Peter Fellows says it’s time to stop the towpath menace.
For several years, NABO has been getting reports from boaters of cyclists speeding along towpaths, causing collisions and resulting injuries to pedestrians, pets and wildlife – and other cyclists. Over the summer, I have received yet more letters from boaters describing incidents and near-misses, and the issue was also highlighted by Mark Townsend in The Guardian in July (who has permitted me to reprint his article, which also introduced me to the term ‘Cyclopaths’).
CRT seems to be in denial about the extent of the problem, or at least unwilling to take any serious measures to address the issue. Exhortations, such as initiating the ‘Drop the Pace’ campaign, or painting ‘sleeping policemen’ on urban towpaths, are not going to solve the problem. Even the guidance offered to cyclists in the cycling FAQs on its website is mealy-mouthed: “We don’t specify speed limits on the towpath. We ask that everyone uses common sense, with primary consideration for pedestrians and those handling boats, as they are often the most vulnerable. At busy times anyone in a hurry should use an alternative route.”
Cycling associations are no better. The Cycling UK website states: “There is little evidence to support the view that cycling on towpaths creates excessive hazards to walkers or to cyclists themselves.” And: “Towpaths are, of course, shared by a range of users – walkers, anglers, and boaters. Research* shows that cyclists and walkers are able to mix happily on off-road routes and that conflict is more perceived than real. Conflict is rare, but if it does happen, insufficient width and poor maintenance are important factors. On towpaths in particular, problems can occur if they are heavily used, especially in urban areas and during fishing matches.” – So nothing to do with the behaviour of some cyclists then! (*The research quoted was from 2003; the problems were far less severe16 years ago).
Reports by boaters in the waterway press and on social media show a very different situation, with speeding cyclists causing distress and injury on nearly all parts of the system. The worst-affected towpaths are ones leading into towns and cities, with Leamington Spa/Warwick, Bath, London, Manchester and Birmingham featuring prominently this summer. But rural towpaths are also being targeted, as described in Graham Hearnden’s letter in this issue, and the athletics community, Strava, regularly displaying fastest times along stretches of the Leeds & Liverpool towpath, among others, on its website.
It is time that CRT stops this madness and implements concrete measures to stop speeding along towpaths. It cannot do this by appealing to cyclists’ better nature or sense of responsibility for the welfare of others – this has been tried and it has failed. It requires CRT to police towpaths in areas where problems are known to exist and to hit offenders where it hurts; in their bank accounts.
Action by boaters
To do this, CRT requires help from boaters, by reporting all incidents, whether a near-miss or a collision, to CRT’s Customer Services (0303 040 4040) during office hours or by filling out a CRT incident reporting form (https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/contact-us and select ‘Reporting an incident accident or near-miss’) and emailing it to email@example.com with as much detail as possible.
Action by CRT
Using this information, CRT needs to identify the towpaths where speeding has become a serious problem. It should quickly introduce signs at key towpath entry points for cyclists, telling them that pedestrians and boaters have priority and that ringing a bell does not give cyclists the right to make others move out of their way. The signs should also give the times when cycling is not allowed on the towpaths, as suggested by Mark Townsend. Given that most speeding cyclists use towpaths for commuting to and from work, the prohibition would be most effective from, say, 8-9am and 5-6pm. It would be relatively easy to police the ban at checkpoints on commuter towpaths, enforced with on-the-spot fines. Additionally, despite a reported lack of cooperation with CRT by Strava, all cycling time-trials or cycle racing along towpaths should be banned immediately, and this should be publicised on the Strava website and by other cycling organisations.
Action by Government
Of course, as Mark Townsend points out, such a restriction will force cyclists to use roads, which are more dangerous to them than towpaths. In the longer term, local and central governments must introduce more safe cycling routes on the road network, as are found in most European cities. What is missing at the moment is the political will to acknowledge and address the problem and to make the necessary investment.
Benefits for all
As part of CRT’s Waterways and Wellbeing strategy, it is surely in its interest to collect and collate towpath data that would support the introduction of safe cycle routes on nearby roads to benefit cyclists. And this would allow it to reclaim the towpaths as tranquil places where boaters and pedestrians – and ‘normal’ cyclists – can relax. Introducing and publicising the restrictions on speeding cyclists is likely to reverse the recent decline in numbers of towpath visits (200,000 fewer in the last year, according to CRT’s latest annual report). Many people, especially parents walking children to school or playgroup, dog-walkers, or people who just want to unwind somewhere in peace and quiet, are increasingly deterred from using towpaths by the actions and attitudes of the lycra-louts. It is in CRT’s and boaters’ interests to make towpaths as safe as possible, so that they are widely used, which will also support the upcoming negotiations for a renewed government grant.