- by Christopher Jones
- Published: 21 August 2014
Cycling advocacy in Australia took a major leap forward when Adelaide hosted Velo-City Global in May this year. It was also in May 2014 that the Bicycle NSW (Bicycle New South Wales) CEO Alex Unwin resigned and the organisation structure was changed, from a single CEO to appointing specialist Executives positioned as leaders for Bicycle NSW for their departments. The new public face of Bicycle NSW for advocacy is Sophie Bartho and after meeting her at Velo-City, I sat down with Sophie at the Bicycle NSW office to find out where the organisation is heading and how they are ‘competing’ in the busy cycling advocacy arena.
On the site of the Sydney Olympics in a quiet corner of Bicentennial Park, the Bicycle NSW headquarters lies between eucalypts and one of the best bicycle networks in the state. The staff are chirpy but busy and the foyer is stocked up with dozens of big plastic post boxes filled with envelopes for members… as well as bicycles.
The Bicycle NSW Office in Homebush, Sydney
Sophie knows that I have also come armed with challenging and controversial questions. But who is Sophie Bartho?
After running a successful design agency with 10 staff, she sold the business to become a carer for her elderly family members and to be there for her growing children. Returning to the workforce she wanted to use her “brand marketing skills for social change”. The opportunity to join Bicycle NSW in April as the Executive Director of Communications meant she could use her skills to make a positive social impact. This role also puts her at the forefront as the spokesperson for bike riders in New South Wales.
Rather than using the word cyclist, it is about being a bike rider. Sophie explains “We try to avoid using the word cyclist because people immediately have a vision of lycra. We have a really diverse audience for riders of all ages, on different styles of bicycles and riding experiences.”
While the organisation encourages diversity, racing cyclists with sporting motivation are more likely to be part of a cycling club so are represented through Cycling NSW. Many of the 20,000+ Bicycle NSW members and supporters join because of the advocacy activities, the insurance cover (which excludes racing) has also become a big drawcard.
Although Sophie has only been in the role a few months, she takes on a huge responsibility for an organisation that needs to re-invent itself and grow. While other state organisations appear to dominate the media landscape and proactively represent bike riders, in New South Wales the City of Sydney Mayor Clover Moore and the Amy Gillett Foundation appear more visible. I asked Sophie what happened to this organisation which is now almost 40 years old.
“We have lost our voice and our power to articulate that voice recently. I want to get that back. Whilst we haven’t had a prominent media profile recently, much of what we do goes on behind the scenes. The board made a very conscious decision a few years ago to ensure that as a peak organisation we were at the table when decisions affecting cycling were made all across the decision making spectrum. We have been successful in this- we have excellent relations with the key Government agencies at all levels, state and local. We know there is a demand for advocacy through the increase in cycling and bike riders need representation,” says Sophie. “I am spearheading the team to define what we stand for and why do we exist and to actively increase our communication of this.”
What is holding Bicycle NSW back?
“I think it was a combination of reasons, first and foremost communication. An awful lot goes on here, we are doing a lot in terms of advocacy and yet we’re not telling people what that is.
“We are also a small team with the equivalent of five full-time staff,” continues Sophie. “When you consider that we are running Sydney’s largest recreational ride, Spring Cycle, we are running Discovery Rides in regional NSW, we are running the Gear Up Girl event for women riders of all skill levels, we are running workshops and training, we are leading the advocacy across NSW and we are working for a supporter base of 20,000+, that is a lot for five people.
Planning is well underway for the 2014 Spring Cycle
As a state organisation it is not just about Sydney. Regional New South Wales is part of the focus and representing bike riders across the state. There are 33 Bicycle User Groups (BUGs) across New South Wales who are affiliated with Bicycle NSW and many more who are ‘friendly’. The BUGs benefit from insurance cover as well as training and support with events and advocacy endeavors. The local knowledge that the BUGs offer allows Bicycle NSW to run or support cycling events and these in turn attract bike riders from across the state. These local hubs also allow Bicycle NSW to better represent bicyclists and cycling issues from across the state in talks with the government.
