THE PEDAL POWER RANGER
The goings-on on towpaths infuriate many people – so we asked CRT’s National Towpath Ranger Dick Vincent to explain how he and his team are tackling towpath behaviour across the network
The Canal & River Trust’s National Towpath Ranger reveals how he and his team are tackling towpath behaviour all around the network
It’s a damp autumn morning at London’s City Road Lock, and a chap cycles up on a Brompton folding bike, with a Canal & River Trust peaked cap under his cycling helmet. “The cap keeps the rain off,” explains Dick Vincent, CRT’s National Towpath Ranger, as he dismounts and we order a couple of coffees from the canalside café.
He suggested this spot on the Regent’s Canal just west of Islington Tunnel to meet up and talk about towpaths, because “it’s the epicentre of what I do”. Not the centre of the canal system by a long way, or even of London’s waterways, but of the towpath related issues that his job involves. And it’s a job which began in London, but has now ‘gone national’.
Firstly, when he started with the then British Waterways around seven years ago in what was at first a post funded by Transport for London to improve the waterways system for walkers and cyclists, City Road was where the most complaints came from. In the peak hours there were problems with commuter cyclists riding too fast; for the rest of the time he says that it was “dead” – and the problems were mainly that it was frequented by drunks who would upset the relatively few other users. Not now: it’s just after the morning peak but there are plenty of folks around – walking, cycling, boating, using the café.
But back to the problems: he believes the main issue is that Islington Borough lacks green space (it’s the second lowest in the country), and so what’s available is “hotly contested”. And for whatever reason, he feels the boroughs haven’t done a good enough job of catering for cycling, so compared to the roads, it’s “a fantastic route” for commuting. “It’s safer, if you compare riding into the cut to colliding with a truck”. He used to use it himself, and admits that he rode too fast – before he spent a few years living afloat, then took on the present job, and became a “poacher turned gamekeeper”.
So what can be done to slow them down? He points to the speed bumps and the ‘share the space’ and ‘pedestrian priority’ signs in evidence at City Road, and tells me about the events run by his team – he’s one of only two full-time paid rangers (he’s now responsible for the whole country, while a second one has taken over London), but he has around 50 volunteers (mainly recruited from cycling groups) to be his ‘eyes and ears’ for issues around the towpaths and to spread the message.
They don’t announce their events in
advance – that would spoil the effect. They simply turn up at a towpath location, start handing out towpath guides and talking to people about slowing down and sharing the space. And all the time, they keep pushing the ‘code’. There’s a 15-point guide, a CRT ‘Better Towpaths’ policy, but he believes it’s best to keep it simple and keep pushing the three-point ‘Share the space; Drop your pace; It’s a special place’ code.
This has been backed by publicity campaigns which have raised a few eyebrows among boaters (and indeed, here at Canal Boat) such as the ‘duck lanes’ marked on towpaths, and ‘oldfashioned manners’ (featuring folks in period costume on vintage bikes) – but they certainly achieved wide media coverage. And, as he explains, for very little cost: a couple of pots of paint plus £25 for stencils for the duck lanes (whose real message was that it isn’t practicable to make lanes for different uses – so we’ll all have to learn to share). The ‘old-fashioned manners’ stunt cost even less: apparently a group of people go around dressed like that on old bikes anyway.
There’s more of this on the way–a nationwide‘ newfashioned manners’ campaign and more of an emphasis on ‘drop your pace’ are promised for the future.
He believes it’s about “treating people like adults and encouraging common sense” rather than “being dogmatic”.
For example, he says that it’s simply not possible to have an enforceable bike speed limit. “The Royal Parks (who can be fairly tough) tried it and found that it just doesn’t work” – cycles don’t usually have speedometers, limits aren’t practicable to enforce, and he doesn’t believe they’re legally enforceable anyway.
He feels the same way about suggestions of cycling bans or fees: “Yes, people are passionate, and people get frustrated, and demand these things. But once you examine it, it doesn’t work. It’s not going to happen, and we don’t want it to happen.”
