforces this notion. On the Busycle, this becomes our connection to our fellow riders as we take comfort in knowing our fellow passengers are getting much of the same feedback from their bodies.
A ride on the Busycle shows us that exercise can be a joy - especially exercise done in the fresh air. As a result, then, those who do not regularly pedal a bicycle leave our vehicle feeling more aligned with cyclists. And even if they don’t have a bike, it is this new appreciation for the two wheel way that sensitizes them to people on them, especially when they are driving. Oftentimes, the Busycle helps us gain new allies to our cause as all those it entertains end up with a working understanding of the need for traffic calmed streets and other bicycle infrastructure improvements.
As the Busycle sensitizes its riders to Mother Earth and all those who use their legs to move around on it, it also sensitizes them to matters environmental. The need for clean air, open space and organically grown food as a way to preserve this nest, the earth we live in, all become logical extensions of the thought process brought about by the strong body-mind connection the Busycle helps to build.
Any time one has used his or her body to travel any length of time to get to a given location, there is also going to be the sense of accomplishment this brings. As an inner sense of pride, this makes our day a success no matter what else happened within it. On the Busycle, whenever we travel to local concerts, fairs, markets and other public events, we arrive knowing we earned our way to get there. As an achievement that raises our sense of self worth, those non cyclists who ride with us get to see why bike riders can often be seen smiling. From such experience, there is a far greater likelihood that there will be at least a few who get a bike if they don’t have one or dust the cobwebs off the one they do and start replacing some of their car trips with bike trips.
In helping to get people out of their cars more of the time, besides the comfort they enjoy on the Busycle, we also pleasure them with a moving view they will not get anywhere else. Unblocked by the glass or metal of a gas powered bus or truck, on our vehicle, the only mobile observation deck that could compare would be a HiWheel bicycle like what I was riding. Nor do Busycle passengers have to pay the price of danger, an upper body that also gets fatigued or the heightened attentiveness to the road that a ride on a penny farthing involves.
With seats almost four feet above the street, our passengers get to see whole neighborhoods and the houses and yards within them in a completely different way. They see just over the tops of many of the fences that keep us divided from one another. A whole new world opens up for them as they see the world around them from a high above completely different reference point. And as we move at what is often no more than a brisk walking speed, the world before them goes by at a pace their minds can more comfortably process.
As the Busycle helps people see their world in a different way, it helps them to climb out of some of the comfortable ruts that have kept them from having an expanded view of what is possible. If one person’s dream of a group transportation conveyance built from society’s discards can be made real in the form of the Busycle, what is to stop any of us from advancing toward any of the dreams that we may have. No where is there a better illustration of resourcefulness, of making do with what you have, where you are, right now than with the example the Busycle sets!
All too often, we feel limited in our ability to make our dreams real by money. What Matthew Mazzotta showed was that we can make anything real if we want it bad enough. When he was able to instill his passion in the also amazing Heather Clark, the Busycle dream exploded on to the Boston scene as we showed you when we talked about how it got built.
The individual who gets the credit for making great things happen never does so alone. He or she with but rare exception is elevated to such recognition by all those who added their touch to the accomplishment in question. Just as Matthew and then Heather made others believers in the vision they held, the bicycle nirvana we see called the National Bicycle Greenway is no different. Since it is such a colossal undertaking over such a broad expanse of land, we know we just have to keep patiently planting the seeds of our message. With the Busycle as our ally, we know that, in soon enough time, it will reach the kind of critical mass that will consume the collective consciousness here in America with making the NBG real!
And that fellow Greenway believers is the Busycle and why we here at the National Bicycle Greenway are so excited about it!!
Davis NBG Fest
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