“They shouldn’t allow cycling along here. There’s just no room.”
I was out for a Saturday afternoon stroll with my friend Mark when I overheard this remark. It was a gloriously sunny day – one of the first real days of spring this year – and we’d decided the Regent’s Canal was the perfect spot to soak it up. So, it seemed, had half the population of Hackney.
“Did you hear what that woman said?” I asked Mark, already starting to feel my hackles rising.
“Yes,” Mark replied. “As it happens, I agree with her.”
As a cyclist – albeit one who rarely ever cycles along the canal towpath – this statement was like a red rag to a bull. Given that Mark is a lawyer – and therefore arguing a point is encoded into his DNA – the stage was set for a rather heated discussion.
For those unfamiliar with the area, the Regent’s Canal, and its accompanying towpath, wends its way through London, from Paddington, in the west, to Victoria Park and beyond, in the east. Constructed in the early decades of the nineteenth century as a means of transporting goods across London, it’s long since ceased to be a working canal; these days the only boats still using it are houseboats and the occasional waterbus.
In fact, these days the main form of transport used along the canal is the humble bike. It’s recognised as a shared use path, which means it can be used by both cyclists and pedestrians. In recent years it’s become a popular commuting route, largely – I suspect – because it’s off-road and therefore there’s no traffic to contend with.
Most of the time – on those dull grey mornings that this country specialises in – I would imagine there are few people out for a walk along the canal. I don’t know this for certain, having never commuted along it, but I’d hazard a guess that most of the time there are more cyclists than pedestrians using it. While it may be a quick, convenient route for someone on a bike, I doubt that’s the case for many people on foot.
For most pedestrians, the canal towpath is more the kind of place you’d go for a weekend wander – much like Mark and I were doing, in fact. And herein lies the problem. When the sun comes out, so does half of London. Any half-decent outdoor space will quickly become colonised – and the canal is more than half-decent. It’s one of my favourite spots to go when I want to escape London; despite its location in the heart of the city, it can feel like an entirely different world.
Given this, it’s no wonder that it’s becoming increasingly popular. On the weekend of our amble, the towpath was bustling with people: people, like us, out for a walk in the sunshine; people sitting outside one of the bars and cafes that are starting to pop up along the canal; people just sitting out, either with friends or alone with a book.
And then there were the people on bikes.
Even I had to agree there didn’t seem to be enough space for them. I certainly didn’t fancy trying to ride my bike through the throng – knowing my luck I’d end up in the canal.
But, as I argued to Mark, why is it automatically the people on bikes who are in the way and not the people on foot? If you used the canal towpath regularly, day in, day out, whatever the weather, you’d feel you had more right to be there than all these fair-weather folk. In fact, you might even think they were invading your space.
In the course of our conversation, Mark and I debated various different ways the situation could be handled: from introducing crowd control measures on the various entry and exit points from the towpath, to limiting bikes on days the temperature gets above a certain point. None of them were workable, and nor do they need to be. The canal towpath is a shared space, and will almost certainly stay that way (not least because any attempts to change it would doubtless be met with fierce opposition by my fellow cyclists).
It would be nice, though, if all these people out enjoying the sunshine by the canal could respect the fact that people on bikes have just as much right to be there as they have.