For riders who want to make the world better for biking, Bicycle User Groups (BUGs) can be strong agents of change. Simon Vincett meets some bustling BUGs using wheel power to make a difference.
Anyone who’s explored their local area by bike will, no doubt, have been frustrated by a problem or unrealised opportunity for an easy and comfortable journey on two wheels. These problems and possibilities often lead to discussions among friends, neighbours and riding companions.
Many riders have some great ideas for solutions —but need to connect to the right people to understand and implement them.
If you have had these conversations with your riding friends and you all start comparing the problems and the solutions you’ve devised, then you could be on your way to joining, or starting, a Bicycle User Group.
BUGs can be any group of people with a common interest in bike riding. Some are incorporated, with a constitution and all the procedures that this requires. Others are much more informal: just a name for a club of people who like to get together to ride. Usually, however, a group takes the term BUG when it aims to lobby to improve conditions for bike riding. There’s more to lobbying to just forming a group, though.
Whitehorse Cyclists are one organised group who know it takes more than just setting up a BUG to get results for riders. Based in the City of Whitehorse in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, the group has 250 active members and a bustling ride calendar. Whitehorse Cyclists is also a very effective lobby group in its local and surrounding areas.
David Simm has been a Whitehorse Cyclists member since the early days of the group (in the early 1990s). Initially drawn to the group for the rides, he has become enthusiastic about the advocacy side of things.
“It was the bike riding that first got me into the group,” he explains. “Then as you ride around you see stuff that’s not done. You try to get some answers and you don’t get any, so you start writing to people further up the line.”
Simms was part of a campaign to lobby for the $10 million Box Hill to Ringwood shared path (the Box Hill to Ringwood Rail Trail), which is the biggest infrastructure project that Whitehorse Cyclists has advocated for. The path, approved in 2013 for construction, will provide a 10km route, mostly on off-road paths, between the two major activity districts of Box Hill and Ringwood.
Simms said a Box Hill to Ringwood shared path had been proposed by the local council, then Box Hill Council, way back in 1996.
When Simms and other Whitehorse Cyclists noticed that the path had been disregarded during the construction of other road works, they began to push for the proposal to be delivered. He said the council initially baulked at paying for a feasibility study, but did pay around $75,000 to complete one.
Simms and two other Whitehorse Cyclists, Michael Hassett and David Hall, also produced a professional feasibility-study package themselves for $4,000, using their combined professional expertise.
As well as the advocacy for the Box Hill to Ringwood Rail Trail by Whitehorse Cyclists and organisations like Bicycle Network, the path was also championed by state and federal candidates who spoke out in favour of the bikeway.
A major breakthrough came in May 2013 when the Victorian Public Transport and Roads Minister, Terry Mulder, announced $10 million funding for the path’s construction.
Simms counts a healthy membership of Whitehorse Cyclists as a key factor in wielding some influence. “I first started writing letters to politicians I would say that I represented 90 members,” he says. “Now I can say I represent 250. It starts to have a bit more clout because that’s 250 potential votes.”
Another BUG making a difference is Sydney’s Bike North. With 600 members, the group ran over 300 rides in 2013. It also has ‘local area working groups’ engaging with councils to improve bike riding across a large swathe of northern Sydney covering Hornsby, Hunters Hill, Ku-ring-gai, Willoughby, Lane Cove, North Sydney, The Hills and Ryde council areas.
When North Sydney Council restructured with a new team, Bike North’s North Sydney Working Group had its work cut out for it re-asserting the place of bikes in plans for the future of the municipality. Advocacy Officer Philip Griffiths says: “an apparent lack of support for sustainable transport and suspension of the North Sydney Bike Plan lead to Bike North taking the unusual action of petitioning council and publicising concerns through the local media.” Efforts to re-establish communication with council staff met with success and resulted in “feedback that Bike North’s suggestions are being incorporated into a new Bike Plan.”
A recent major project for the Lane Cove Working Group was a submission to Lane Cove Bicycle Plan 2013, reviewing the proposed plan and providing feedback and extensive suggestions on behalf of bike riders.
Bike North also takes a role in more innovative fixes for bike riders—supporting the development of the phone app Go!Fix, that enables people to use their smart phones to report traffic hazards.
While it hasn’t been around as long as the Whitehorse Cyclists group, Darebin BUG, based in the inner-north of Melbourne, is one of the largest and most active BUGs in the city. It was formed in April 2000, is incorporated and currently has 160 financial members. It has a full calendar of regular rides on weekends and weekdays at various levels. It also has a focus on developing the area for bike riding. A stated aim is “to develop Darebin’s cycling community and to work with the City of Darebin and other organisations to make it safer and easier to cycle in Darebin.”
Robin Gallagher is Campaigns Coordinator with the BUG and points to the removal of the St Georges Road roundabout as an outcome that the BUG can be proud of assisting.
“That involved forming partnerships with other sections of the community for a common cause, working with the local MP and council. It’s made a big improvement to the whole network that connects to it.”
Another major project that required a lot of effort was the redevelopment of the 86 tram route. The challenge of satisfactorily catering for bike riders, tram passenger and motorists strained the BUGs relationship with council but Gallagher says: “we’ve recovered from that.”
