Thursday, 20 August 2015

Towpath Cycling Proposals

I have been musing again. This time its about a set of proposals for creating a more comprehensive set of Canal and River Trust, towpath cycling rules. Not loose guidelines, but an enforceable set of rules and requirements, that should be placed upon all cyclists.  The rules need to be balanced, proportionate and written in such a way as to not inconvenience the majority of cyclists who are both considerate and compliant.

The Canal and River Trust own 'satisfaction' survey suggests that the public and boaters perception of the trust and the trusts perception of them is dire. With the advent of 400 million visits to the towpath each year, a figure that is growing every day. The safety of pedestrians on the towpath has never been more important. Its time for a no nonsense look at what can be put in place and what should be done as a matter of urgency.

For the non boating readers I have started with a quick summery of the history of the canals. Why it is important to protect the infrastructure as a part of our 'Industrial Revolution' heritage.

Background: The rivers in the United Kingdom have been used over the millennia for transport of all kinds. Fast forward hundreds of years and the United Kingdoms various canal systems triggered a period in our history that is referred to around the world as the Industrial Revolution. As the industrial revolution took hold, alternative transport systems were being developed such as the railways and the improvements to the countries roads infrastructure. 

With each transport development the nature of the transport of freight on the canal changed. As the demands increased for the transport of goods and people. The canals and railways enjoyed a period where one ramped up its carrying capacity and the other gradually lost demand. But for a long period, both systems worked side by side. However, there then followed a second long drawn out period of industrial decline. The roads became the major transport system and the road transport infrastructure has continued to be developed. 

Improvements to the road transport systems even had an affect upon the railways. Which  went through a similar period to the canals with a gradual loss of freight. The whole railway infrastructure was assessed and like the abandoned canals before them. The railways were 'topped and tailed' by doctor Richard Beeching Axe. The railways have seen a change away from the bulk carriage of freight towards providing more inner city and inter city commuting for people.

The decline in the canal system brought around a change of ethos. People with vision such as Tom Rolt and Robert Aickman realised that while the canals were being abandoned and allowed to fall into a very poor state of repair. (Mainly through lack of spending on maintenance the same as today.) They believed that what was still there, was worth saving for the nation. There followed years of conflict between those who wanted to conserve and improve the canals and those in power, who without a vision for the future, wanted to get rid. The visionaries many of who were boaters prevailed and today we have a system for leisure boating, fishing walking and cycling.  

Those who fought for the canal system to be retained and improved, now feel a keen 'ownership' of the system.  A place where boat owners can enjoy cruising from village, to town and city upon the canal system. A place where people of all ages can walk with their children and pets. A place of peace and even solitude. A place where the angler can enjoy a days fishing. The thing that binds all these together is a lack of  road traffic and the over whelming sense of a quiet, subdued and gentle pace to be enjoyed by everyone.

The canals and rivers should now be seen by many as a linear theme park, they are a national treasure. Providing a tactile, living breathing museum of the industrial revolution. The canals and rivers should now be seen by everyone as an important part of our fast disappearing industrial heritage and one to be shared by all.

Cycling: Cycling on the towpath has gone on for many years. To all intents and purposes. The construction of the cycle allied with the nature of the towpath was in the past a limiting factor with regards to the speed of people cycling. 

The Canal and River Trust already has a large amount of information available on line for cyclists. It has a 'strategic cycle routes co-ordinator' whatever that is. As well as promoting a cycle route of the month. So it is positively encouraging even more and more cyclist to come onto the towpath. 

Now, there is a major change taking place on the towpath. The numbers of people using a cycle as soared and continues to grow. The very nature of the construction of the cycle itself has also changed. So that now a cycle is similar to off road, all terrain vehicle.  Add into the mix that the towpath is in places being upgraded to the equivalent of an all weather surface. 

This has directly created a new phenomenon, where a minority of cyclists are already treating the towpath as a competitive time trial venue. The numbers of such cyclists is growing. Data available on Strava already gives some insight into the growing numbers. There are GPS related applications available where cyclists with a competitive attitude can compete with others to set a fast time over a specific route. This is bringing boaters, fishermen, walkers and all other towpath users including the considerate cyclists into conflict. 

Now it would be easy to draw together and record some of the well documented incidents and accidents.  Many that are being reported on social media and in the popular press. Petitions are being organised by various people which is an indicator of the level of incidents and the frustrations of the towpath users.

The Canal and River Trust: (CaRT) The position of the trust in all of this is a complete mystery. The laughable 'Two Tings' to the mind boggling 'Duck Lanes' demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of the whole issue. And a complete misunderstanding of the depth of feeling held by the vast majority of towpath users. 

The current way forward proposed by the trust is a single proposal of the 'education of cyclists'. This is not something new, education in the form of leafleting has been employed previously. It would seem that the education through leafleting, used so far has completely failed. Leafleting now joins the list of 'Drop your Pace and Share the Space' as well as the 'Two Ting's' and the mind boggling 'Duck Lanes' all of which seem to be failures.

Many people have reported near misses, incidents and accidents involving cyclists to the trust. But those reports seem to go unanswered. A patronising letter or phone call is not sufficient. This lack lustre response to what is after all a very serious issue. Is providing the popular impression that there is either a lack of will or an inability to manage the increasing danger and hostility being demonstrated towards towpath users.  Many believe that the name of the trust should be changed to the 'Cycling and Racing Trust'.  Boaters feel that they have been abandoned by the trust. The Canal and River Trust's own 'satisfaction' survey suggest they are possibly correct.

