Who are Ireland’s cycling campaigners and what motivates them? Week 9: Jo Sachs-Eldridge
We often hear people talk about cycling campaigners abstractly, despite all of them being volunteers, they are regularly called “cycling lobbyists”. But who are these people and what motivates them? In a new series, each week a cycling campaigner from somewhere around Ireland tells us a bit about themselves and why they campaign for safer and more attractive streets and roads.
Who are you and what group are you involved with?
I’m Jo Sachs-Eldridge, from Leitrim Cycling Festival — a little festival that’s been celebrating cycling, communities and our wonderful county since 2017. And I’m also on the Cyclist.ie executive committee.
What was your earliest memory of cycling?
One of my earliest memories is the day I got a new purple bike. The family went for a cycle and I was so happy that I leaned down to kiss the handlebars at the same time as I bumped over a stone. Luckily it was only a fat lip but I couldn’t believe love could hurt so much!
After childhood, why did you start cycling yourself?
After university, I was volunteering on a construction project in the south of France when a fellow volunteer introduced me to cycle touring. We spent our weekends camping tentless in sunflower fields and living off baguettes and red wine.
After that, I was pretty hooked and got a bike when I moved back to Cardiff where I had been studying. At the time I didn’t know anyone else who cycled though and had no idea how to navigate city streets so I spent 3 months cycling on pavements before I started following random people on bicycles through junctions to learn how they did it.
Years later when designing cycle networks I gave particular attention to the junctions as that is where there is the highest risk of conflict and they are understandably often the most daunting part of someone’s journey. As they say, ‘a route is only as good as its weakest link’ and too often we allow the complexity of junctions to stop us creating something that works for all levels of confidence and ability.
Although my day job has now changed considerably, I still love watching the choreography of a busy city junction where people on foot and on bicycles dance around each other, each following their own desire line.
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What motivates you as a cycling campaigner?
What motivates me is the absolute belief that we can do this. The bicycle is the simple answer to so many seemingly complex problems. More and more people are coming to the same conclusion. That’s exciting and gives me hope. But mine is not a passive hope, the hope I have is the kind Rebecca Solnit describes when she says ‘hope should shove you out the door’ as it’s that ‘commitment to the future that makes the present inhabitable.’
How did you get involved in campaigning in the first place?
Cycling advocacy comes in lots of different shapes and sizes. I was first a cycling advocate working within the Transport Policy team of Cardiff City Council fighting with every other relevant department for every inch of space we could get on the streets of the city. It was while fighting on the ‘inside’ that I realised that the existing cycling campaign group was not effectively using their voice to help us make positive changes.
Later when I changed job I co-founded Cardiff Cycle City — a group with a clear vision for the city that focused on building alliances and working in partnership with decision-makers rather than treating them as the enemy because we are, most definitely, all in this together.
When I returned home to Leitrim some years ago I thought I had left cycling advocacy behind but missed my tribe and started Leitrim Cycling Festival in the hope of finding other people who ‘get cycling’. Then, three years ago I joined Cyclist.ie the national advocacy group and co-created the Vision for Cycling in Rural Ireland to help shift the debate about cycling so that we also look beyond the cities to the potential within our towns, villages and Rothar Roads.
What’s the most effective way you think that more people will hop on their bikes in Ireland?
I’m not sure. And I guess that’s always been the problem. Although cycling is the simple solution there is no one way of getting there. But what’s great is that within the national network of cycling advocates, we all have different strengths and different ideas which we’re putting into practice — some of us are focusing on the playful stuff, others building confidence/creating space/providing bikes/reducing the speed differences/informing designs/changing policy/sharing information/meeting with decision makers… the list is endless.
That’s exciting too. All of us are doing what we can and hopefully enjoying whatever contribution we are making (and not feeling guilty about what we’re not doing!) – because enjoying it helps us keep going and because all of those small steps take us closer to our shared vision. As adrienne maree brown wisely says ‘small is good, small is all’.
And if people are looking to get involved, what should their first step be?