But in the absence of such measures, is the message actually getting across? Many boaters would be sceptical. Dick Vincent believes that it is, but at the same time even more people are using bikes at commuter times overall – for example, 1,000 people an hour use the Regent’s towpath (roughly a 60/40 bike/ walk split), albeit that isn’t up there with the 4-5,000 bikes an hour across Blackfriars Bridge. So even if you can persuade a larger proportion of cyclists to slow down or choose another route, things might not seem much better.
And that’s where he believes another approach brings results. We’re sipping our coffees at a café opened in a former lock-keeper’s store, and just a few yards away Dick points to a towpath garden created by a local school. The towpath is concrete with electric cables under it, so this involved bringing 16 tons of soil in by barge, then 80 school pupils shifting it with buckets to fill planters.
These are attractions not just for locals, who Dick believes now “own” the canal rather than seeing it as a no-go area, but for passers-by – there are planters with bike-racks attached, and cyclists stop to picnic or to visit the café. And there are “too many people around for cyclists to ride like lunatics”. (He then corrects himself: “Most cyclists.”)
‘Publicity campaigns which have raised a few eyebrows among boaters – such as the “duck lanes” marked on towpaths’
So far we’ve concentrated on London, but (having learnt from mistakes) CRT is spreading the message out further afield to all towpaths. Different areas mean different issues, whether it’s ‘lycra lout’ racers rather than speeding commuters (his team are in touch with those responsible for the Strava time-trial app blamed for encouraging this), or simply underuse rather than conflict on paths.
He mentions the north of England – the Leeds & Liverpool (where a towpath café has just opened near the east end) and the Rochdale, where volunteers have done a splendid job of rebuilding the eastern lengths; however, at the Manchester end he sees a need to encourage people onto the underused towpath. But how? It’s a bit chicken-and-egg: opening a café might get more people onto the towpath, but it would be a brave person who opened the café in anticipation.
Dick believes (and here a few boaters will once again roll their eyes!) that more signs can help. “Stand near a signboard for a few minutes and watch how many people read it.”
Speaking of the Rochdale, following criticism of some unsympathetic improvements, a towpath design guide has been produced with urban, rural, and semi-rural standards. For example, the semi-rural one has front and back verges either side of a 2.5m wide strip, with a hard-wearing base but a stone chip top which he says gives it “a slight crunch” that tends to mean cyclists slow down a little, and a buff finish that doesn’t urbanise the surroundings.
Dick admits to getting “very annoyed” at hearing that these improvement schemes “turn the towpath into a motorway”. He insists “We don’t just slap on the tarmac or concrete” – and often, towpath improvements which are paid for from local authority or other nonCRT sources benefit navigation by strengthening or repairing canal banks.
I mention problems with motorcycling. He accepts that it’s an issue, but is reluctant to install barriers which would make things hard for wheelchairs and prams, and not be in keeping with the canals. He feels the best place for them is on the access to the towpath, “where there’s lots of room, not on a 200-yearold heritage towpath where you install something that belongs in a car park”. And he feels the real way forward is working with police and local authorities.
Again, is it working? Well, we’ve been sitting drinking coffee for the best part of an hour, and haven’t seen any miscreants on motorbikes – but they were never that common on the Regent’s. More to the point, I don’t recall us seeing any speeding cyclists, collisions, or indeed any conflict between boaters, cyclists, walkers, anglers or anyone else.
Maybe we’ve just been lucky or, perhaps, the message really is starting to get through. Time will tell.
‘Dick admits to getting “very annoyed” at hearing that these improvement schemes “turn the towpath into a motorway” ’
Eyebrow-raising publicity campaigns have included ‘duck lanes’... ...a campaign for ‘old-fashioned manners’ featuring old-fashioned cyclists... ...andapoemabout sharingthetowpaths stencilledontothelock- side
Speed bumps on the Regent’s
The school garden: chain your bike to a planter
Underused: the Rochdale in Manchester
City Road café and ‘pedestrian priority’