Pedal power

Don't want a big moving company to push you and your stuff around town? Then grab a bike — and maybe some new friends

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Published July 8, 2007 by The Boston Globe
By Richard Thompson

Don't want a big moving company to push you and your stuff around town? Then grab a bike — and maybe some new friends

There are two types of bicyclist in the city: those who ride and those who haul.

Craig Kelley falls into the latter category. Some weekends, the first-term Cambridge city councilor can be seen tugging his smoothie machine and cooler to area soccer fields. Other times, he's pulling his 16-foot canoe so he can paddle for a few hours without worrying about parking or traffic.

Jeffrey Rosenblum figures likewise. Last month when he needed to relocate from his apartment on Bishop Richard Allen Drive in Cambridge to his fiancée's place across town, Rosenblum put out the word to a dozen double-wheeling friends, rolled out his own bike, and loaded up his household possessions onto five bike trailers for the move.

"People get together and do stuff on bikes," said Rosenblum, who is cofounder and executive director of the LivableStreets Alliance. Since its formation two years ago, the nonprofit group has pushed for an urban transportation system that balances biking, walking, and driving.

Fellow bicyclists, sometimes even complete strangers, are often willing to answer calls for help, he said. Requests are often posted online, where something of a cybercommunity has formed linking bicyclists who need a hand with those willing to lend theirs, and their wheels, for moving things.

"It's more of a utilitarian and social activity that you don't generally find people doing around a car," Rosenblum said.

Beyond the camaraderie that bicycling seems to inspire, Rosenblum said, the efficiency of a tandem transfer has an appeal all its own. In less than a half hour, he moved all his belongings — including two dressers, a bookshelf, and a futon mattress — from his second-floor bedroom to the curb.

Their first setback came early, though, as the bottom fell out of the first box, scattering paperback books across the floor. But soon everything was by the street, where the bikes were leaning against parking signs, against a backdrop of passing cars.

The bicyclists packed up the trailers and started pedaling. With Rosenblum leading, they rode closely together for a few blocks, collecting curious looks and double takes from drivers and pedestrians.

The importance of the bicycle in moving cargo is part of a class, "The Bicycle: Vehicle for Societal Change," taught at Babson College in Wellesley by Ross Petty, a professor of marketing law who has logged more than 50,000 miles on his bicycle in the last quarter- century.

Many of his students "are quite surprised that the bicycle has had much of any impact," Petty said. "They think of it as a kid's toy they outgrew a few years back, when they got their driver's licenses."

It's one thing for bicycle veterans to pull off a household move. "A number of them ride bikes already because they're passionate about it," Petty said.

But how feasible is it for the average human being to haul large, heavy objects via pedal power? Basic physics make it possible.

"It's like pushing a car that's in neutral," said John Swain, associate professor of physics at Northeastern University. "If the road is flat, you're OK, but if it's got a slight downstep, then the car might get away from you."

A slight increase in slope can make pedaling uphill at least three times more difficult, and that can be compensated for by shifting into a lower gear or by reducing travel speed. Then it's like pushing the car and lifting it vertically against gravity at the same time.

"Even the hills aren't too bad if they're not really steep," said Phil Stango, a recent Boston College graduate who made six trips by bicycle to move from his residence hall to a Brighton apartment last spring. "It's much easier than people think."

One key is the location of the trailer connection. "It's attached low, so you don't feel the difference in the weight," said Robert Celerier, a bicycle technician at Wheelworks in Somerville, which he says sells between six and 12 trailers a year. "If it was attached to the seat post, you would feel it, but it stays in position because the attachment is flexible."

A bicyclist in reasonable shape can pull 300 pounds in a trailer on level ground while going 10 miles per hour, according to Bikes At Work, an Iowa company that started out as a bicycle delivery service more than 15 years ago and now manufacturers trailers.

Phil Stango didn't have his own trailer when he needed to move, so he posted online to borrow one. Rosenblum saw the posting and obliged; Stango returned the favor by helping him move weeks later.

That trailer came in handy for more than changing addresses.

"At the end of the year, people throw away all sorts of furniture, so I thought this would make it easier to move stuff around," Stango said. His curbside finds have included a foosball table, a refrigerator, a dresser, and a bookshelf.

With an 8-foot trailer among his six rigs, Craig Kelley says the ability to move by bicycle is his ace in the hole, giving him "an astounding amount of freedom."

"Sometimes it just starts to make a lot of sense to do that rather than drive," Kelley said.

Meanwhile, in Portland, Ore., a close-knit cycling group called SHIFT has helped local residents pedal their belongings to new places for the last two years, relying on an e-mail list to spread word of an upcoming move.

For Jonathan Maus, a SHIFT coordinator who runs a daily online magazine covering the city's bike scene, seeing a group of cyclists in action has a meaning all its own.

"When you see someone riding an antique stove down the street with a smile on their face," he says, "it kind of puts it into perspective."

Richard Thompson can be reached at rthompson@globe.com.