Bicycle group at a crossroads

Cycling’s popularity has led to divisions in its leading advocacy group.

One Wednesday evening in late November members of the state’s peak cycling body, Bicycle NSW, assembled for their general meeting at Y Hotel Hyde Park. The gathering was no ordinary AGM for Bicycle NSW. Typically, the organisation has struggled to attract new people to run for board positions. But this year nine men and women were contesting positions.

And the agenda for the meeting included four resolutions, backed by more than 50 signatories, that directly challenged the authority of the board and watered down its power in favour of the membership.

The chief executive of Bicycle NSW, Omar Khalifa, told the 40 or so people in the room that the organisation was at a ”crossroads” and needed to clarify what it stood for.

By the end of the meeting, the resolutions were defeated largely on proxy votes directed by board members. Within a fortnight, Khalifa had quit.

On the move … John Holstein of Camwest, third from left, is a long-time cycling advocate and a former member of the Bicycle NSW board who believes there needs to be change at the peak cycling body. Photo: Kate Geraghty

The divisions within Bicycle NSW, a not-for-profit group that helps organise group rides and insurance for cyclists, are a reflection, insiders say, of the political growing pains of an increasingly popular activity.

While most cycling enthusiasts agree on what they want – more respect from road users, better facilities and infrastructure – the differing views on how to arrive at these things have been coming to a head.

Several local bike groups say they want Bicycle NSW to put more effort into advocating for local infrastructure projects instead of organising high profile ride events.

Khalifa will not talk about why he quit but some say his exit is a big loss for an organisation that has been struggling with identity problems. ”I’m very, very concerned with his resignation, because I felt he had done such good work,” Russ Webber, the president of the North Shore Bicycle Group, said.

Webber was vice-president of Bicycle NSW for 17 years until 2001 and might be said to represent the traditional rump of the organisation. He played a major part in forming Bicycle NSW from an amalgam of bicycle user groups. His criticism is that some time over the past decade, the board stopped energetically promoting local initiatives to improve the lot of cyclists.

”I think there’s a lot of cyclists who want to see the organisation being much more involved in making sure that cycling is part of everyday life,” Webber said.

His concern is that Bicycle NSW has done relatively little to promote initiatives like HarbourLink, a proposal to build a ramp from the northern end of the Harbour Bridge so cyclists no longer have to carry their bicycles up the stairs.

The comments are mirrored by other long-time cycling advocates.

”The staff are excellent … but I think the board is pretty much out of touch with what the membership wants and the way that cycling is going,” John Holstein said.

Holstein has been a Bicycle NSW board member and now runs Camwest, which advocates better cycling facilities in western Sydney.

David Borella, of BikeSydney, another bicycle user group, characterises the debate within Bicycle NSW as being whether the organisation should ”look upwards or look down”. The question is whether Bicycle NSW should focus more on gaining sponsorship and becoming a larger corporate presence, or if it should continue to reflect its origins among smaller user groups.

To some degree this tension is reflected in the make-up of the board, which was once populated by user group representatives but now features commercial lawyers, lobbyists and management consultants.

Bicycle NSW says it is resolved to represent all cyclists, and even those people who do not yet cycle.

”In the past the organisation might have been directed at, or focused on, commuters or passive cycling as opposed to cyclists and sports or BMX or the different disciplines,” the board spokesman, vice-president John Richardson, said. The new strategy is for all cyclists.

By Jacob Saulwick, Sydney Morning Herald
One Response to “Bicycle group at a crossroads”
  1. centurion48 says:

    I was saddened to hear that Omar had resigned. I feel he was the right person for the job at a difficult time for cycling in NSW. I await some communication from the new board to announce their plans for BNSW. So far the silence is deafening.

    For BNSW to remain relevant membership must be increased. There are less than 12000 members when over 1 million cycle regularly (weekly) in NSW and millions of households have bikes. Something needs to be done to get the population of NSW onside. The NSW government is hostile towards both cycling and Clover Moore, who has done more for cycling in Sydney than any other person. Perhaps the issue is oppostition to anything Clover stands for? Either way, BNSW must be apolitical and work with the state government and all local governments to improve safe cycling in NSW. BNSW must also remember that NSW is not just Sydney and that BUGs are the eyes and ears in the community. More use must be made of BUGs to work with BNSW. The last thing we need is every cycling advocacy group doing their own thing instead of working together towards agreed goals.

    I am happy for BNSW to be involved in events because it is a good source of income and raises the profile of cycling as a social and active pastime for all ages. But, Bicycle Victoria (now the Bicycle Network) are the masters of event management and we cannot afford to compete by staging multi-day events. We just about have the mix right.

    Advocacy is the key activity and should not be restricted to improving commuter routes. John Richardson is correct in stating that cycling organisations need to embrace all types of cyclists because cycling is an pejorative term for a number of discrete sports and leisure activities. NSW is a fantastic environment for social cycling for the very young right through to the quite old. Tourism NSW should be fighting on our behalf and we need to explain to them why cyclists are a potentialy significant source of tourist dollars.

    I look forward to hearing how BNSW is going to get get NSW moving (by bike).

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