Better towpaths

Better towpaths for everyone

David Fletcher shares some thoughts on sharing towpaths.

CRT has published its national policy for sharing towpaths, and I have heard presentations on it in a number of meetings. It has also been an agenda item for user groups this spring. From the policy’s words, the main three area of focus are:

·       Better infrastructure – we have secured investment of £15m to widen and resurface towpaths over the past two years and will continue to use external sources of funding to carry out similar schemes across the network. Additionally consideration of lighting and access/barriers will be added to the Trust’s existing towpath design guidance.

·       Better signs – clear and prominent shared-use signs will be installed across the country where there are concerns raised by local stakeholders and customers. These are designed to encourage safer sharing such as at blind spots, pinch points and on busier towpath stretches, where there may also be moored boats.

·       Better behaviour – a range of initiatives to encourage considerate use of towpaths will be developed. The ‘Share the Space, Drop your Pace’ campaign and towpath code, which have been successful in London, will be extended to other parts of the network and, where needed, we will look at other methods to promote safe behaviour such as downloadable materials and volunteer towpath rangers.

And what is wrong with that? However, in all the meetings I have been to, boaters have been universal in their concerns about high-speed cyclists being a thorough nuisance on the waterway, and wanting action taken. The traditional worry about anglers is no longer mentioned.

CRT is caught between a rock and hard place with this one, and much the same applies to us boaters. The survival of the canals depends on community support and funding that flows from it. It is essential that the use of towpaths by walkers and cyclists grows, because the navigation activities alone cannot support the business. (Only ten years to go to renegotiation of the DEFRA contract!) It is not surprising then that the policy is more about walkers and cyclists rather than our needs, which in this area are politically secondary. If we want a canal exclusive to boaters, be prepared for your licence fee to go through the roof – about three to five times more expensive. So what can we do?

Better Infrastructure.

CRT takes a lot of new money to repair and improve towpaths courtesy of Sustrans or the County Councils. Perversely, this is good for boaters too, as we get good access, and other available funding can go to navigation projects. Boaters are afraid that the towpath turns into a racetrack, or is paved to edge and we lose moorings. Other projects provide access ramps and steps at bridges, and they should be welcomed for the benefits to boaters as well. I have heard recently that on a number of occasions CRT has turned down funding for towpath improvements in some locations because the outcome was not likely to be correct, and they are to be encouraged, even congratulated for doing this. Your local input is key to any planned projects. Perhaps we should ask CRT to maintain a list of externally funded towpath projects so that we can keep an eye on what is going on?

Better signs.

This is inevitable, though I am not greatly in favour of masses of signage on listed structures. Selfish speeding cyclists are not likely to take any more notice of a CRT sign than they do of red traffic lights or towpath user’s polite appeals to slow down. Signs have their place in a modest way, but the main point is the next one about behaviour.

Better Behaviour  

CRT has no stomach for reintroducing cycling permits, because it is counter-productive for increasing usage and it also has a high cost. It would have to come hand-in-hand with enforcement. However, there was never any enforcement in the past on this issue, so that is not an option. But neither is doing nothing. There are clearly some bad areas: Regents Canal, Birmingham Navigations, K&A west end etc. But what will happen to the new projects at the River Weaver and Aylesbury Arm? I have expressed a view that there needs to be a campaign of intervention at hot-spots to stop cyclists and warn them that speeding is unacceptable. But CRT is not rushing to do this. They say that they do not get enough complaints to justify it and that more cyclists are injured than pedestrians. The option for action is in the policy document, and it is up to us to make the complaints when we see bad behaviour, otherwise nothing will happen.

NABO’s policy for a number of years has been as follows:

15 Cycling

NABO is against any organised cycling or performance events on the towpath. Boaters and pedestrians should have priority over cyclists on the towpath and we remain very cautious, on safety grounds, of the ‘upgrade’ of towpaths in order to create cycle-ways. NABO is in favour of any steps taken to ensure that cyclists slow down before passing moored boats and pedestrians. CRT should take responsibility for allowing cyclists on towpaths and enforce its bye-laws.

Is it time for a change? Please let us have your views.