Interview: Bicycle NSW CEO Omar Khalifa
- by David Halfpenny
- Published: 10 May 2011
While riding with my daughter in the Gear Up Girl ride earlier this year, I was surprised to see another male cyclist riding beside me in what was a ride meant for female participants. He was riding a very sweet bike and wearing a Bicycle NSW jersey; he was Omar Khalifa, the CEO of Bicycle NSW. Omar introduced himself and, for the few minutes we rode together, we chatted about my job on the day (I was part of the volunteer ride crew), bikes, kids and Bicycle NSW. Before he rode off to chat with other ride participants, I asked him if he would be interested in giving an interview to Bicycles Network Australia and he had no hesitation in agreeing.
I asked the participants of the NSW sub-forum on BNA, and other interested parties, to provide me with some questions for Omar and there was an interesting consensus on what I should ask. While I was keen to have a face-to-face interview with him, our schedules never seemed to match, though we were able to successfully conduct the interview thanks to modern technology.
Omar brings to the job of CEO of Bicycle NSW a collection of skills ideally suited for the role. Firstly, he’s a cyclist and he has been riding Sydney streets since the late 80’s when he came to the city working for Apple Computers; secondly, he lives on the coast, so he’s aware of the needs of non-city cyclists; thirdly, he has extensive and varied experience with all levels of government, charities, and businesses both big and small.
Bicycle NSW has a slowly growing membership of around 11, 000 cyclists. There are many more cyclists than this in the state and Omar and his team are dedicated to increasing the membership and, as a result, increasing the political weight of Bicycle NSW. To put it simply, cyclists need a unified voice and Bicycle NSW is meant to be it, but does it do the job it’s meant to do? I asked Omar some blunt questions and he gave me answers that impressed me with their honesty. Omar seems aware of what needs to be done and what hasn’t been done in the past and the organisation appears to be working hard for the cyclists of NSW. I found Omar to be very approachable and easy to talk to, so hopefully this interview is the beginning of a discussion between NSW cyclists and their public "face".
BNA: What is Bicycle NSW for you personally?
Omar Khalifa: I believe BNSW is primarily a membership owned organisation looking after the interests of people who bicycle for pleasure, commuting or sport. The organisation delivers advocacy, rider insurance, rides (such as the BNSW Spring Cycle), and various educational and promotional programs. But most of all, BNSW needs to be a friendly, respected and effective organisation that members can take pride in supporting.
BNA: What is your perception of how the cyclists of NSW see it?
Omar Khalifa: Until recently, I believe some cyclists would have questioned our value beyond the insurance we offer. As a member, I know I did. The organisation increasingly lost its voice and its raison d’?tre. By appearing to be increasingly sidelined during difficult discussions or seemingly always backing or being silent on government decisions and actions, many lost faith that we would be the voice and advocate what was truly needed. And, with insurance being offered by other organisations, the overall value for some began to be tested. Worst, BNSW became a convenient and a deserving "punching bag" for cyclists who hoped for more from the peak state cycling organisation.
However, we have been speaking up, we are spotlighting issues in the media and with government. We are delivering thoughtful submissions and recommendations, we are going back to regional Australia with a new message that says we care about everyone who bicycles. We have affiliated with over 40 bicycle user groups and clubs from all around the state. We are affecting decisions and outcomes that benefit cyclists. From the emails I receive and the blogs I read on various sites, I believe perceptions are changing among even our harshest critics – though we still have a mountain to climb.
BNA: You’ve acknowledged a lack of visibility, but you still seem to be the "go to" resource for a sound bite or comment on cycling issues in the media. Rather than providing reaction, what action are you taking to improve the image of cycling in NSW? Particularly, what are you doing to address the demonisation of cyclists in the media?
Omar Khalifa: There’s little point just trying to address what some in the media believe is fertile ground for stirring up passions. We are not unique however, as cycling has apparently stirred up similar passions in other areas – some believe cycling hits a raw nerve that links into a lot of other social issues and frustrations.
What we communicate on air, in print and at meetings is that cycling can be a part of a solution – whether it is commuting, exercise/health, sport or just simple fun. With regard to commuting and bicycle lanes, I just point out that if we put the 4,000 or so currently commuting cyclists back in cars and taking up train and bus seats or parking places we would quickly see how much worse things could get! 100 cyclists not driving cars is the equivalent of 1 km less traffic snarl; a thousand equals 10 km. The maths are compelling. As is the fact that only 0.2% of the NSW transport budget is dedicated to cycling infrastructure!
While BNSW will selectively deal with such stories in the media our main aim must be to improve the conditions for cycling and those who would like to ride a bicycle as an alternative form of transport. The best way to be proactive is to work these issues at all levels – members, BUGs, councils, state government ministers and authorities.
The demonisation is also only possible because a lot of people can’t relate to cyclists. They [cyclists] are the "other guys". They are "stealing" our roads! I often talk about the proud history of cycling in this country and in this state. Early European settlers made extensive use of bicycles for work, transport, sport and adventure. Sydney in the early 1900’s would have had bicycling races as a normal weekend event.
