On the Go! with Omar Khalifa
- by David Halfpenny
- Published: 5 February 2013
Omar Khalifa came to the attention of Australian cyclists as the CEO of Bicycle NSW. While he worked hard for this state based organisation, his efforts were felt nationwide and cyclists began to feel that Omar might be able to do what no one else had ever done: unify Australian cyclists and give them all a voice. Omar (and that’s how most people know him, just by his first name), during his tenure at Bicycle NSW, made it a point to engage with the media to raise the profile and issues of cyclists.
And then he disappeared. He resigned as CEO of Bicycle NSW, sparking rumours and confusion among the members, many of whom did not renew their memberships or transferred them to other cycling organisations in other states. People wondered what would happen next, but no one knew what Omar had in store – maybe Omar didn’t either.
Omar reappeared on my radar via a mutual contact, with something called the Go! Alliance. Nothing more was forthcoming about this venture until Omar contacted BNA about joining the Go! Alliance. Since we had interviewed him before, we jumped on the opportunity to interview him again and find out more about what he was doing. Like the first time around, he was eager to engage with us and gave us this frank interview via email.
BNA: As the head of Bicycle NSW, you were vocal and pro-active on cycling issues to the point where the cynics were paying attention and smelling some sort of change in the winds – a cycling Barrack Obama of sorts. And then you vanished, almost overnight. What happened?
Omar: It was a great opportunity to lead BNSW and put into practice what I (as a previous member) thought the organisation lacked. I believed I had the mandate and full support of the board to do this. But that turned out not to be the case and there were numerous divisions within the board and with the future of BNSW and its strategy and culture that I ultimately could not see myself being able to work through. As I was only ever there to make a difference, I chose to leave on good terms rather than be left unable to carry out the rest of what I came to do.
Nevertheless, we did turn a lot of things around including flagging membership, gaining better media visibility, improving financial sustainability, better online interactions, more progressive advocacy, better regional presence and turning around our ride event strategy. I was fortunate to have a team that was really enthusiastic and supportive of this new direction. I hope things did improve but I leave it to your readers to decide.
Still, I certainly enjoyed getting to know a lot of wonderful people and a whole different side of cycling and advocacy and so have decided to try to carry on in a different way. Oh, and I became captivated by the amazing history of cycling in Australia!
BNA: I know through mutual contacts that after Bicycle NSW you re-emerged with something called the Go! Alliance. Tell us about that.
Omar: When I left BNSW I was urged by some to start a new organization to compete with BNSW or to run for a board position and to help reform it. However, taking on the organization or the board held no interest for me. I was motivated by all of those folks I had engaged with to take my insights and to see if there was another avenue that would help make a difference for cycling and cyclists.
For starters, I had come to appreciate that:
1. Individuals, BUGs and other groups working at the local or regional level were under-resourced and often struggled to engage broader support or even modest financial backing for their initiatives. We are a sorry bunch in this way – often leaving a few amazingly dedicated people to do a lot of the tedious and under-appreciated work that benefits us all.
2. While new online petition and fund raising tools were coming online, that little effort had been made to re-purpose them for advocacy activities for improved cycling and other transport options – locally or nationally. Resources to help advocates were not easily found when needed.
3. There was no coordination among the various state and national groups across the sustainable transport sectors. Some even undermined each others’ efforts to get their agenda at the head of the queue.
4. With leaders like the Lord Mayor of Sydney making a push for better transport choices in the face of strong opposition; and some states balking at doing more, this was the time more people had to be engaged to help see things through.
5. Australia had a fantastic cycling history – a now nearly forgotten time when cycling was at the centre of every day life and sport and quite literally helped build this nation. This was a legacy that deserved to be celebrated and also honoured through our actions today.
After engaging with others and wondering who else would address these issues, Go! Alliance was formed. It is an online based initiative focussed on helping others activate change at the community and national level through leverage of tools, information and one another.
