From Isolation to Connection With Sarah Mitchell

Sarah Mitchell is the Chief Executive of Cycling UK. With a background in working for social justice organizations, Sarah believes in the power of storytelling and positive framing to shift the narrative around cycling and make it more inclusive and accessible. Sarah has been involved in various community cycling projects and behavior change programs, working to overcome barriers and encourage more people to embrace cycling. She is dedicated to building positive public support for cycling and advocating for investment in cycling infrastructure. Sarah’s goal is to foster a cycling culture in the UK that benefits individuals, communities, and the environment.

You have a remarkable history of involvement with various social-oriented causes and charities in the UK, such as the Heart of the City and Carers Network. What motivated you to join Cycling UK, especially during the challenging period of the Covid-19 pandemic? 

I started in 2020, so it was a strange time to begin a new job. One of the things that really stood out to me was that our former Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, described it as a kind of golden age for cycling. London, where I was at the time, was transformed for cycling and walking, and it felt like a very different city. Despite all the challenges of COVID-19, it was quite exciting. 

Through that period, I saw many more people using cycling in the way I do day-to-day. I had always felt a bit odd cycling around London, feeling quite alone, but during COVID, many more people started cycling. A more diverse range of people began cycling, which was really exciting. I was also inspired by a lot of the work that Cycling UK has done. It’s more than just a cycling charity; it’s brilliant at campaigning for cycling, and it also has some incredible community cycling programs, like the Big Bike Revival, which I’m sure we can discuss further. 

Many of those programs focus on people who might not have thought that cycling was for them. With my history of working for social justice organisations, it has been really important for me to be part of an organisation that is inclusive in the cycling movement. This was a crucial motivating factor for me.

I believe cycling also became a more popular activity during the pandemic due to the distance we had to keep from each other. Many other forms of transportation were very limited. I remember seeing crosses on train seats where we were not allowed to sit.

Oh, yes, I forgot about that—yes! We did quite a lot of research into the barriers that stop people from cycling to better understand what kind of projects and initiatives we need to put in place to encourage more people to cycle. The issues that come up all the time are the weather, which we can’t do much about, but also perceptions of safety on the road, confidence in cycling, and bike maintenance.

During the pandemic, people’s perception of safety on the roads changed. They felt the roads were a lot safer because there wasn’t as much traffic. This made a huge difference for people who don’t usually cycle, giving them the confidence to get out on their bikes. This was quite important, especially in London, where the roads are always really busy.

This year’s theme is “Connecting Through Cycling,” and your panel discussion is focused on spinning a new story around cycling. Could you share some insights on how Cycling UK is working to shift that narrative and promote cycling more effectively?

Yes, so I think the perceptions of cycling in the UK are probably different from those in the Netherlands. In the UK, cycling is often seen as a sport for wealthy men, creating a stereotype that is quite ingrained in how people think about cycling here. There’s also a lot of aggression towards cyclists, and cyclists aren’t necessarily seen as part of the broader community.

At Cycling UK, we’ve been working to change this narrative to help current cyclists feel safer on the roads and to encourage more people to support and take up cycling. We’ve thought a lot about how to change the perception of cycling, particularly for those who don’t currently cycle.

Part of this involves presenting a different image of cycling. We publicise diverse groups of people cycling, perhaps not wearing Lycra or helmets on expensive bikes, but rather wearing ordinary clothes on second-hand bikes and having fun. These different images might appeal to various audiences.

Additionally, we’ve worked on something we call framing. We’ve started thinking about how we talk about cycling and how it could resonate with different kinds of audiences. Previously, we focused on people who already cycle and see themselves as cyclists. Now, we aim to talk about cycling in a way that makes sense for ordinary people who might not cycle much or don’t identify as cyclists, encouraging them and their communities to start cycling.

We have a really diverse range of women involved, and they’re quite a fantastic group overall. The awards we have every year are always really exciting and serve as a nice way to showcase this different image of cycling.

