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A STROLLER FOR THE CITY

Kim Shipley is an urban mom who struggles to get around the city using several different types of strollers and carriers. Kim Shipley is an urban mom who struggles to get around the city using several different types of strollers and carriers. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff)
By Megan Woolhouse
Globe Staff / May 28, 2012
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Baby strollers can be incompatible with city life, requiring strength, stamina, and a fleet of specialized carriages and carriers to contend with hills, cobblestones, and, in winter, mounds of snow. There are missing curb cuts and subway stairs to navigate, as well as any number of other obstacles.

“One of the hardest things is trying to open a door while pushing a stroller,” said Kim Shipley, of Boston, a 32-year-old mother who owns two strollers and 10 baby carriers to get her toddler and 7-month-old around the city. “Revolving doors are the worst.”

But now this problem for urban parents has caught the attention of some big thinkers.

A team of students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Rhode Island School of Design believe they have created a way to help urban parents get around more efficiently, building a stroller and harness system called BuzzyBaby, which they hope to sell by next spring.

BuzzyBaby makes life easier for parents because its harness system buckles onto a stroller frame, but just as easily snaps into a carrier that allows a child to sit on a parent’s hip. The harness acts much like a universal remote control, providing one device to connect several. In this case, the harness rig attaches to a removable pad that can fit onto most lightweight strollers and carriers.

The students came up with the idea in a product design and development course at MIT. They studied video footage of the wife and son of a team member, Kin Lo, trying to navigate the stairs to a New York subway station. It was an awkward juggling act of bags, child, and carriers on a crowded street that left her frustrated and disheveled.

“Often parents traveling with children simply rely on strangers to help them out,” said Lo, a fellow at the MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

To confirm that they were on to something, the students surveyed more than 400 mothers in the South End about whether they would find their harness system useful. Three out of four said BuzzyBaby would be an effective solution for managing children in strollers on public transportation, and lugging them up stairs and escalators.

Demographics also suggest the students are tapping a ripe market. More women are having children later in life, when they tend to be better off financially, and more seem to be drawn to the amenities of city life. According to the US census, the number of babies under a year of age living in Boston grew by 9 percent in the last 20 years.

To navigate the varied terrains of the urban landscape, some parents buy multiple strollers and carriers, increasing the potential for a harness system that can easily move kids from a standard stroller to a car seat carrier to a jogger. A 2012 survey by Mintel Group Ltd., a market research firm, found that 77 percent of parents with children age 4 and under own more than one stroller. Eight percent said they owned at least four.

Manufacturers had more than $311 million in stroller sales in 2010, according to Mintel, up from $295 million in 2009.

The BuzzyBaby system includes a shoulder strap that attaches to a stroller, allowing a mother to carry a child on her hip, sling the the stroller on her shoulder, and more easily climb or descend stairs.

Meredith Schwarz, an industrial design major at RISD and part of the team that designed BuzzyBaby, said one of the most difficult aspects of the project was creating a carrier that comfortably fit adults and babies of all sizes.

Working with another RISD student, Schwarz hand-sewed a carrier, redoing it again and again to get the correct proportions. Then they tested the carrier with a doll nicknamed “Chubs,” walking around with the doll in the carrier and asking friends and fellow students to do the same.

Dozens of alterations and iterations of the BuzzyBaby followed these trials. So many, said Schwarz, “We lost count.”

But the idea seemed better than others the students had considered, including a stroller that folded up like a clam or a scheme to modify subway station handrails to accommodate strollers. Both proved too mechanically difficult, Schwarz said.

The students presented BuzzyBaby to their class in mid-May, shortly after filing for a preliminary patent. They are considering whether to partner with a stroller manufacturer or sell BuzzyBaby separately as an accessory kit. They could also sell their patent to a stroller or carrier manufacturer, said their professor, MIT’s Steven D. Eppinger.

Eppinger, a father of two who lives in Lexington, said he thinks BuzzyBaby has potential. So does Shipley, the city mom of two with the array of carriers and strollers.

She took the students’ survey, which included the prototype designs of the stroller and harness systems, and imagined that BuzzyBaby could make traveling through an airport with a baby easier.

“I would absolutely buy something like it, if it was perfect for me in some situations,” she said. “It’s pretty ingenious.”

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at mwoolhouse@globe.com.

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