It is by financial necessity a modestly scaled effort that will seek to be responsive to changing needs and using primarily an online engagement approach. Our constituents will by and large be reached through existing online communities and other organised groups. We hope to attract all forms of resources that will donate time (legal, financial, design, sponsorships) or effort towards the goals of Go! and to share both the challenges and successes of group effort. We have already suceeded in securing matching funds from BIKESydney for crowd funding projects there and hope more will do the same.
Success is not certain in any new initiative, but if the community finds that we can accomplish more working in this new way, then it will have been well worth the effort.
BNA: You mentioned the goals of the Go Alliance; What are they? What does the Go Alliance do and plan to do?
Omar: Go! Alliance’s purpose is facilitating effective transport and mobility solutions through collaboration, funding and information sharing. Enhancing the capacity and capability of individuals and communities to enhance travel options. Inspiring, mobilising and activating change. Our motivation is that effective and efficient transportation, travel and mobility options are essential elements of our everyday lives and key to the vibrancy of our communities, our cities, our economy, our health and our natural environment.
Go! will also strive to fill the gap between online communities, BUGs and clubs and finding new ways to achieving results – a critical missing link. The scope is national and includes all transport modes as we are about re-balancing not exclusion.
BNA: So how does the Go Alliance sit on the organisational spectrum? Is it a non-profit? A consultancy? A community voice? A tool of big business? Basically, who is behind it and how does it operate?
Omar: As a starting point, Go! has been registered as part of a business though profit is not the primary motive for doing this. We do want to have the flexibility of a business and be able to finance what we need. While I suppose that we are indirectly advocating a general direction the primary output of Go! Is to make it easier and more effective for others to get involved themselves or to support activities of others. Part resource centre, part consolidator, part adviser but 100% about achieving better outcomes.
Our advisory board is headed by the former mayor for Bogota and world-reknown advocate for better urban transport, Enrique Penalosa. We also have CPF board member and ex-professional cyclist Stephen Hodge; previous Sydney Councillor John McInerney and Cycling evangelist, Nick Bonich. A number of others have made themselves available to help out and I welcome approaches from others who believe they can contribute.
BNA: BNA has decided to join with the Go! Alliance. Why should we (BNA) or other organisations be involved in it? What are we going to get by allying?
Omar: BNA has a great national following and is a natural constituency for Go! Alliance to be engaged with. We look to support those who will be inspired to take action. Whether it is a local issue or a national one. An invention or a new guide book. So, rather than looking for members, we are looking for those willing to either lead or support others who want to take action towards our overall stated purpose.
So far we have helped raise money for a CPF campaign, paid for a talk by cycling historian Jim Fitzpatrick, and helped fund a new pedle tram for Sydney. Through an online petition we have also helped overcome a decision by North Sydney Council to shut down its sustainable transport advisory group and are now doing a submission to the Commonwealth in the petition format.
We are hoping to ad legal support to assist assessing or challenging counterproductive measures. We are also hoping to have in kind support from transport consulting companies that may assist in design issues. We also invite suppliers of products and services that can help to play a part to make themselves known. By consolidating we can expect to leverage everyone’s efforts.
We are also open to ideas from the BNA community on how else we can be effective – at the end of the day this really is about being effective. We will not solve everything or much right away, but we believe that we can help do more.
BNA: On the BNA forums, one user (jules21) has opined that, with most cycling advocacy, there is an elephant in the room: “the embedded cultural tendency for Australians to view cyclists as second class road users”.
Omar: While I can empathise with that view, I don’t buy in that this has to be the way it is. Cyclists once created and ruled the roads and trails of Australia. Most of today’s roads were classified as cycle tracks first. Australia grew on the back of a bicycle in the early 1900’s and kept us entertained, took us to war, challenged and answered the characteristic wanderlust we have always had as a nation. The fact that bicycles were shunted aside with the advent of the motor vehicle does not mean it needs to always be so. The returns are fast diminishing for more cars and more roads. That monotheistic approach has quite literally run out of road.
However, he time is now to find a new balance and to help create a base of support that is not only about cycling but about more liveable and sustainable places to live, work and play. This is what is happening in Sydney and in a few other areas but it won’t happen with much enthusiasm if it remains without galvanised and ongoing support.