Its great to see such diversity among the participants

Exactly and in different parts of the country as well. So lots of different areas are represented. And yeah because I think it’s still a really small proportion of regular cyclists in the UK are women. So there’s still quite a lot we need to do to be able to encourage more women to feel like cycling for them. And if there are people they can identify with or feel inspired by then. We’re hoping that will start to really help.

You mentioned something at the start which I’m quite curious about: that cycling is often seen as something that wealthy people do in the UK. However, often car-ownership is what shows status and cycling is associated with lower income 

That’s really interesting, isn’t it? I think that’s true. I think there was a kind of social aspiration to own a car, and I suppose in the UK, it’s almost like you’ve reached the stage where, of course, everybody has a car. Only people who are quite well-off would think that a super expensive bike, in addition to the car, is something they would have. So, perhaps when we’re thinking about it as an alternative to the car, we’re talking about it as a poverty versus wealth thing. 

I don’t know what the science is around this, but from the sort of perceptions anecdotally that I think we have in the UK, there’s a cycling scene that is seen as an expensive leisure pursuit. You would have to spend thousands of pounds on a really smart bike, but you’ve probably got at least one car as well. So, I think that’s the perception many people have. A lot of the work that we’re doing is to try and remind people that actually a lot of people get around by bike, and it’s also a fun activity you can do with your kids. It’s something you do to stop using your car as much and to be more environmentally friendly. So, it’s about trying to make it more normal. I suppose lots of people enjoy it for sport and leisure, and that’s great. But there are all these other people who also cycle for other reasons. You don’t have to be middle-aged, wealthy, and have a really expensive bike to do it. So, it’s a weird sort of stereotype.

Despite the positive rise in global cycling rates since the pandemic, the overall number of daily bike trips worldwide remains relatively low compared to other transportation modes. In your view, what are the biggest obstacles that cities face in adopting cycling as a primary mode of transport? And what strategies could they implement to overcome these barriers?

So I think that’s really true that we saw some of those increases temporarily, but they weren’t necessarily sustained. From our experience in the UK, I think one of the biggest obstacles is that all of our towns and cities and our lifestyles are designed around cars. It’s very difficult to move away from using the car in most places. London is exceptional because we have a public transport system. Most UK cities’ public transport systems are still not as good as in London, and for people who live outside of the cities, it’s actually really challenging to get around, do their jobs, and run their lives without using a car or relying on public transport and cycling. 

So, I think there’s that design element. There’s a certain amount of integrated transport that needs to happen, and the complexity for us in that is that there are different overlapping jurisdictions for transport, some of which are designed by a city and some of which are held nationally or locally. In London, one of the advantages we have is a London-wide Transport for London body, which looks after all of that infrastructure. This makes it possible for us to have an integrated transport system and cycling infrastructure.

I think that’s probably a challenge that lots of cities have: they don’t have that kind of connected political will or infrastructure to be able to do that. On the one hand, as a cycling organisation and cycling advocates, we need to campaign to ensure that we properly integrate the transport system with cycling at its heart, playing an important role for short journeys. But within the barriers that exist, there’s a lot of work we can do to encourage people to use what infrastructure is there and still use their bikes to replace short journeys where they might have thought about using their car, particularly in cities and towns where those distances are really small. That’s why we do a lot of work on overcoming those barriers of expectation and getting people to think about when they could use their bikes. 

So you’re saying it is more than just a battle for space; it’s a battle for recognition and acceptance of cycling as an integral part of the transport system.

Exactly! And so one of the things I mentioned earlier was that we have a new strategy as an organization. At the heart of it is our belief that we need to build positive public support for cycling. We think that is the key to unlocking all the other things we want to achieve with cycling. Only when we reach a place where people see cycling as a public good and a benefit, will we be able to ensure that all political commitments are actually seen through. It will also make the roads safer because drivers will respect cyclists more, expect to see cyclists more often, and think of cyclists as their family members, sisters, mothers, or friends, not as an annoying inconvenience they want to drive off the road.

