The Independent London Newspaper


How walkers can reclaim the towpath’s tranquillity

Published: 10 June, 2011

• YOUR article (Travel expert steps into the towpath row, June 3) included some interesting developments, but some readers might think this topic is caught in an infinite loop. Some progress is now being made behind the scenes.

There are engineering issues and behavioural issues and these should be tackled separately. Even the most considerate cyclists are perceived as nuisances at bottlenecks such as Wharf Road bridge, so this type of location needs an engineering solution. However, on the open stretches only a minority of cyclists are a nuisance and this is usually due to inappropriate speeds, body language or use of space. The solution in these cases might be a combination of education, enforcement and peer pressure.

This calls for a positive approach, phased over several time frames and zones. I believe the end goals are to restore the dignity in towpath cycling and the tranquillity and charm of the towpath itself. First, we need to identify the problems; second, we need to get them recognised; and third, we need tactical solutions that deliver quick wins at near-miss hotspots. Once things start to improve walkers can reclaim their share of the towpath.

We are now making progress with identifying the issues; politicians from all corners are entering the equation. It is significant that high-profile cyclists such as Christian Wolmar are recognising that something needs to be done. There are still more questions than answers but it is encouraging that so many people are addressing this together.

The Friends of Regent’s Canal has identified a tactical solution that could ease the conflict and dangers by Hanover School. Instead of joining the towpath at Danbury Street ramp (the towpath equivalent of a motorway acceleration lane) cyclists can progress a little further along the back streets and join the canal at Dame Street or Packington Street. 

The ramps have already been constructed and this little short-cut would bypass the hazards of the kiosks, the lock, the water point, the school entrance, the low, narrow bridge and the adjoining pub. It will save time, so no cyclist in a hurry should ever need to go under Wharf Road bridge again. British Waterways is aware of this option and we are hoping it will facilitate it.

We are trying to promote an alternative route that will lure commuter cyclists off the towpath altogether. A route already exists but it has never been accepted by cyclists because it includes a lethal blind-spot near a humpback bridge. Police are now helping to refine this route by finding safer stretches and approaches.

Some engineering solutions will involve installation of chicanes, in the form of black and white barriers at trouble spots (some people refer to these, incorrectly, as kissing gates). We should welcome these as crowd-control measures rather than as anti-cyclist devices. They usually serve to improve cyclists’ safety and are a good social tool because they encourage fellow cyclists to make eye contact with each other.

It would make sense to replace the signs at certain bridges advising cyclists to dismount. A few people might ignore these initially, but most people will respect them, especially when they are in full view of walking witnesses.

Towpath cycling is one of the best ways of enjoying the canal. It is a great shame it has become a victim of its own success, to the point that it is attracting such bad publicity. I really hope we can converge in our various discussions in the weeks ahead.

Chair, Friends of Regent’s Canal 


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