The Amy Gillett Foundation released its big coronavirus related campaign to get more bike lanes built in Australia yesterday. A lot of businesses signed on to the campaign, which shows just how many hard-working people support the foundation and its mission. But the AGF is starved of cash, undemocratic, and is now duplicating others’ work. It’s time for the foundation to close down and for its members to work with the rest of the cycling community towards its laudable goals.
The AGF was started in response to the tragic death of track cyclist Amy Gillett in Germany in 2005. The organisation has a scholarship designed to support competitive female cyclists and also a program of research and advocacy to improve bicycle safety on our roads.
One of the AGF’s strengths has always been its ability to use connections with the sports cycling world to garner support from corporate and conservative sections of our community. In a space dominated by left wing organisations, this was their unique advantage. They spearheaded the “A Metre Matters” campaign – which led to one metre passing laws in almost every state. These laws were often introduced by conservative governments, no doubt with the help of Liberal party heavyweight and ex-AGF board member Mark Texter.
There has always been a diversity of groups supporting cycling advocacy in Australia. Each group has its own perspective, and they can work together towards a common goal. But diversity only succeeds if these groups can work together.
With the “A meter matters” campaign largely complete, the AGF is struggling to figure out where it fits in with other organisations. Their latest advocacy campaign focuses on the right topics, but shows that it can’t work well with others.
The campaign is a great idea – to get businesses to support temporary bicycle infrastructure in our cities. But they have largely duplicated the work already done by Cycling Works Australia and Bicycle Network. Cycling Works have put a massive amount of work into their business campaign, and other advocacy groups like Bicycle NSW and We Ride Australia respected and supported that work. Bicycle Network already has a fully-fledged campaign lobbying specifically for temporary lanes for coronavirus. The AGF has duplicated these efforts which makes advocacy look fragmented and makes it harder to get things done.
The AGF also differentiated itself in the past with its focus on research. But there are limits to how much research can help. The benefits of cycling have been clearly established in hundreds of research papers. We do not need more research to know how to build safe bike lanes. The AGF’s latest project “Bike Spot 2.0” is a duplication of a very similar project that was completed only a few years ago. Repeating these projects over and over again is a good way to get grant funding, but the link to actual safety improvements is tenuous. The more organisations such as the AGF rely on government funding of this type to cover costs, the greater their desire will be to please governments instead of achieving real change.
Because The AGF is not member based, it is less democratic than other cycling advocacy organisations and therefore does not respond well to changes in community views. For instance, the AGF were involved in negotiations with the NSW government that led to some of the highest cycling fines anywhere in the world. The AGF maintains its defence of mandatory helmet laws despite their association with discriminatory police practices towards children in low socioeconomic suburbs and their net health cost to the community. And they continue with their “share the road” campaign despite international evidence that this strategy is ineffective at changing driver behaviour.
The AGF lost $180,000 last financial year, on total revenues that were down 15%. Annual reports for earlier years are not available, because the AGF’s website sends users to dead links and errors. The financial crunch has not just hampered their ability to run a functioning website, but it has also led The AGF to make decisions that put their independence into question, such as moving from their St Kilda Road office to desks at the ARRB group – a largely government funded organisation.
Cycling advocacy is becoming a crowded field, and the damage done by having too many organisations is growing. Profits from events like the “Amy Grand Fondo” help to fund cycling organisations, and they now operate in a far more competitive space than 15 years ago where multiple charities and fun runs compete for attendance. The coronavirus crisis is only going to worsen the crunch for mass event rides, making it harder for them to subsidise advocacy. There are benefits to scale, and it no longer makes sense for Bicycle Network and the AGF to operate in this market.
There is no reason for the AGF to continue to exist. The research functions would be more respected if branded by universities rather than lobbying organisations. The rides would be much more efficient if run by Bicycle Network. Federal cycling advocacy can be run by We Ride, and state advocacy would be more unified and co-ordinated if run by the various democratic organisations such as Bicycle Network and Bicycle NSW. The Amy Gillett scholarship can be awarded by Cycling Australia.
The AGF’s employees, volunteers and supporters should continue their hard work to support cycling safety. But they will be much more effective at achieving change if the foundation ends and they work together with the rest of the cycling community.