This really underlines what we’re trying to do with our new strategy. It also speaks to the work that many mayors are trying to do in cities, which is to build public support for the changes they’re making. This helps them avoid the backlash that often occurs when they’re driving infrastructure changes, especially when those changes mean there’s less road and parking available for cars. They are really prioritising people over cars. 

I think there’s a lot of work we can do, not just as a cycling organisation but as all campaigning cycling organisations, to help those politicians make their case to the public. We need to help the public see these changes in a positive light, as enhancements to their neighbourhoods, health, and reductions in pollution and congestion. I mean, we all agree that there’s nothing not to like about cycling. It’s a fantastic benefit for all of us, but I don’t think we’ve done a good enough job of getting that message across to citizens in cities and towns, who could genuinely benefit from it. So, I think we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us to be able to do some of that.

Definitely, storytelling is vital. Inviting friends and family, setting examples, and letting others experience it for themselves. Often, we use statistics and numbers to convince people, but it might be simpler than that. It’s about sharing the joy of cycling.

Yeah, and I think when people experience it, it’s much easier to make the argument. So I do think although Covid didn’t result in an overnight transformation that was lasting, thousands, probably millions, of people have had the experience of quiet streets. They have that muscle memory of what it was like to have a street that was peaceful, quiet, and unpolluted, where they felt safe to cycle and walk. I still believe that we can really play on that memory, reminding people that it is possible. We can evoke that and show there’s a different way to live in our towns and cities. So I think that’s still a positive.

I was really struck by ECF a couple of years ago at Velo-city in Zagreb. The mayor of Zagreb spoke about the pedestrianization of the city center. He had wanted to do it for ages but faced significant public backlash because everyone wanted to drive. Then, a burst water main forced them to close part of the center, and people had no choice but to adapt. They didn’t reopen those streets afterward and instead turned them into pedestrian and cycling areas. Surprisingly, there wasn’t much backlash because people had gotten used to it. Now, the center of Zagreb is beautiful, peaceful, with lots of pavement cafes by the river. Ten years ago, it was traffic-smothered.

So, I think when people can see and experience the difference, and you give it a chance to bed in, no one wants to go back to having three lanes of traffic in the center of Zagreb.

What would you say are some of the major challenges that cycling UK has faced in fostering a cycling culture and how have you tackle these challenges?

I’d love to say we’ve fostered a cycling culture in the UK, but we still have a long way to go. We’re continuing to fight that battle. One major challenge is the design issue around how our world is structured. But there is also a lack of investment in cycling infrastructure, particularly in separate cycle lanes, which make a huge difference for those who feel nervous about cycling. We’ve faced challenges with culture wars and negative perceptions of cycling in the last 18 months. Previously, we had cross-party political consensus and support for cycling and active travel, but this has shifted with attempts to provoke a cultural divide against cyclists, motorists, and pedestrians. This shift underscores why building strong, positive public support for cycling is crucial for advancing campaigns and infrastructure development.

In addressing these challenges, campaigning is key. We advocate for infrastructure investment across the UK’s different governments, each with varying levels of investment and jurisdiction. Additionally, we focus on individual interventions to overcome local barriers to cycling. Our behavioural change programs, rooted in Behavioural Science, target disadvantaged areas of England and Scotland. These programs reintroduce cycling to non-cyclists, repairing bikes, providing cycle confidence training, and fostering social cycling groups. We’re proud of the measurable attitude shifts we’ve achieved, tracking behaviour change over years post-program.

At the policy and campaign level, the landscape varies widely, requiring tailored interventions based on local environments and motivating factors like affordable transport, health, and mental well-being. By analyzing large datasets from our extensive engagement—nearly 100,000 participants across the UK last year—we gain valuable insights into effective strategies for different contexts.

For barriers such as bad weather, is framing something you use to try and change that attitude? 