In World War II 3,000 infantrymen were sent to the Western Front on bicycles – to conduct reconnaissance and to lay communications lines. Cyclists, trams, cars all shared the Sydney Harbour Bridge lanes when it opened. It is only the rapid take up of the car in the 30’s and after World War II that we began to push cycles to the side of the roadways and almost erase them from our history – and memory.
However, the demonisation and aggression some motorists aim at those who bicycle will only really be eliminated when "that cyclist" could be a person’s son or daughter, sister or brother or Nan or grand dad. I have to say, that while the rhetoric can get loud in the media and among some drivers, I believe there is a steady improvement and in time it will resolve itself.
BNA: As a member owned organisation, what are you doing to make sure the opinions of the diverse cycling communities are being heard? Exactly how are you engaging with cycling clubs, BUGs (affiliated and otherwise) and other cycling based community groups?
Omar Khalifa: Just in the last 6 months we have opened up numerous new channels of communication and have increased our BUG affiliations state-wide from 20 to 40! We now have an online community area for ongoing engagement, send out bi-weekly e-news updates, monthly Push On newsletters and bi-monthly Australian Cyclist magazines. We engage through our helmet design competition (attracting thousands of entries from school kids); run bicycle courses at schools, a commuter challenge and gold medal challenge. We also run the largest bicycle riding event in NSW and one focussed on bringing more women to cycling.
I also personally attend to emails and calls from members and interact with cyclists through other community sites and collaborate with BUGs directly and through our BUG Council.
We also attend meetings regarding submissions and have offered up 5 in the last 6 months. Plus I have personally attended bicycle sub-committee meetings in Willoughby, City of Sydney, North Sydney and Parramatta.
Our BUG affiliations are a critical part of our strategy to extend the reach and effectiveness of BNSW and to also help local groups achieve better outcomes through our engagement on local issues. For instance, we recently held a communications/pr workshop with our BUG affiliates and will be doing ride leader training course shortly.
In addition we have launched a referral program for both BUGs and retailers that provide them with a financial benefit for promoting BNSW.
In fact, we don’t stop interacting at every level, every day.
BNA: When I was canvassing for opinions for this interview, one forum member commented "they should just change their name to BicycleSydney and be done with it". You’ve said you’re looking at re-engaging with regional cyclists. What are you doing and what are you planning on doing to re-engage? What do regional cyclists need from BNSW and how do you plan on addressing those needs?
Omar Khalifa: Just in the last two weeks I have travelled to Mittagong and Wagga Wagga (my second meeting there) for rail trail meetings; to Newcastle for a meeting of 80 regional bicycling groups, politicians and councils; participated in the assessment of the Department of Planning Coastal Cycleways grant assessments; engaged with regional council members in both Gosford and Bathurst; and attended an Shoalhaven bicycle plan meeting. We are also in the process of attending RTA Regional Consultation meeting in all 5 state regions.
As an example of our ability to exert useful leverage, a couple of months ago we joined with Coffs Harbour BUGs and BNSW members to successfully push through an improved cycling lane plan for the old Pacific Highway. Combining local leadership and knowledge with our ability to interact with key ministers, media and RTA officials proved a potent force.
NSW is a large state, and we also need to keep in mind that 70% of our current members are in the Sydney metro area. We also have limited staff and resources to do a lot of travelling. However, I have personally committed to addressing the past imbalance and we are already actively demonstrating that commitment – and the feedback has been extremely positive.
BNA: How strong is BNSW as a lobby group or cyclist representative group when it comes to cycling infrastructure development? Are there political or financial pressures affecting the "voice" of BNSW?
Omar Khalifa: I believe that BNSW has influencing power due to our size and breadth of membership. We are still the recognised peak body representing non-competitive cycling issues across the state. It is certainly useful to our members, non-members and for government to have such a group to interact with that can offer a consolidated and prioritised view of what cyclists may seek as a “group”. With so many diverse interests, it would be hard to weigh up the various inputs otherwise.
However, I believe you either exercise your power or you prepare to lose it. For a long time BNSW lost its voice and the criticisms were well deserved that we were becoming unwilling to take on challenging policy issues because of our close association with government agencies and a dependency on funding arrangements. Even today we have a financial dependency on government funding for certain programs and ride events. However, we would soon be no use to either our members and subsequently by those same sponsors and departments if continued to become irrelevant to the cycling community. We need to be ready to speak up but to do so an informed manner. But it takes a steady hand and a clear sense of purpose to do this and I count on the implicit support from the membership base, staff and board of BNSW.
Over time, I am certainly keen to broaden our financial support base so that our dependency can be better balanced and afford us more flexibility and diminish even an apparent potential conflict of interest.
