Cycling UK’s CEO Sarah Mitchell tells Rebecca Morley about the charity’s recent campaigns and winning the Cycle Advocacy Award, sponsored by Bikesy at last year’s BikeBiz Awards
This piece first appeared in the June edition of BikeBiz magazine – get your free subscription here
“It’s actually been a bit of a whirlwind year,” Cycling UK CEO Sarah Mitchell told BikeBiz, referring to the huge amounts of campaigning by the charity. “The thing about campaigning is you often feel like you don’t make any progress at all, and then quite a few things seem to come along at once, like buses.
“The big thing for us in the last year was the Highway Code. We’ve done a huge amount of work in getting the legislation through. We knew already there were going to be changes to the Highway Code but they were finally introduced at the end of January after a very long wait. This is something that we’ve worked on for years, so it felt like the culmination of a huge amount of work.”
Changes to the Highway Code included a hierarchy of road users, simplifying the rules for non-signalised junctions, new rules to tackle dangerous overtaking and ‘close passes,’ and the inclusion of the Dutch Reach. These changes can’t be underestimated, continued Mitchell, but the charity found it also needed to do a further campaigning to spread the news.
“The Government didn’t communicate it very well, they thought it would be fairly straightforward. There was all sorts of misinformation and mischievous reinterpretations of the code that popped up in January. We then had quite a lot of communication work to rectify that in February and March, and we’re planning to do a further clarification campaign over the summer. Having the changes was a great campaign, but then there’s a further communications campaign that we’ve had to do since.
“The new coalition Government in Scotland has agreed to a commitment of 10% of the total travel budget to be spent on active travel, so that’s going to be a really significant budget by 2024/2025. I think that is important because a lot of the work in cycling shows that infrastructure investment is the thing that really gets people cycling. It helps them feel safer, it helps us to feel like it’s a really important part of our lives in our towns and cities. That’s a really important point and we really hope that’s going to translate into much better cycling provision in Scotland. That was quite a big thing for us last year.”
Cycling UK’s history dates back to the 19th century, when it was founded as an advocacy organisation for cyclists, first as The Bicycle Touring Club (from 1878-1883), later evolving to becoming the Cyclists’ Touring Club (from 1883-2009), and from 2016 as Cycling UK. Today, the registered charity aims to promote cycling, both as a means of transport and as a sport, while also campaigning to improve infrastructure and safety.
“Recently, we’ve had our Shoreham success,” added Mitchell. “We took West Sussex County Council to court because they removed a bike lane without proper consultation. It was quite a popular bike lane, it went between schools and lots of families were using it. That was actually quite a big and costly piece of work for us, we actually did a lot of fundraising around it because the first time we challenged it we weren’t successful, so we had to go back on appeal. We were found on appeal that the council accepted that they’d acted unlawfully and they paid our costs.
“The key thing for us was it sends a message to a broader group of councils that it’s not okay to just remove cycle lanes. For us, that was the broader objective, that there’s something there that would prevent councils doing something similar in future.”
Shining a light
Mitchell became Cycling UK’s new chief executive back in 2020, taking over from interim chief executive Pete Fitzboydon who was appointed following the departure of Paul Tuohy. On what she’s been particularly proud of over the last year, Mitchell said that while the Highway Code was one of the biggest successes, something she personally thought was effective was a campaign around the COP26 climate change conference in late 2021, which highlighted the role that cycling can play in preventing climate change.
“We projected a figure of a bike onto lots of buildings around Glasgow and we got quite a lot of traction around that. We tagged it as shining a light on an overlooked emissions reduction vehicle, the bicycle. We have this tagline ‘this machine fights climate change,’ and that was really successful. It was picked up internationally as a result of COP26, so that’s an example of something that’s actually really small but just a bit of creative thinking in our campaigns team that allowed us to do that bit of awareness raising, which is great.”
Cycling UK also won the Cycle Advocacy Award at last year’s BikeBiz Awards, which was a morale boost for the organisation, said Mitchell: “Our campaigns team are pretty cynical, because they spend a lot of time being knocked back. They always feel like it’s two steps forward three steps
back with everything they do, but they were genuinely really chuffed to get this award.
“We always want the public to support our campaigns, but it really means a lot to get that recognition from the industry, from our peers. It’s just really nice to get a recognition of all the hard work that’s gone into some of those campaigns, like the Highway Code changes, which have taken so many years to achieve. I think getting an award like this is just an opportunity to stop, take stock, congratulate yourself for five minutes before you move on to the next really difficult campaign.”
So what could we look forward to this year, and what would Mitchell say is needed to make sure people continue to cycle? “It’s a really challenging one because people were really inspired to cycle when the roads were quieter, but now they’re busier again. I think there’s still that need to invest in our infrastructure locally, and our street design, to be able to make sure that active travel is facilitated, supported and encouraged. While there’s still more that each Government could be doing around that, we’ve actually achieved a lot in terms of getting investment and attention around active travel. I think a lot of our focus is going to be around local delivery, trying to get councils to engage with active travel and recognising that they have to give people alternative transport choices. It’s not just about the car, there are other options. It’s also really good for the health and wellbeing of their populations if they invest in active travel.
“We’ve been trying to influence things ourselves, but alsosupporting local people to become campaigners themselves through our campaign advocacy network. We can help to build up their skills and give them the material and the information they need to be able to campaign locally because we can’t be everywhere, but what we can do is give them the support and the capacity they need to be able to campaign for more active travel in their local area.”
It still feels like a really exciting time for cycling, said Mitchell, as it feels like there are lots of new ideas and kinds of cycling that are emerging. “I find it really energising to hear from all the different people who have a love of cycling, whatever that is. We pride ourselves on being the cycling organisation for people who don’t even necessarily think of themselves as cyclists. So the whole gamut from people who do really serious cycling to people who only started in the last week. That’s exciting for us to think about that broader movement of cycling really, and how we can facilitate it.”