It’s interesting, isn’t it? In the UK, if you ask most people, they would say the weather and the hills are the things that put them off cycling the most. Recently, we’ve been running the national e-cycles trials program across England, which has been a massive effort to get people to try e-bikes for the first time. With the hills, we’ve been able to tackle that head-on by choosing cities with lots of hills where e-bikes can make a difference. The weather issue is interesting because, while people often mention it anecdotally, our behavior change program participants don’t bring it up as much. It might be related to their motivation, or perhaps they simply get used to it. It seems like a barrier until they start cycling, and then it’s not such a big deal—you wear appropriate gear and adapt. Actually, people’s perception of rain tends to be worse than the reality. Many cyclists in the UK note this phenomenon; everyone thinks they’ll get wet in the morning, but in reality, it’s only about ten times a year during that specific cycling window. It’s often just about managing perceptions, and once people start cycling, it’s less of an issue than they anticipated.

We’ve already touched upon this quite a bit, but Cycling UK is involved in several community cycling projects, including behaviour change for families and supporting disabled communities as well. Could you elaborate a bit more on how you ensure inclusivity and accessibility in your initiatives, particularly considering the social and economic disparities across different regions?

Most of our behaviour change programs are specifically designed to improve access to cycling. Our biggest program, the Big Bike Revival, operates across most of England and focuses on providing people with bikes or repairing their existing bikes. We ensure they have all the necessary equipment and support. We work in partnerships with local organisations to encourage cycling in places where people feel confident and comfortable. This approach is crucial when engaging communities who may not initially see cycling as accessible to them.

For example, in Manchester, our e-cycles program has successfully partnered with a local mosque. We collaborate with an amazing, inspiring organizer who is a keen cyclist within the mosque community. He facilitates engagement while we provide bikes and maintenance, gradually building confidence and integration of cycling within the community.

Another priority we focus on is addressing transport poverty in rural or semi-rural communities where public transport options are limited. Here, we introduce cycling as a practical solution for local journeys, aiming to reduce isolation and improve accessibility.

Our behaviour change programs are particularly targeted at communities less likely to cycle initially. By understanding their specific challenges and needs, we believe we can pave the way for broader cycling adoption. This inclusive approach guides our efforts to ensure cycling benefits are accessible to all.

Also, we’ve recently launched an inclusive cycling program funded in Inverness, Scotland, and Manchester, England. This program focuses on providing adaptive bikes, including e-bikes, for people with disabilities. It aims to reduce the financial barrier associated with purchasing specialized bikes, empowering individuals to experience the independence and enjoyment of cycling.

photo from Cycling UK website: The Inclusive Cycling Experience

I’m excited to see the results and how people react to it. It will be really interesting to see because not many bike sharing schemes are completely inclusive of this. 

No, I think what we wanted to do because we felt that there were a lot of Bike Share schemes across the UK in cities and towns now, but they really exclude people with disabilities. So what we wanted to do through this is think about how you could design add-ons to those bike shares that are accessible for people with disabilities. And so that’s kind of what we’re experimenting with. So we’ll see whether it works, but I think it’s quite an exciting different way of thinking about it. And I understand why the people haven’t done it. Obviously it’s very expensive because you have to invest in all the bikes. So yeah, you have to have funding to be able to do it but it’s a really It’s a really worthwhile initiative. Yeah.

You mentioned going to people rather than them coming to you. I think that is a really important factor. What other advice would you give to decision-makers and other stakeholders who are hesitant about considering cycling as a viable transportation option for their cities?

Well, I think it depends on who you’re talking to, but I imagine that all of those decision-makers are really keen to make their cities run faster and more smoothly, in a more environmentally friendly way. They want to help people make better and smarter transport choices, encouraging choices that are better for their health, the city’s economy, neighbourhoods, and the environment everyone lives in. They aim to help people make choices that enable us to reach our Net Zero targets.

