Tuesday, 2 June 2015

A visit from the boss!

I had a most welcome visit from Richard Parry a few days ago. Its not often that you get to have a direct one to one chat with the boss. He spent some time with us on the boat and we had a good chat about this and that.

I'm not going to elaborate on the contents of our conversation. Because much of it was given in confidence both ways. I still think Richard has much to offer, though I think the honeymoon period is now over. Its often not recognised that there has been a totally different approach brought about. Certainly when dealing face to face with the punters. He has possibly met and spoken to more of the waterways users, than anyone else within the trust. Its a refreshing change when compared to his more recent predecessors. He knows well that I am a friend if somewhat critical of the trust.

However, there was one issue, that I can comment about. That is the increasing problem of cyclists travelling at speed along the towpath. I told Richard about our recent towpath experience. Which was one that I had attempted to report to the trust as a near miss. It is important to stress that all such incidents should be diligently reported directly to the trust.

After the incident I rang the trust and spoke to a lady. I gave a brief synopsis of what had happened and said I wanted to report the issue as a near miss. She said that she would pass me on to whoever was in charge of that area. However, she came back after a short while and said that no one was available. But she would get someone to ring me back. Four days later while talking to Richard, I said I was disappointed in the lack of a response from the trust. I think Richard was also disappointed in the outcome. It will be interesting to see when the return call (if ever) comes.

As you will read later - it is essential that boaters are proactive about reporting the issues. However, I shall report this and any further incidences by email to ensure that the issues are recorded correctly. The email address to use is CustomerServices@CanalRiverTrust.org.uk The Telephone number is: 0303 040 4040

The current reporting system is pathetic. It seems to have been designed to reduce the number of reports by fobbing off. Rather than fast tracking issues and producing a proactive response to any safety concerns raised. Boaters are the eyes and ears of the waterway yet it seems that what we should be encouraged to do to report what we see is actively being discouraged.

This set me to thinking about the problem. Complaining is one thing, but learning is also an important outcome. Had someone from the trust been in touch, I would have been happy to address the issues. The trust through collating near misses would be able to identify potential incident and accident blackspots. The trust would also be able to learn from the experiences of people who were there.

For instance, at a visitor mooring site and in the vicinity of a lock maybe a drop your pace message on the towpath would help to remind both the boater and the cyclist of the increased dangers in a shared space. The painted on surface warnings are certainly harder to vandalise than notices. I was able to tell Richard of the 'Cyclists must dismount notices' at Autherley Junction were smashed to pieces. I wonder to myself who would have done that.

Maybe even an open 'lychgate' chicane on the visitor moorings approach where all cyclists would have to dismount to pass through. While pedestrians would be able to walk through without a problem would also be appropriate.

In locations where incidents and accident reports identify a potential blackspot. If appropriate, cyclists could (and possibly should) be directed away to the nearest road as an alternative cycle route. The safety of cyclists moved off the road should not take precedence over and certainly should not be allowed to compromise the safety of pedestrians on the towpath.

Alternatively speed calming measures could be built into the upgraded surfaces at the time of construction. I pointed out to Richard that the issue of high speed cyclist is a growing one on social media. That there is a ground swell of opinion calling into question the trusts handling of the whole issue. We even talked about the 'duck lane' on the towpath. I'm in favour of off the wall ideas for addressing towpath issues. If nothing else it makes you stop and smile and then hopefully the irony strikes home.

We moored the boat up for the day at Autherley Junction. The towpath is reasonably wide and a good surface compared to other sections. It was one of the better days that we have had so far this year. Mags my partner was sat in a fold up chair at the back of the boat reading a book. Two other boaters who were returning back to their boat from the small shop at the junction, had paused to have a chat. While we were chattering several cyclists had come past without any problem. One even doing the 'two tings' warning.

