Saturday afternoon by the canal

Enjoying the sunshine by the Regent's Canal

Enjoying the sunshine by the Regent’s Canal

“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.

15 thoughts on “Saturday afternoon by the canal

  1. I have the same thing, the Burke Gilman trail. During the winter, its all ours, but on a sunny day, people come from miles. It is wider than yours, though, but considerate cyclists slow down and respect the pedestrians. Considerate pedestrians move over when the cyclists signal with bell or voice.

    But when either are inconsiderate then it goes down hill quickly. You said it, it all comes down to respect.

  2. Great post, 30 something lass!

    I think it’s an issue the world over. I’m going to a meeting tonight on this very issue here in the City of Melbourne as there is a beautiful area in the city along the river with restaurants and bars, called Southbank and it is shared by pedestrians and cyclists. It is a great place to cycle because it’s very direct and flat. And that’s why people like to walk and just be there too. However, it doesn’t work very well at the moment as no one really knows what they are doing or what they *should* be doing.

    I think your use of the word ‘right’ several times is really interesting. Does a cyclist have a ‘right’ to cycle even if it is going to be an inconvenience for most of the peple there (as in, the pedestrians)? I hate to go all John Rawls’ on you, but maybe there are times when a cyclist has to dismount and ‘pedestrainise’ along with their fellow walkers instead of sticking to their guns and blithely trying to bike.

    And one last thing – I go out of my way not to scare or annoy people on my bike, whether it be in shared space or elsewhere. I never want to be the cause of someone saying, “f***ing cyclists”, but instead want people to see me riding and think, “I wish I was on a bike”.

    • Thanks! Hope the meeting went well. I think it’s always difficult to negotiate shared spaces. In an ideal world everyone will be considerate and respectful of other people’s right to use that space – but there are always those who don’t, and who expect everyone to move out of their way. This applies just as much to the groups of pedestrians walking side-by-side, taking up the entire width of the path, and who won’t move no matter how much you ding your bell at them, as it does to the cyclists who don’t use their bells or who cycle too fast.

      Anyway, I think you’re right in that there are definitely times when it’s better to get off your bike (although if you have your bike with you, you actually take more space than if you were riding it…) but I’d like to keep that as a decision to make for myself. I don’t think the solution for overcrowded shared space should be simply to tell people not to cycle.

  3. There are some very good points made in your post and in the comments above. Ultimately I think it’s about respect for each other. In an ideal world each every path would be split into two lanes; one for cyclists and one for pedestrians so we could all use it in harmony. In the case of a canal path though it’s very difficult to split it into two lanes because of how narrow it is and safety has to prevail.

    About to go and check out the other lovely cycling blogs you have listed over the right as I’ve not come across some of those ones yet. Great to see some I’m not familiar with 🙂

    • Thanks for commenting. In fact, Mark and I discussed whether splitting the canal path into two lanes would work. We agree it wouldn’t, and not just because it’s too narrow. Mark said pedestrians wouldn’t respect the cycle lane – which says a lot, really.

      I haven’t updated my list of other cycling blogs for ages, so some of them may be out of date. And there are others (like yours!) that I haven’t added on there. Must get around to doing that soon.

  4. 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.

    Hmm, interesting. I confess I sort of agree with you, but how about the passage I quote above, if you swapped the word bike with car and path with road I imagine the average motorist could say the same thing while harrumphing.

    • Indeed. Until we get dedicated space that’s just for cycling, I suspect there will be a lot of harrumphing going on. However, in the meantime I’d really like it if everyone could just learn to share (and play nicely?).

  5. It’s a difficult one because it is just a small space, so both parties are forced to get along and respect each other. It’s a valuable lesson in tolerance! It was probably far more congested when it was a working canal, what with horses and the like.
    Thanks for visiting me earlier. 🙂

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