Commercialisation of Cycling Advocacy
As an outsider, it appears that other state advocacy bodies and national bodies such as the Amy Gillett Foundation (AGF) have commercialised. The AGF, led by CEO Tracey Gaudry, has created a business style organisation structure and grown an attractive portfolio of corporate sponsors and supporters.
Bike SA (Bicycle South Australia), led by CEO Christian Haag, draws on the organisation’s wealth of knowledge and provides consulting for business and governments. At Velo-City Global, Haag confirmed during his presentation of Bike SA activities, “We are a business!”. Haag notes that this is not solely about ‘dollars’, rather it also encompasses a business approach to their ‘knowledge wealth’ and influence in politics and with all stakeholders in achieving the objectives of Bike SA.
“The commercialisation of Bicycling NSW is something that we are working on and exploring.” explains Sophie. “My personal opinion is that I am not a fan of the term “not for profit”, I would like to see Bicycle NSW get to the point where we are able to make a profit and what we do with that profit is most important. We need more support and funding to create campaigns and programs including: encouraging children to ride regularly, encouraging more people to commute by bike to and from work, shops, etc., and importantly campaigns to impact tangible behavior change around safe cycling and driver behaviors, mutual respect and shared space for all transport modes‘.
“Our events are there for participation, and opportunity to demonstrate the ease and joy and access of bike riding. They are the best in the State and we need to commercialise those events.”
Pip Vice is part of the energetic Bicycle NSW team based in Homebush
Choosing the Right Partners
Despite the best intentions to generate a positive cash-flow and return into cycling advocacy, choosing the wrong partners can be a step in the wrong direction. The Amy Gillett Foundation was publicly criticised for their partnership with the overseas online retailer Wiggle by the Australian distributer of Garmin and Stages Cycling, FE Sports. The Amy Gillett Foundation responded that the necessary financial support from the Australian bike industry simply wasn’t forthcoming and havn’t experienced public criticism for this decision from their supporters.
The Victorian state cycling advocacy body Bicycle Network Victoria (previously Bicycle Victoria) have a lucrative collaboration with soft drink giant Coca Cola which has raised eyebrows across the country and also generated media interest regarding the roll-out of the partnership.
Addressing the question of ‘good partners’, Sophie Bartho says “Partnerships are critical and will be a big part of our future, and have been a big part of our past including partnerships with government agencies that have supported our events including Transport for NSW, the Police and the City of Sydney. With event funding from government declining, Bicycle NSW will need third party and commercial support.
“We have significant assets in terms of our events and knowledge – so how can we work with other organisations who can benefit? With our mission to create a better environment for cycling, I believe we need integrity so it is important that we pursue like-minded organisations and brands. That can be hard, we have had numerous discussions recently where we ask ‘Is that sufficiently aligned, can we really justify it?’”
Chief Financial Officer Brian Fong has been with Bicycle NSW since 2005
Competition among Advocates
Each state and territory in Australia boasts a state based cycling advocacy group and in recent years have been joined by ‘specialist’ advocacy groups such as safety focused groups including Amy Gillett Foundation and Safe Cycling Australia, rider education groups such as Aust Cycle, groups against the mandatory helmet laws (e.g. Helmet Freedom), and online communities including the Australian Cycling Forums, as well as Sydney Cyclist and Brisbane Cyclist forums.
The growth in cycling has seen an increase in almost competitive behaviour by some advocacy organisations. In one such maneuver, Bicycle Network Victoria recently opened an office in Sydney and announced their intention to become the representative body for bike riders in New South Wales.
When queried, Sophie responded, “I found it disappointing. Down at Velo City Adelaide all of the states [advocacy organisations] met and talked about ‘how do we work together’. We are representing our states which is really important and have local knowledge, expertise, history and relationships. If we can all come together and demonstrate an alliance at a national level that would be very powerful. To be having those conversations while another state [organisation] comes and opens an office and is actively competing is disappointing.”