BNA: While you’re doing a lot of work with "grass roots" programs (NRMA Gold Medal Challenge, helmet contest, women’s cycling clinics etc.), how are you practically helping established cyclists? Why should they maintain their BNSW membership when they can get insurance via other means (such as with a Cycling NSW license, for example)? What is the "product" you’re offering for these cyclists?
Omar Khalifa: The three reasons our members list as most important are insurance, advocacy and programs. What they say they want more of most is advocacy. What we are now delivering is a lot in that category and I hope this will be recognized by the broader cycling community.
We recognize that riding a bike, like taking a walk, does not compel many to join club or organization. Cycling for many is a simple pleasure and does not drive them to even consider becoming a member of BNSW or any organization. Insurance does at least make some consider it. Competitive cyclists do have alternatives for insurance so this is not an exclusive offer and may some day even be easy to get independently. We need to be ready for that with a well communicated case for support beyond insurance.
I do think BNSW ends up "carrying the can" for all cyclists when it comes to issues of advocacy or many of our education and support programs. I think many cyclists may be just assuming we are going to be there whether they contribute or not. What does give us increased confidence is the fact that we only recently moved to a choice of 1 or 2 year memberships and over 20% of our current members choosing 2 years – that is certainly a vote of long term confidence!
BNA: What is being done right in Australia when it comes to cycling infrastructure and programs? Conversely, what has not worked/is not working? Do you think Australia can ever become "Copenhagen-ised"?
Omar Khalifa: There is a lot of experimentation and renewed interest in cycling issues all across Australia. However, we are coming out of the Dark Ages and have a long, long way to go to even reach a passing mark. This is even more true in NSW where we got to a later start than Victoria and are still struggling to allocate sufficient resources to offer even adequate cycling infrastructure. What we have often seen delivered can be piecemeal and poorly integrated. We still don’t have proper access to the Sydney Harbour Bridge nor do we even have one single regional rail trail. Budget allocations at state and local levels are for the most part fairly pathetic and insufficient to narrow the gap significantly
Our state’s consultation and submission process has in many cases also proven to be ineffective and some would even say they can be a charade. In some cases consultations are nothing more than a check box process that fails to be accountable to the inputs from organizations that are investing time and effort and trying to improve outcomes. This needs to be fixed if we are to use this process to influence and improve decisions. Meanwhile, we are skilling up ourselves and our BUGs with public relations and media training and becoming much more closely coordinated in our approach to local issues.
While we can feel great about successful efforts in Sydney and noticeably changing attitudes among many who we share the road with, there are still too many instances of media and radio personalities ready to incite a backlash. It remains fertile ground for a variety of reasons. It is still too common to hear about hoons in both city and regional areas harassing and endangering people on bicycles and a lack of interest from some police to follow-up. This has to change and it will change.
BNA: Let’s fire a quick burst of topics your way. What is BNSW’s thoughts / policies / position on?
? Bicycle registration?
Omar Khalifa: We have yet to see a case that tells us what it would actually achieve, will not cost a bomb to administer and not actually discourage people from cycling – especially those who can least afford alternatives.
? European style strict liability rules?
Omar Khalifa: We have not seen any proposal put forward to evaluate.
? The new state government?
Omar Khalifa: We are an a-political organisation and my meetings with the Transport Minister, Gladys Berejiklian prior to the election were encouraging. We believe we can be part of the solution to many of the travel, commuting and health issues that will challenge this or any government. We do agree that a complete revamp of the RTA and Transport agencies is long overdue and we hope the outcome of changes will allow us to mainstream cycling issues – and spending.
? Sharing the road or separate facilities?
Omar Khalifa: We need a mix of properly designed facilities to meet many different needs and situations. We cannot afford separated cycleways everywhere. However, a bad cycleway or poor cycle lane can be worse than no facility at all and that is really the main priority.
? Mass participation rides?
Omar Khalifa: I would like these to be aimed at achieving real action not just frustrating commuters – we need to move on from our days of raising awareness and see how we become much more effective in achieving results. A mass ride to a council meeting that was going to vote on a cycling budget for instance? We need to get much more clever about applying focus and pressure.
? The relationship between sport cycling, recreational cycling and commuting cycling?
Omar Khalifa: We are participating in ongoing discussions about various collaborative opportunities at the state and national level. We certainly have a lot of learning to share and we already do cross-support each other with various activities or even publications.
BNA: Finally, is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
Omar Khalifa: I joined Bicycle NSW because I was a disappointed “customer”. I believed that people who bicycle or future generations who will bicycle needed an organisation that could be a real agent for change and better outcomes. Discovering the rich history of cycling in Australia and in NSW was an unexpected bonus that increased my desire to see a better balance achieved on our roadways.
BNSW is evolving and I hope your readers will approve of the changes so far. We have a long way to go to meet my own expectation for the organization and, hopefully, exceeding the expectations of our members and those of the greater cycling community.
BNA would like to thank Omar the time he took to answer our questions.
More information on Bicycle NSW online: www.bicyclensw.org.au