“We were forthright in our criticisms but our criticisms were reasonable,” Gallagher explains. “They were not negative—they were constructive—even though they were very direct. That’s tricky, but if you have the credibility—if people know that you are sensible—then you can stay in the discussion.”
Gearing up for success
Here are a few tips from successful BUGs and bike groups who keep a healthy membership and influence local councils and Government on bike-related infrastructure.
These healthy BUGs are welcoming to new-comers.
The Whitehorse Cyclists website displays photo after photo of smiling riders out on trails with a description: “We are a happy group…Come ride with us”.
Bike North similarly declare “We are all levels of fitness and experience and ride a variety of bicycles either for transport, recreation, exercise or just for fun. Bike North is for everyone. Join us!”
Darebin BUG calls its ride listing ‘Come riding’ and declares a “rides program ethos of running social, inclusive and non-competitive ride events”.
BUG members love to get out riding, so an extensive calendar of rides is essential to keep them engaged and signed up. What’s more, as Bike North points out, the “rides program is core to promoting the use of the bicycle for transport and recreation”. In addition, photos of hoards of BUG members out on the paths is a powerful advocacy tool, providing evidence of the size of the group and the reality of their regular usage of bike facilities.
Whitehorse Cyclists claims to have “the most extensive ride calendar in Melbourne” and runs nine rides a week. These are graded into easy (30–40km), medium (60–70km) and hard (100km+).
Bike North ran more than 300 rides in 2013 “for all types of bikes and all levels”. Rides are open to members and non-members and are “graded easy, medium or hard depending on the terrain and speed”.
Darebin BUG advertises “a variety of weekday and weekend social rides of distances from seven to over-100km”. These include Families on Bikes rides, where tantrums are tolerated, and weekends away. The rides are recognised as a membership incentive: “Please note all rides are free to anyone who would like to participate. After the third ride you take part in, we will invite you to join the BUG.”
The wealth of knowledge within an experienced BUG is valuable to new and even quite seasoned bike riders, and old hands are often very willing to share their skills and learnings.
Members of Whitehorse Cyclists attend Ride2School Day events at local schools every March to celebrate riding to school with the kids and to support parents and teachers with practical know-how.
Bike North has a very healthy coaching program called Bike for Life, which has been running for six years. It offers paid coaching and advice in bike riding and maintenance to the community throughout the year.
Bike North Coaching Coordinator, Alison Pryor, reports that in 2013 “Over 100 riders have participated in the skill sessions and courses. These has included people from very beginner adults who have never balanced/pedalled on a bike and kids who triumph after removing the training wheels, to safe riding in moderate traffic to higher speed skills such as cornering.”
Darebin BUG runs training sessions to develop ride leaders based on their “Seven Principles of Good Ride Leadership”.
New riders won’t come back for another ride and members won’t pay their fees again if they’re not confident that the BUG is well managed and reliable. Rides and meetings must always take place as advertised and communications must be sent regularly. In dealing with councils, higher government and other groups it is essential that BUGs be reasonable, helpful and reliable if they are to be successful in their advocacy goals.
Robin Gallagher of Darebin BUG nominates a close working relationship with council and other authorities as “Very important. You’ve got to build it. You’ve got to build credibility. You have to be utterly reliable. You want to be in the situation where council will want to share confidential material with you, such as plans that haven’t been implemented yet, and they know that you won’t leak that information and try to embarrass them.
“When you have an argument you can back it up with facts. When you have an opinion it’s based on arguments and facts. Then you develop credibility even if what you are saying is uncomfortable and they don’t want to hear it.
“You’ve really got to know your place. You’ve got no power except the power to convince people through rational argument. You can’t demand things and you can’t force anyone to do anything. You don’t get the access if you’re not a sensible person and if you don’t have credibility.”
Join a BUG
To find a BUG near you, the Bicycle Network website has a listing of nearly 300 BUGs and clubs all over Australia. The listing has a search function to locate a group within 5km of your postcode. (If you know a group that isn’t listed here, please ask the group coordinator to create a listing via the website.)
Once you’re in a BUG and getting to know people on rides, you can add your energy to the group’s current activities or recruit support for your own ideas.
If you need to start your own BUG, there’s a start-up manual available on the Bicycle Network website that covers what to expect through launching and building the BUG to how to achieve your riding and advocacy goals.
A great place to find fellow bike enthusiasts is at work. Your colleagues would probably like to get together for weekend rides and to meet up for riding to work together. Regular riders can support bike-curious colleagues to become new riders and gain confidence. Your workplace BUG can also run a breakfast for National Ride to Work Day and other regular riding-to-work celebrations. By demonstrating what proportion of the workplace rides, you can then lobby your employer if you need to improve the bike-riding related facilities at your workplace, such as bike parking, lockers and showers. Bicycle Network has a comprehensive guide to starting a Workplace BUG, as well as convincing arguments for why it’s so worthwhile, such as the health and productivity improvements your employer can expect from riding employees.
(Maybe you already have an email list or corporate cycling team but you have never called your group a BUG before. Why not register your Workplace BUG—it only takes two minutes and there is no cost involved to join the growing list of workplaces with BUGs.)
Usually made up by staff and students at a tertiary institution. They work with the university or college to get better end-of-trip facilities, as well as working with Council to get improved bike routes around the university and connections to train stations.
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