BNA: While developing cycling infrastructure is a useful way forward, how is the Go Alliance going to address the battle for hearts and minds?
Omar: The current model of advocacy is running out of time. Many leading advocates have told me that there are few young people ready to step up to replace or help them – through the countless submissions, council meetings or planning briefings. The “clock speed” for many people today is just too high for accommodating or supporting this engagement approach.
The large cycling organizations are effective in some states and not in others. At best, they can focus efforts on large impact priorities but must defer others. This leaves much of the needed work still undone and too often just single transport mode focussed.
Go! is about supporting incremental change backed by pervasive change. My hope is that at the very least, Go! prove that there is value in new approaches to activating change and to appeal to people like the BNA community to get more involved. But Go! can’t do this alone, we need people who want to help with financial support, matching funding or in-kind services and heaps of individuals willing to lead or support actions. We will soon see if this formula works!
BNA: So if traditional advocacy is dying off, what can the motivated individual do? Are there avenues for small voices, or do they have to ride the coat tails of a bigger organisation and hope they get where they want to go?
Omar: There will always be a role for people to do the hard yards at council meetings and gathering information at briefings and leading protests. However, the influencing side is clearly moving in the direction of effective campaigns that mobilise people quickly and for a clear purpose. Politicians Tweet and engage much more dynamically and want to be seen being sensitive to the pulse of the people.
Reports and submissions are ineffective tools for politicians – unless they want to delay things or look to have been listening even when their minds are already made up! GetUp! has clearly demonstrated that motivating a lot of “small voices” to sing together rather quickly can deliver a strong message to politicians and their departments that they cannot ignore. It has broadened the base of those who are aware and engaged than would have been the case previously.
BNA: The Pirate Party has just been registered in Australia for the 2013 elections, and while small/single issue parties have had some impact on Australian politics, this is really the first time we’ll see a much younger, digitally connected and widely distributed voice. Do you think it’s time for cyclists to use the new advocacy to have their views better represented politically? Will the Go! alliance ever become the Go! party?
Omar: First let’s consider if there is indeed such a thing as a “cycling community”? We are a very diverse set of individuals with different cycling interests and affiliations that just so happen to ride a bike for one reason or another. For many (and this often comes as a shock to some) it is not the most important thing in their lives. Most are not affiliated with any cycling group, a few with BUGs (more so in NSW), some with state organisations and some with racing groups. While there is some common ground there is little to unite us in or our actions and that and that’s not even including looking at other modes of transport. The truth is that we seldom back each other up except in places like BNA. But even then we often fall short of taking united action.
On the other side of the table we LGA’s, road and transport authorities as well infrastructure authorities and Commonwealth departments. They are constantly engaged with an array of providers and those advocating more of the same. Is it any wonder that we don’t get a clear message across?
I believe there are three ways to come to terms with this:
The Shooters Party approach. Go for representation in a seat that can be won, hope for a coalition government that needs your vote and push a narrow agenda with great leverage. The Shooters could not have dreamed of a better situation to get support for changes that are abhorrent to most people.
Pick a party approach. Select one party that we believe most closely aligns to cycling and have them push the agenda and hope they get into power. The problem with this approach is both picking the wrong horse and then when in power, will they stick to their promises? The NSW Labor Party spoke the language of cyclists but did precious little in reality and the participation rates went to the bottom of the table. The Liberals came in and appeared to revel in the fact that they owed nothing to cyclists and in fact looked to be trying to reverse gains at first.
The mainstream, City of Sydney approach. Make the size and enthusiasm of an online and savvy coalition seeking a different approach become a well recognised lever that no party at any level of government can ignore. This is an apolitical approach that presses all parties to come up with ideas and solutions to ensure they don’t lose your vote. This removes the possible stigma of being a “niche” or “green” issue and the knee-jerk reaction that can cause even turn off some cycling supporters. This approach also implies creating a broader consensus that does not exclude other transport modes and attracts more people to want to be a part.
