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Park Alum Pedals in Pursuit of Passions

Park Alum Pedals in Pursuit of Passions

Tommy Vitolo (2000) volunteers with Buscyle, where public art becomes public transportation.

By day, Tommy Vitolo (2000) spends his time working on scalable optimal and suboptimal methods to solve real time point-to-point ad hoc network problems. What does that mean? Math, and lots of it. Specifically, operations research, the focus of his Ph.D. track at Boston University.

So what does Tommy do for fun? For the past few months, he’s been welding, grinding, drilling, and most importantly, pedaling. The last activity proved particularly useful this past weekend as he took an inaugural ride on Boston’s Busycle, a fully functional bus that runs solely on the energy of its passengers. The brainchild of two-Boston based artists, Heather Clark and Matthew Mazzotta, the Busycle carries 15 to 20 people and is 100% passenger pedaled. Its debut at the Hub on Wheels bike ride and festival on September 25, marked the end of several months of design and construction, much of which Tommy was on hand for.

Tommy first heard about the idea on a local cycling email list. “I immediately wrote the co-creators to tell them (a) it will never work, and (b) I’d love to help try and make it work,” he says.

While Tommy’s experience with auto and cycle mechanics was limited at the beginning, he learned MIG welding and plasma cutting, and became handy with a reciprocating saw and an angle grinder.

“I spent much of the project as a shop monkey,” he says. “Doing the odd jobs here and there that needed to get done, often I was the muscle provided by another set of hands.”

The project taught Tommy more than just his way around the shop. For someone used to taking a lead role, he spent more time following. “The only leadership I really showed was occasional mediation between two sets of ideas, and in a very limited role of motivator,” says Tommy. “I really enjoyed taking a following role in this project. It was a nice change of pace, and I think I learned more about my leadership capabilities in the process.”

Working on the Busycle also gave Tommy a chance to explore interests apart from his daily math grind.

“There are no direct connections between the Busycle and my academic career,” says Tommy. “However, it’s very related to all of my non-academic interests. I love working on cars and bikes. Sustainable energy is a pet issue of mine. Challenging assumptions about what can be done and the way things should be done is important to me. Playing with edge cases, where the rules don’t seem to be designed for the situation at hand, result in fascinating reactions from people and are thrilling to be a part of.”

“Finally,” he adds, “it’s always fun to do something silly, and it’s even more fun when your silliness brings smiles to strangers.”

And there were many smiles when the Busycle crew pedaled its stripped down and “naked” labor of love around Hub on Wheels. It even drew the attention of Mayor Thomas Menino, who took a turn steering the vehicle. Future plans for the Busycle include closing it in and decorating it. Once finished, the Busycle will travel around Boston following a socially responsible, community-determined route and schedule.

As for Tommy, his future plans are to finish his Ph.D. before pursuing a tenure-track position in a University setting.

For more information about the Busycle project, visit the Busycle Web site.

~posted 2005.10.02