Cycling UK CEO Sarah Mitchell on ambition, advocacy and evolving communities

Sarah Mitchell joined Cycling UK as CEO in October, having previously held that post with charity Heart of the City for three and a half years. “Most of my work has been in the non-profit sector in national and local charities covering a range of work around community development, housing, homelessness and social care,” she says. “Most recently, I ran a charity supporting small businesses to develop their social purpose, but I have also worked for central Government and in the private sector. I really enjoy working between sectors and believe we have lots to learn from one another.”

What attracted you to Cycling UK?
I am an obsessive cyclist! I genuinely believe that cycling can make a positive difference to the lives of many more people in the UK and I passionately believe in Cycling UK’s commitment to see one million more people cycling. A compelling aspect of Cycling UK’s work for me is the way we combine our incredibly long and proud history with a real relevance today. We are actively supporting more people to cycle in communities that don’t traditionally think of themselves on two wheels.

On a personal level, what sort of challenges have you faced in transitioning into your role during the COVID-19 period?
This is such a strange time to start a new job. My entire interview process was conducted over Zoom and Teams, and I have still only met a small number of colleagues face-to-face. While it’s difficult to pick up a sense of organisational culture and to chat with people informally, there are some advantages to starting a new job in this way. One is that I have met everyone on an equal basis across our considerable geographical reach, so I see our big team in Scotland and colleagues in Wales and Northern Ireland just as often as I see those based closer to the head office.

How has the pandemic affected Cycling UK as an organisation?
Against all the odds, this has been a bumper year for cycling and so we’re busier than ever. Of course, we’ve had to adapt some of our projects, but we’ve been determined to keep delivering our community cycling projects, our training sessions and our campaigning and advice. We have discovered how much we can deliver online and we’ve constantly adapted our group cycling advice to ever-changing restrictions across the four nations. I think overall it has made us more adaptable and more agile.

What are your immediate priorities having joined Cycling UK, and how do you anticipate they will evolve in the months to come?
Looking beyond the immediate issues of dealing with COVID-19 and our ways of working, a big priority for us is how we help new and existing cyclists to keep cycling now the roads are busy once again. We’ll also be taking stock: Cycling UK has a great and ambitious strategy which we embarked on in
2018. The world has changed so much since then, it’s a big priority for us to review our ambitions against the current context, to make sure we have the right focus and that we aren’t missing any emerging opportunities.

How can we go about avoiding a return to ‘normal’ – focusing instead on coming out of lockdowns a greener community?
This is such an important question. I think that many of us, in the midst of the terror and the tedium of the first lockdown, actually had a vision of a different sort of community, where roads were quieter and cycling appealed to many more people than ever before. We must hang onto that experience for a sense of hope, and then we have to use that to remind politicians and the public that another way is possible. We’ll be campaigning hard to persuade policymakers of this and we’ll be drawing on those experiences to encourage more people to dust off their bikes when they start to return to offices in the new year.

We’ll be talking to the wider cycling industry too about what we can all do to support those people new to cycling to keep on riding. Our Pumped Up campaign last year was a great example of capturing inspiring stories to encourage more people to start cycling and we want to keep stressing all the positives about cycling.

What impact, if any, will the emergence of e-scooters have on Cycling UK’s strategy?
Although we are a cycling organisation, they are definitely more than a blip on the radar. As more people begin returning to workplaces at the beginning of this year but are still unsure about using public transport, it is going to be increasingly important to look at alternatives to people reverting to using cars for short journeys, and hence e-scooters will be part of that discussion. It’s a bit early to say what approach we will take on the issue. We’ll need to see the evidence from the Government’s e-scooter trials.

We are concerned that the Government was a little hasty in expanding the trials in response to the COVID crisis. Consequently, the speed, power and weight limits for e-scooters may have been set too high and it remains to be seen whether the benefits from reducing car use could be outweighed by undermining the physical benefits of walking and cycling, as well as posing a hazard to pedestrians, including those who are visually impaired.

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