Canal towpath cycling revisited

Gavin Corbett ponders shared use of the Union Canal Towpath.

I had a lively and useful exchange via twitter this morning on the subject of shared use of the Union Canal towpath.  But, sometimes, 140 characters cannot do justice to a topic so I thought I’d briefly update where I think we are.

Living within a quarter of mile of the Union Canal I cycle along the towpath daily (I also run along it occasionally and walk there with my kids).  For the last few years I’ve been aware of an occasional flashpoint as the path becomes busier.  This usually involves cyclists, but has also included dogs out of control, people with headphones and even rowers blocking the path.  About three years ago, during the time I was chair of the Parent Council at Craiglockhart Primary School I was approached by a parent who was very shaken having been agressively threatened by a cyclist while bringing her son and younger child in a buggy to school.  Since a big part of the school travel plan is about encouraging more families to leave the car and walk and cycle to school using the towpath I was really disturbed to hear this but I suppose you get occasional w****rs on two wheels as well as four.

In my job as Green councillor for the area I chair the Transport Forum for the local South West Neighbourhood Partnership, the area of which encompasses all of the Union Canal within the city bypass.  One of my early priorities was to see if we could make inroads into the shared use of the canal towpath.   There’s some useful data from Sustrans which shows that only a minority of towpath users believes there to be a problem between cyclists and pedestrians but that this view is held rather more strongly by pedestrians than cyclists, so we do need to be able to improve confidence as well as reduce flashpoints.

So recently I brought together Scottish Canals, cycling groups (Spokes and Sustrans) and the community council to discuss practical ways forward.  We looked at a range of measures, some simple, like keeping vegetation cut back, others longer term, such as modest design improvements and signage.  We considered safe alternative routes for people who want to travel faster than is safe on a narrow towpath. Most of the discussion focused on the need to develop a shared-use culture, however, and to that end we are looking to agree a simple code of conduct for all towpath users, modelled on the Spokes leaflet for shared paths, but with some adaptations for the canal context.  At the same time we will look at a communication plan involving local schools, community groups, social media and direct messages to canal towpath users.

Interestingly, there was not much discussion about speed.  Until this morning I had been led to believe that the 6mph signs on the canal bank applied only to water-traffic.  But it appears now that the limit on the water is 4mph and 6mph applies to towpath users.  I need to check the exact status with Scottish Canals but I am not sure a 6mph limit is very useful (leaving aside the fact that very few cyclists go as slowly as that and even when I run, I run faster than that).  I believe that speed is less important than manner.  Someone going along at 10-12 mph (anything above 15mph is too fast within the city parts of the towpath) who slows down when passing, who uses a bell and takes care at bridges is acting perfectly reasonably, in my view.  In other words a code of conduct is more important than a speed limit which is hardly ever observed.

Since the millenium link was made through Wester Hailes, the canal has enjoyed a renaissance as a way of moving around the south-west of the city.  As more people take to bikes (as I fervently hope they do) the towpath will continue to increase in popularity.  Developing the right culture of shared use is central to managing that growth.