The trust is apparently unwilling to make some sensible and appropriate restrictions. And unwilling to put in place some real and effective measures to reduce the growing problem through sustainable and recognisable rules and regulations. In response to lack of action I am providing a set of towpath users proposals as a suggestion for the way forward.

Proposals: There needs to be a number of rules and regulations put in place which share  more than a passing resemblance to those to which fishermen and boat owners have to comply. There could be an on-line system put in place to manage the high speed cycling issue.

It is only a matter of time before a serious incident one which is possibly fatal happens on the towpath. With the huge surge from 10 million to 400 million visits in three years. A set of comprehensive rules for cyclists needs to be put in place.

(1) Cycling Permit: A return to the discontinued permit (a form of licensing) of all cycle users on the towpath. That the permit should be affixed and  clearly displayed on the cycle. 

A boat licence should also allow permission for the use of a cycle on the towpath. The permit charge should be inclusive of the boat licence charge for boaters. A licence to fish on the waterways should also act as a permit for fishermen using a trolley or cycle to carry equipment.

(2) Charge: That a charge should be made against all cyclists and the revenue raised be used to managing the permit system. That once the costs of supporting such a system is met. Any surplus revenue raised in this way should be used towards the provision of various speed calming measures. 

It would also allow the trust to issue a set of meaningful instructions. Which would be acknowledged by all (bona fide) cycle users on the towpath. Clearly setting out the rules, expectations and any specific regulations to be complied with as needed. 

(3) Cycle Bell: Many cycles do not come provided with a warning device. The trust should create a requirement that clearly states any cycle used on the towpath should have a mechanical warning device.

(4) Identification: All boats used on the inland waterways should be displaying an identity number and also hold and display a current licence.  Each cyclist authorised to use the towpath should be able to be easily recognised and carry some form of identity.

Presently there is no way of identifying any cycle/cyclist using the towpath. This would go some way to helping to reduce the number of hit and run incidents where the assailant is not known. It should be born in mind that a hit and run in a public space is a criminal act. 

(5) Insurance: Boat owners are required to have insurance. This should be a requirement of all cycle users on the towpath. It should be born in mind that almost all cycling organisations recommend that cyclists should have insurance. Many cycling organisations provide access to cheap individual and family cycle insurance against theft and third party incidents and accidents.
Those involved in accidents have a duty to stop at the scene, to identify themselves and to exchange personal details such as names, address, phone numbers and insurance details. Failure to do so is a criminal offence.

(6) Claims Against the Trust: The Trust should put in place provision for compensating pedestrians injured by hit and run cyclists. The Trust owe a duty of care that the law upholds. If you have been hurt as a pedestrian in a towpath accident - you might be entitled to compensation. Some solicitors are already offering a totally free 'Pedestrian Accident Service' where no costs are payable at any stage. All fees are paid by the responsible party's insurance company if they win your claim.

(7) Speed: The major problem on the towpath is the almost silent rate at which cyclists can approach towpath users. Often the first recognition of the presence of the cyclist(s) is when the pedestrian on the towpath is startled by a near miss encounter. The high speed user often deliberately does not give a warning of their presence, in case the towpath pedestrian steps asside and into their path. 

There should be default speed limits, applicable to the towpath which are after all common in parks and other public spaces. The whole ethos of the inland waterways is a leisurely pace. It is what makes the inland waterways attractive to many people. The trust should rigidly enforce such rules and regulations.

(8) Default Maximum Speed: The proposal is for a blanket speed limit of 10 mph.  Such a limit would be in keeping with the walking pace of pedestrians.  It is a typical speed restriction in many parks and other public spaces. It would help to limit the level of impact any injury experienced by a pedestrian and or cyclist in an accident.

(9) Benefits of a Default Speed limit: A limit of 10 mph is after all approximately two and a half time the speed of a pedestrian walking and the two and a half times the speed of a boat cruising on the water. As a default speed limit, there would be no need to sign the whole length of a towpath.  However, as the towpath is upgraded, modified restrictions could be considered and where the risk to pedestrians on the towpath is not compromised then alternative speed restrictions could be put in place.

There are many benefits to be gained from having a default speed limit. it would create an exhaustive task just to list them all. However, typically it would give time for a fisherman to be seen and to be able to move any equipment clear. Such as the long fishing rods which seem to be the vogue today.

There are certain places along the towpath where conflict is much more likely to arise. Typical of these are in restricted bridge holes where the towpath runs under the bridge. Because of restricted sighting lines cyclist and pedestrians are much more likely to come into conflict.  Another location is at a lock where people can be distracted from safely locking a boat due to the activities of high speed cyclists.

(10) Dismount at all Bridges:  If there is the requirement to dismount all bridges that cross the river or canal. The bridges will in themselves act as a speed calming measure. 

(11) Dismount at all Locks: If there is the requirement to dismount all Locks. The bridges will themselves act as a speed calming measure. 

Visitor moorings are another place where boaters in particular come into conflict with high speed cyclists. This is a place where people are distracted when mooring up. It is a place where people are constantly stepping on and off their boats. Visitor moorings are also a place where the children of boater families are more likely to be playing on the towpath and pets are more likely to be loose on the towpath.  

(12) Designated Visitor Moorings: There should be a full width towpath gate at each end of a visitor mooring. All cyclists should be required to dismount when passing visitor moorings.

This document is intended as a 'request for comment'. It is intended to start a meaningful dialogue amongst all of the 400,000,000 towpath visitors. It is not an exhaustive list of requirements but it does highlight some of the areas that need urgent attention. You might have comments and ideas of your own to add. 

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