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...­dapo­emabout 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’

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