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.

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13 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.

  4. We are boaters and have seen the increase in cyclists using the towpath for commuting in urban areas around the country. The speed that MANY of them travel is incredibly dangerous to other towpath users. A dog was killed on one stretch I was told and we ourselves have had to jump out of the way on several occasions to avoid injury. We’ve seen arguments between cyclists and fishermen,
    families and even Canal and River Trust staff. Cyclists need to make more use of bells (only a few have them fitted, let alone use them) and learn that when encountering pedestrians they MUST slow down. It is not their right to travel at speeds dangerous to any form of life. They think they are a law unto themselves. The worst places we have encountered are Leeds and Nottingham city centres but I assure you, the problem is far more widespread.

  5. I am a boat owner and as such pay for the canal and towpath with our yearly license fee which is in the thousands, any other person using it does so free and treat it as a gift not a right and act accordingly or stop from using them.

    1. With respect that is not entirely true. Scottish Canals also receive block grant funding from the Scottish Government. All tax payers are also contributing to the upkeep of the canal and towpath.

  6. Tow paths are being abused by dog walkers,runners,cyclists and walkers and boaters who actually pay to use tow paths and canals are getting fed up with their lack of consideration.
    We as boaters need money put into providing us with elsan units, refuse stations and water points which are in very short supply . We are on the Leeds liverpool canal at the moment and it’s about 10 miles from the facilities in Skipton to the next ones at Bingley top lock,how is this fair when we pay our licence fees in good faith only to find it being used to provide better facilities for other people.

  7. The canal towpath is a fantastic facility to any city but as has been pointed out it’s not that big.

    I find it hard to imagine cyclists doing 20mph down there. That’s certainly faster than I would be going so I think people are over estimating this.
    Any cyclist doing that would be in the canal sooner rather than later.

    If we can make the road safer and therefore more attractive to cyclists then they will be more likely to use that rather than a narrow strip of land with a very wet landing on the other side of it.

    Cities should be for people. Not cars. Cars should be the exception in the city and heavily restricted in areas and by speed. They’re the things that kill.

  8. Anglers also pay rent on the canal. It won’t be long till someone on a bicycle seriously injures a child.

  9. Loads of opinions that all give the answer. Some Walkers won’t move to the side to allow cyclists past, and think no one else should be on it, especially the ones with dogs that are a hazard. Some Joggers and Runners Cause health issues on the narrow path spraying sweat everywhere. Cyclists can go too fast without using a bell. As usual everybody comments from their own angle. Cycle routes need developed in line with environmental needs but until then the towpaths need to be used. Cyclists are the most popular for abuse because of speed but if you read the Code of Conduct all users should be ok. The biggest hazard is the use of earphones for music and phone calls. Obviously no awareness of travellers needing to pass, including walkers. Everybody should just be honest and realise that although a great facility for all, it is too busy and the main hazard is non compliance of the Waterways Towpath Code of Conduct. As a post note the boat owners pay Mainly for the water Part and have no special right to criticise commuters other than the above points. Robert

    1. Christine Brew

      As opposed to everyone else who pays zero towards the waterways.
      I don’t wear earphones and have good hearing but even I have had MANY a close call at the hands of reckless cyclists. I always thank those rarities who use a bell and gladly move aside so they can pass. You’ll find cyclists are the group who cause problems for the majority. They are generally a danger with the speed at which they travel

  10. Pingback: Canal Towpath Etiquette | The Airdrie Rambler

  11. I ride my bike there. I am mindful of those walking, however I am often met with hostile glares and people refusing to move, some moving in front of you when you are trying to pass. Not all those that ride bike are these evil creatures you know….. if everyone was more thoughtful it woukd be a much more pleasant place to be.

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