Canal towpaths represent a historic and much valued resource. Although originally built for horses, they now have to meet the needs of a disparate group of users including walkers, cyclists, anglers, boat owners, and canoeists. This means that towpaths can become congested in popular locations, such as on the Kennet and Avon Canal in Newbury.
In March, the Canal and River Trust consulted on their ‘Sharing Towpaths’ project. This sets out the Trust’s proposed approach to towpath management and includes a set of principles and actions, together with a ‘Towpath Code’. The Code encourages considerate usage of towpaths by all users, giving pedestrians priority. Cyclists are encouraged to drop their pace, dismount where required and use common sense in busy or restricted areas.
A total of 2,148 people completed the online survey, supplemented by email responses and three workshops with stakeholders, local authorities, and other partners. The Trust has now published the consultation results on their website.
The survey results showed that leisure uses of towpaths predominate, including walking for leisure, cycling for leisure and boating. However, there is evidence that towpaths are also being used by people for everyday journeys (e.g. commuting).
A common theme throughout respondents’ feedback was the need for better control over ‘speeding’ cyclists. Whilst respondents saw the ‘Towpath Code’ as being a starting point to reduce this problem, further suggestions included:
- Cycling permits (tried before and found to be unenforceable)
- Apply a speed limit (again, unenforceable)
- Erect barriers and chicanes to slow cyclists (this would impact upon other users)
- The Trust should develop relationships with cycling clubs (great, but most cyclists are not members of clubs)
- The Trust should appoint a cycling liaison officer
- Widening the towpath to encourage greater use by cyclists (unfortunately this was the view of a small, but vociferous minority)
There were strong views in relation to towpaths forming part of sustainable transport routes. A majority believed that the principles should make it clear that whilst cycling is permitted, the towpath should not be classed as utilitarian cycling route. Conversely, a minority thought there should be a coordinated policy to establish towpaths as part of national traffic-free network for walkers and cyclists, especially around towns and cities, and that this should form part of the principles.
Less than 10% of respondents suggested that improved maintenance could encourage sharing. This figure is surprisingly low, since in many places grass has encroached to make the towpath a narrow strip (see photo above), while overhanging vegetation often makes it difficult for users to pass without one stopping and stepping aside.
Most of the comments on infrastructure related to stopping high-speed cyclists (e.g. speed bumps at bridges), but a minority were also to facilitate use by those who wanted to travel faster (e.g. widening to 4m).
We will wait to see how the results of the consultation influence the ‘Sharing Towpaths’ document. The current version is reasonably well balanced, recognising the needs of all users. It would be a shame if there was a hardening of attitudes towards cyclists, as towpaths are a valued cycling resource, catering predominantly for leisure trips, but also for utility trips within urban areas. We were pleased to see that the draft document includes commitments to improve towpaths where needed and to reclaim towpath width for safer shared use where practical and appropriate.
Recent developments in Newbury means that we have our doubts about the likely impact of a Towpath Code. As one respondent put it: “Whoever is going to read the code and suddenly awaken to the fact that they should be considerate and share the space because the code says so?”
Whatever the outcome, we will be happy to work with the Canal and River Trust and offer what help we can to ensure that the Kennet and Avon towpath meets the needs of local cyclists and other users.