As one of the prominent national advocacy groups, I asked Sophie about their relationship with the Amy Gillett Foundation, “The Board of Bicycle NSW decided a number of years ago that we would work with other advocacy groups when we have shared objectives. Resources in the sector are so scarce that we don’t compete just for the sake of it and if someone is best placed to deliver on programs, promotions and/or advocacy we would prefer to support them than duplicate what they are doing. Safer riding is absolutely part of creating a better environment for cycling. And we work with the AGF on road safety.
“We have co-created ‘It’s a Two-Way Street Campaign’ and we actively support their ‘1 metre minimum safe passing distance’. Bicycle NSW has a very different business model to AGF. The advocacy work we are doing is much broader than just safety, we are working with the RMS & TfNSW reviewing their large infrastructure plans and how we can increase bicycle riding usage. It is a very supportive and collaborative relationship with the AGF.”
The Controversial Bicycle Topics
Any individual or organisation trying to promote and advocate cycling invariably comes across a few topics which can rapidly divide the cycling community. But rather than ignoring these, supporters often demand that a position is taken. Let’s investigate the official position of Bicycle NSW on some of these.
1 metre safe passing distance:
Sophie acknowledges the Queensland state legislation (in trial) and the activity of the AGF. “We would like to see the legislation changed in NSW. The clarity of the message is where it is most powerful. It is an easy message for everyone to understand and it can have a positive impact on behavior and attitudes and most importantly cyclist safety and road user awareness. We fully support the 1 metre minimum safe passing distance. We have said this to the Government and we intend to keep doing so to get it trialled in NSW.”
Mandatory Helmet Laws (MHL):
Australia is regularly criticised by recognised international bicycling advocates for the helmet laws which have been responsible for reducing cycling participation. In the Australian Cycling Forum a single discussion thread discussing Australian Mandatory Helmet Laws has over 7,000 individual posts.
How does Bicycle NSW approach this? “The debate rages, however it is 2014 and we have MHL’s which have been in place for many years. In terms of where Bicycle NSW put our energy and focus, reverting those laws is not our current priority. It is one of the most controversial topics within the bicycle community and we feel that in terms of priorities and what is going to create a safer environment for cycling, the “1 metre minimum passing distance” legislation is a priority.
“Other priorities include advocating and championing for improved bicycle infrastructure, wherever possible separated cycle paths and integrating the existing network. A big priority is encouraging more people to ride more regularly. Advocating against licensing or registration of riders and bikes is another major priority for Bicycle NSW.”
National Alliance of Advocacy Groups
There have been many attempts in the past to gather all of the invidual advocacy organisations together to achieve a greater political leverage. Sophie discusses this opportunity, “At Velo-City they announced the World Cycling Alliance. To me it makes sense to have an Australian Cycling Alliance or rather Australian Bicycle Alliance.”
Despite the meetings at Velo-City, it is unlikely that Australia will see see a true unity of all advocacy groups in the near future. Differences between groups, power-struggles and even the long distances remain a constant challenge for any individual or organisation considering the notion.
The Cycling Promotion Fund (CPF) however have recorded success in creating some collaborative efforts as CEO Peter Bourke comments, “The CPF is supportive of a unified national advocacy approach. We have delivered projects such as Vote4Cycling which have unified advocacy groups across Australia and plan to support a national advocacy approach in the future.”
A fresh start for Bicycle NSW
With 20,000+ members and supporters, Bicycle NSW is already a strong organisation, however it needs to take action and become progressive and visible. Leading the advocacy and communication for Bicycle NSW, Sophie Bartho is acutely aware of her role and her responsibility driving the organisation forward. Commercialisation is inevitable, an investment which positively aligns businesses with bike riding and allows the organisation to re-invest.
Reflecting on the challenge ahead, Sophie Bartho leaves us with a reminder, “the bicycle, a very simple, very humble piece of engineering can solve so many social issues.”
Find out more about Bicycle NSW membership and the Spring Cycle event on October 19 online: www.bicyclensw.org.au