View of Union Canal towpath with pedestrians and dogs

Overcrowding on the Union Canal towpath

Peter Brett, a member of the public, presented his views on the Union Canal towpath at the Merchiston Community Council meeting of 18 June 2019. He has kindly provided a written version of his verbal contribution, as shown below. The opinions expressed in the post do not represent Merchiston Community Council policy, but we are keen to provide an unbiased forum for the exchange of views amongst residents.

In the past, I have enjoyed walking and cycling on the canal towpath, but I have stopped using it recently, because it’s become too dangerous.

Currently, Edinburgh has problems with air pollution and congestion. The world has a problem with climate change.  To address these problems, we need to get people to walk and cycle more, and to drive less.

The City of Edinburgh Council is making some important steps in that direction.  In the short term, there’s the Meadows to George Street project, and the West-East Cycle Link.  In the longer term, the City Centre Transformation project will reprioritise the centre to put pedestrians first and foremost, while providing safe cycle routes.

These projects are focussed on the city centre.  If the city centre becomes a welcoming place for cyclists and pedestrians, then more people who live beyond walking distance of the centre will want to cycle there.

At the moment people travelling from the Balerno / Currie / Slateford / Colinton alignment are all funnelled onto the canal towpath, because it’s the only segregated walking and cycling route from that direction.  Unfortunately, it’s already overcrowded, and this is starting to make it dangerous for all users.

The canal towpath is a narrow corridor which is currently used by a large variety of users, and its popularity is bringing those users into conflict.  Dog walkers, commuting cyclists, groups of schoolchildren, families cycling for leisure, joggers, handcycles, rowing coaches, and wheelchair users could all easily coexist in the space at low use 
levels, but as the towpath gets more congested it brings all of the users into inevitable conflict.

I work in Livingston, and would love to be able to commute along the canal towpath!  It would take me almost all the way to work, and as Councillor Corbett says, it’s a beautiful route.  I don’t travel that way simply because it has become more dangerous for me than mixing it with motor vehicles on the nearby roads.

There is no group of people at whom I can point a finger and say, “It’s their fault.”  It’s the combination of the different users, in such quantities, that cause the problem, and which leave me feeling that it’s now too risky to use.

What’s the solution?  There’s no space to increase the width of the canal towpath to the 3-4 m required for the growing traffic levels.  The blind, narrow, cobbled bridge apertures cannot be widened.  Many restricted sightlines cannot be improved.  And there is literally nothing that can be done about the intrinsically dangerous Longstone 

View of towpath under bridge

The only way to tackle the hazards in a way that will actually reduce the probability of more incidents of greater severity as demand continues to grow is to remove the hazards.  If there were safe, parallel routes available, then the majority of traffic could be moved onto them, leaving the canal towpath available for safe leisure use.

These routes could be provided by reallocating road space from motor vehicles to segregated cycle lanes.  If they were properly designed to be suitable for unaccompanied 12-year-old cyclists to use, they would reduce congestion.  It would become safer and more convenient to cycle to and from schools and workplaces in the area.

Over the long term, it may be best to create segregated cycle facilities away from the canal, and then to ban cyclists from the urban sections of the towpath.  This is a plan that would mostly remove the hazard, while accommodating the increase in walking and cycling that the city needs.

3 thoughts on “Overcrowding on the Union Canal towpath”

  1. I tend to agree with the comments above. Part of the problem is that some cyclists think that by ringing a bell while riding full pace is adequate as a safety measure. Some even ride across the narrow towpath over the Water of Leith aqueduct. This is despite the notices banning riding over.

  2. Pingback: Overcrowding on the Union Canal towpath – edinburgh today

  3. I agree with the article and the comment above. I was knocked down and injured on the towpath and had to go through months of painful physio after breaking my arm. Since then the towpath has got worse in my opinion. There is a minority of cyclists who act like it is a major roadway and cycle in excess of 20mph. Even other cyclists have been heard to comment on their reckless behaviour. It is only a matter of time before someone is killed or seriously injured.

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