The two cyclists who we became involved in an altercation with, however, approached unobserved from behind along the towpath at high speed. There was no warning of their silent high speed approach. We were completely unaware of their presence until they were almost on top of us. The first cyclist deliberately tried to ride over Mag's feet. Actually missing her by a couple of inches. The second cyclist then stopped about 50 feet further on and began to a torrent of abuse. The language was appalling and included the advice to get off the 'cycle track'. Before he peddled off again at high speed pursuing his companion. That is where the nub of the problem lies - cyclist do not see the towpath as a shared space. They see it as a 'cycle track' and what are cycle tracks used for - that's right racing cycles on.

Contrast this incident with the cyclist who recently knocked down three-year-old girl. Who now claims the public have been told an incorrect version of the events and its his life that has been 'destroyed'. This is the same cyclist who was uninjured, who hurled abuse at the child and mother and then just rode away. However, he feels its his life has been destroyed.

Mr Andrew Holland a cyclist came under criticism for knocking down a toddler on a pavement, in what has been described as a "hit and run" incident and CCTV footage has been released of the incident. Mr Holland, was wearing a bright orange jacket at the time of the accident and was travelling along the pavement at speed. The released footage shows three-year-old, Lucie Wilding, being hit and dragged along the pavement by the speeding cyclist as she stepped out onto the pavement from her front garden. Lucie was left with cuts and bruises to her face, hands and knees. Mr Holland, from Blackpool, claims he has apologised to Lucie’s mother, Lauren Howarth, after the incident.

Mr Holland also claims that he did not know that cycling on the pavement was illegal. Lancashire Police have confirmed Mr Holland voluntarily attended a police station the day after the incident and that he has been told he may be summonsed for dangerous cycling.

There are some similarities in the two experiences. But there are also some important and obvious differences. In both cases the cyclists concerned were obviously travelling at an inappropriate speed. The child had stepped out in front of the cyclist. Who could not stop in time because of his pace. He now feels aggrieved because film was released of the incident. However the towpath incident was different - the cyclists who were travelling two abreast, had clear view of the four people on the towpath for quite some distance. They had not reduced their speed or given a warning of their approach. They had decided to deliberately maintain their pace, which was clearly intended to intimidate everyone.

Mr Holland should not have been cycling on the pavement. The law protects pedestrians walking on the pavement. As in Mr Hollands case it may well be used by the police to prosecute. It clear and simple, he should not have been there in the first place. The cyclist on the towpath are perfectly entitled to be there and can travel at any speed they wish. This is because there is no overall upper limit. A not even a guideline limit that could be enforced in any way. The cyclists on the towpath gave no warning of their approach and there is no requirement for them to even have a bell.

Unfortunately, It is obvious that such incidents along the towpath are nothing new. I have heard other stories from people who have had a similar experience. We have also had similar previous experiences ourselves. However in the previous incidents I don't think there was any intent or malice involved. We have even rendered assistance to several injured cyclists and walkers in two cases even summoned the ambulance service.

But what is changing is that the upgrades to the towpath are clearly intended to provide an all weather surface. One that will at the same time, clearly act as an encouragement to cyclist to up their pace even further. Modern cycles are lighter in construction come with multiple gears and suspension systems. Electrically powered bikes give additional help to the cyclist to maintain a much faster pace. Each upgrade including the towpath upgrade, is intended to allow the cycle to up its pace over the improved terrain. The trust itself says that there are soon to be 500 million visits a year by people to the towpath. But as the towpath is improved, the cyclist are coming more and more into conflict with the general public. The recipe for disaster is being set for dangerous cycling to increase even further. Similar to the type of incident that Mr Holland is about to be prosecuted for.

I accept that it might be an unintended consequence as a result of the towpath upgrade - but it is never the less a fact of life that dangerous cycling is being encouraged. The improvements in the surface are stimulating an increase in the cyclist speed. The funding for the upgrades is coming from the cycling centric charity sustrans. The bottom line is - moving cyclist off the roads and pavements may well be a good idea. But now the danger is the increasing numbers of high speed cyclists coming into conflict with pedestrians on the towpath. The trust appear to have handed control of setting the policy for the towpaths over to sustrans.