All approaches have their merits but the latter one means that a broader constituency could be built that ensures change comes no matter what party is in power. (As happens in Copenhagen I would love to see a competitive benchmark evolve of how many of each party cycle – or don’t drive – to their offices!). There is no reason that it should not become seen as arrogant and out of touch to be continuing to promote the dominance of traditional motor vehicle use. That’s where I hope Go! can come in to help inform and empower to get effective campaigns going at all levels even nationally as well when required – to help activate change. However, ultimately this will only work if a large enough number are willing to engage and that is far from certain.
But I do have to say I like the ring of a “Go! Party” and we could have some fun with our manifesto!
BNA: So what is Go! doing now? What will they be doing in the near future?
Omar: Go! Has already been testing the basic concepts of deploying petitions and crowd funding in support of community activities and the response has been encouraging. We are going to build on that and hopefully create a supporting web site that brings together these tools and the information and resources to enable more people to engage and activate change. It is our belief that unless we build a constituency that is ready to take action and back action that we are unlikely to motivate governments at any level to do much towards transitioning transport priorities.
So Go! will back others and look for opportunities to engage with those who believe in this approach and would also like to help the community. It could be a business or a BUG or even an LGA that commit in-kind or matching funds to promote activities that help make a difference. Already, BIKESydney is offering to match 1:1 moneys raised in any crowd funding initiative that affects cycling in Sydney. I think this is exciting as a model to get highly leveraged results to do so many things!
BNA: As individuals, how do we get involved with Go! ? If we do join the alliance (sounds like Star Wars, doesn’t it?), how do we get our views heard?
Omar: I think its about being motivated to help change the dynamics that got us in this transport mess in most parts of Australia. The momentum built up from decades of singleminded thinking that placed the motor vehicle at the top of the food chain needs to be thrown into reverse – at least to the point of achieving a more sensible balance in transport spending and options. We also realise that politics and means of influence has changed dramatically and yet little has been done to put those forces to use in this area.
All tha Go! Is trying to do is facilitate a new way for us to build and grow that support base by leading on some issues of broad importance (like the current Yes, Minister! Petition) or an event that may help promote the concept, but mostly by helping individuals, BUGs and others in the community to figure out how to take action, to get the funding and to attract the support that contributes to the common purpose. Over 300 individuals contributed to a Go! assisted online petition to retain the sustainable transport advisory group for North Sydney Council recently. It was a success.
Part of this approach is dependent on bridging the gap with online communities that often talk about issues but seldom have an outlet to truly take it to the next step in a coordinated way. It is a often discussed issue that online social groups are not good at getting behind things together.
I also hope we help those who don’t see themselves as advocates but want to get something done that would help – a bike rack for a school or a transport guidebook for the aged or designing a new mobility aid for someone with a physical challenge. We just helped fund the Pedal Inn, a bar on wheels that is propelled by the guests pedaling!
In the end it is not really so much about single or integrated transport modes but about the other side of the same coin and that is building friendlier and better functioning communities and cities that are healthier, kinder on the environment and a whole lot more fun to live in or visit. It won’t happen if we don’t begin to back ourselves and each other to activate the necessary changes. So, I guess I am just saying it is time for your readers to consider what they can do and how Go! could help them do it.
BNA: I need some straight answers from you Omar. Did you ever take banned substances to enhance your cycling performance?
Omar: You should speak to my doctor, Mr. Lamborghini. He’s got all of the fast answers you could ever need.
BNA: Did you ever blood-dope, or use blood transfusions to enhance your cycling performance?
Omar: I have certainly been called a dope, does that count? If anything I took was meant to enhance my performance then I’m clearly not going to be asked for an endorsement. I mean the Bloodmobile felt so sorry for me that they offered to give me blood.
BNA: Did you ever used other banned substances like cortisones, testosterone, or human growth hormone?
Omar: This is beginning to feel like water boarding… alright already, someone call Oprah and let her know that I want to come clean but it will take three episodes minimum and I want soft lighting and angels singing in the background!
BNA thanks Omar for his time and for being a good sport. Omar is keen to answer your questions and you can engage him in a discussion in the comments below.