So, I think there are huge benefits from cycling for all of those city leaders, especially in cities and towns where most of our journeys are under five miles. We all know that cycling and walking are really beneficial for getting around as alternatives for those short journeys. Millions more people would do that if there was the right investment in the right infrastructure. We know that from seeing the difference it has made in London and Paris. We can look at world leaders like Amsterdam and Copenhagen to see how different those cities are.

In the UK, even though a small proportion of people actually cycle, I think it’s something like 77% of people believe that Britain would be a lot better if more people cycled. So, there is definitely public support for making those changes. The message for all those leaders has to be that it’s not just about the benefits for cyclists; it’s about the benefits for all of us and all of our neighbourhoods. It’s a win-win, and I think some of those leaders could be really inspired by seeing what other cities are doing and how it feels to live in those cities where people are prioritised rather than cars.

I imagine that many decision-makers and other stakeholders might be hesitant because of the funding aspects, specifically. To what extent do you believe that this is a significant factor in making a city a cycling city?

It’s essential. We must invest in infrastructure, but it’s important to consider it in proportion. While the cost of cycling infrastructure may sound high when viewed alone, it’s just a tiny amount in comparison to the expense of other infrastructure projects, particularly road projects. 

In the UK, as you may have noticed, we are currently in the midst of a general election. Our manifesto emphasises persuading politicians to allocate a portion of the road budget to cycling infrastructure. Instead of demanding an overall increase in transportation funding, our strategy suggests urging them to set aside a percentage of existing funds specifically for cycling. This approach aims to rebalance budget priorities, shifting away from exclusive focus on roads to include cycling in broader transportation plans.

The objective is to allocate a minimum percentage of the transportation budget to cycling infrastructure. This strategy aims to reorganise budget allocations to better serve the needs of ordinary people, rather than consistently prioritizing roads. Crucially, this investment must be long-term to effectively establish the necessary infrastructure. In the UK, amidst the political uncertainty, securing sustained funding for cycling has been a significant challenge. Unlike short-term projects, developing infrastructure requires multi-year investments to achieve meaningful outcomes. While London has successfully implemented this approach, replicating it across other regions remains a challenge.

It’s great to see that the majority of the population is in favour. 

I know, we have to remind people of this all the time because we tend to hear from the small number of people who feel negatively about it. However, the vast majority feel strongly in favor. The difficulty arises when people feel their ability to drive is being impinged upon by cycling projects. That’s where the challenge lies.

We need to show that it’s not a battle between drivers and cyclists and that there is a positive alternative for drivers. We’re not taking away their ability to drive; we’re giving them a new opportunity and more choices. We’re allowing them to decide if they want to drive or if they could choose to cycle instead. This differentiation is crucial for our message.

The positive framing sounds great. I can imagine it makes quite a big difference when you explain that you are adding more options rather than taking away from them. 

Yeah, you can understand it from their point of view. They might not see another way to get to work without feeling like they have to spend more on their car. It’s understandable that people would feel anxious about this, especially those in low-paid jobs who lack access to public transport, particularly if they don’t work in the city center. However, for those who do have options, we want to do everything possible to encourage them to consider alternatives.

The difference lies in our approach. We don’t want to force changes that could make life more difficult for those who can’t afford it. Instead, our aim is to positively encourage and persuade those who have choices available to them. For instance, rather than driving a big four-wheel drive around London to take their kids to school, they might consider using a cargo bike. This change isn’t necessarily a sacrifice; in fact, it could greatly enhance their lives. The key here is that it remains a choice.

That’s also a great piece of advice to offer policymakers and decision-makers. Of course, its relevance depends on who you’re speaking with and the specific city or country context.

Yeah, and it’s crucial to consider what each political party prioritises in their manifesto. Currently, during the general election, we’ve had to strategise about aligning our cycling proposals with the different parties’ priorities to maximise the likelihood of adoption. Given the current state of the nation’s economy and public health, we need to frame our arguments in ways that resonate with these critical political concerns. Therefore, we’re reframing our discussion about cycling to better align with these priorities.