Sustrans have a key principal (B.08 access and speed control) that states: There should be a presumption against the use of any access barriers on a cycle track/ shared use path until/unless there is a proven need because of the difficulty they can cause all users.

In other words do nothing until such time as a number of incidents or a serious accident (possibly fatal) happens to a non cyclist. Rather than do the obvious and mitigate such issues in the design of the upgrade. Safety should be a key feature of the the upgrade design not a remedial fix that comes sometime later. It seems that the 'mad cyclists' are now in charge of the running of the inland waterways asylum.

Recently, I have been taking more interest around the conflict between cyclist and pedestrians on the towpath. I have joined several cycling forums and spent some time reading input from cyclists. Its interesting to see the other side from their own perspective. There is quite a bit of material around cycling along the towpaths. In many cases the conflict between cyclist and pedestrians is usually raised at some point. Unfortunately, what is abundantly clear, is the issue of 'education' as espoused by the trust is just not going to work. The cyclist are often competitive - the competitive element is uppermost in their mind. How is that competitive need being fed - through speed. You can't educate that out of people who are enthused by the 'Tour de France' and the similar cycling inspired things that are taking place over here.

There is a regular old chestnut rolled out about the dangers of 'restricting access for the emergency services' onto the towpath. The idea being that a restriction to the towpath is dangerous. I have been there and done that. The emergency services are very good and well practised at removing such barriers. I witnessed one such issue on the Chesterfield canal. believe me its not an issue for them at all.

More than anything else its the older generation that like to walk the towpaths. The generally flat surface is less tiring and the lack of other traffic adds to their enjoyment. Dog walkers like to let their dogs off the leash. Mainly because of the lack of road traffic. Boaters like to congregate in small groups on the towpath socialising as they see it as a safe area.

Is this whole cycling fiasco going to be labelled as being yet another instance of Hales Fails. Where the safety of pedestrians on the towpath is going to continue to be ignored, as the lucre from Sustrans rolls in. Which begs the question - What price exactly are the Trustees putting upon the safety of towpath users. What level of collateral damage will induce them to address the issues.

A simple search on the internet brings up articles on the issue going back as far as 2008. In the Guardian for instance. Under the headline 'Canal towpath walkers and cyclists on collision course' Quote: 'In the last 12 months there have been 33 complaints and reports of accidents on the Regent's canal alone. One complained of "towpath rage"; another said it was becoming like a "racetrack". Comments like these have forced British Waterways, which runs the 2,000-mile canal network, to intervene'

In the Guardian 2012 under the banner headline 'How cyclists and pedestrians can share space on canal towpaths' Quote: 'Cyclist Tony Hannan has been commuting on the Regent's Canal for three years. He echoed the views of many that morning when he said: "As a cyclist it is a great way to get to work: it is easy, there is no traffic and I think most cyclists are considerate. There are some idiots but there are idiots on the roads too.'

He adds that he saw one woman walker hit by two cyclists coming out from under a bridge side by side last year. "She was just poll axed," he said. 'Thankfully she wasn't seriously injured.'

In the Evening Standard 2014 under the banner headline 'London needs more women on bikes as 'macho' cycling culture causes accidents, says Mayor’s Cycling Commissioner' Quote: 'What that will do is just generally reduce the testosterone level, calm things down a bit, change the culture of cycling a bit more towards what we see in continental cities...people of all ages, riding along quite slowly on quite clunky bikes in their ordinary clothes.'

In the Evening Standard 2015 under the banner headline 'Female cyclist shoved into canal by gang of youths while cycling on east London towpath. Quote: A female cyclist was pushed into water on her bike by a gang of youths as she rode along a canal towpath in east London. The 33-year-old woman was riding along the Regent's Canal when she tried to pass a group of Asian youths who were walking towards her. Police said one member of the group then "shouted an order" to push her into the water. A female member of the group then "lunged forward" and shoved the cyclist into the water with her bike.

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