London's cycle commuter boom causes problems on Regents Canal towpath

Canal and River Trust aims to create on-road peak time routes to ease congestion as up to 500 cyclists an hour use narrow shared use towpath

by Sarah Barth   December 30, 2012  

Regent's Canal London (photo: Caroline Ford)

Cyclists have been asked not to use towpaths along the Regents Canal to commute to work as it’s not deemed the right environment to cycle at speed.

The Canal and River Trust says that up to 500 cyclists an hour are commuting on the tow path every day, but other users, like pedestrians and dog walkers, had to share the space and now they are looking to create safe on road routes as diversions for fast riding peak time cyclists.

A spokesman told the BBC there was limited capacity and the path was narrow.

"The capital's canals and canals generally are enjoying this huge renaissance and more people now than any other time in their history are using them for leisure and commuting," he said.

The trust said the main hotspots for commuter cyclists were westbound routes along the City Road basin in Islington and at Victoria Park during the morning rush hour.

"We don't have many people reporting collisions to us, but anecdotally, we do hear some stories," she said.

A spokeswoman from Living Streets, which campaigns for pedestrians and public spaces, said the organisation supported proposals to create parallel cycle routes along the canal.

She added: "Narrow, busy urban canal towpaths do not lend themselves easily to catering for pedestrians and cyclists.

"In tackling this issue we hope pedestrian priority will be upheld, while affording cyclists safe accessible routes."

Ian Shacklock, chair of the Friends of the Regent’s Canal, said that although he supported the canals being a safe leisure area, he thought people chose to ride there because they felt the roads were unsafe.

But it's not all bad news for cyclists. The Canal and River Trust has appointed Rosie Tharp as strategic cycle routes coordinator. Her job will be to create new east-west routes similar to the towpath routes for cyclists to use safely.

She told the Ham & High newspaper: “London’s canals are havens, a place to slow down and escape the noise of the city.

“At peak times, however, it gets very busy and some pedestrians and cyclists are overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of commuter cyclists.

“I will be working with local boroughs and cyclists to develop better, safer road routes for commuters so those wanting to go fast can have a safe and attractive alternative to the towpath.”

Two years ago, British Waterways teamed up with etiquette experts Debrett’s to devise a ‘Two Tings’ campaign encouraging towpath users on canal towpaths to be considerate towards each other.

As part of the initiative, Debrett’s drew up a five-point plan for harmonious towpath usage:

  • Cyclists must be aware of pedestrians at all times. Remember that pedestrians have priority – ring two tings on your bell to warn them that you are approaching. Pass people carefully and slowly, and never cycle too quickly.
  • Pedestrians should allow cyclists to pass wherever possible. Don’t forget to listen out for the two tings warning you that a cyclist is approaching.
  • Both cyclists and pedestrians should be considerate to each other, as well as both being extra careful at bends and entrances along the towpath. A smile and polite ‘thank you’ is courteous if someone has let you pass.
  • Respect the environment and the waterway’s natural beauty. Never drop any litter.
  • Dog walkers must always clean up after their dog.

In May last year, the Canal & River Trust launched a new campaign, Share the Space, Drop Your Pace, asking all users of towpaths in London to be considerate towards each other and adhere to a new Greenways Code, which states:

Share the space 

Consider other people and the local environment whenever you’re on a Greenway. Remember some people may move less predictably, for example young children or those with visual or mobility impairments.

Drop your pace 

Considerate sharing of the limited towpath space is the key. Jogging and cycling are welcome, but drop your pace in good time and let people know you are approaching by ringing a bell or politely calling out before waiting to pass slowly.

Pedestrians have priority

Towpaths are ‘Greenways’ or shared use routes where pedestrians have priority and vehicles are generally excluded.

Be courteous to others
A smile can go a long way. Abusive or threatening behaviour is not acceptable and should be reported to the Police.

Follow signs 

They are there for the safety of everyone. Cyclists should dismount where required and use common sense in busy or restricted areas, recognising that pedestrians have priority.

Give way to oncoming people beneath bridges

Whether they are on foot or bike and be extra careful at bends and entrances where visibility is limited.

When travelling in large groups

Especially if you are running or cycling, please use common sense and give way to others.

Try to avoid wearing headphones 

As this makes you less aware of your surroundings possible hazards and others sharing the same space.

Keep dogs on a short lead 

And clean-up after them. Dog fouling is very unpleasant and is a health hazard.

At all times, keep children close to you 

And encourage them to learn and follow the Greenway Code for Towpaths.

15 user comments

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As a pedestrian I've lost my rag once or twice with cyclists on the canal path, who seem to think they have right of way, or that you have to walk on the left "because it's a road".

Maybe Boris can cook up some plans to built elevated bike lanes above the canal.

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CycleLove's picture

posted by CycleLove [9 posts]
30th December 2012 - 15:22


The main issue/cause of problems I have had on canal towpaths is geese, those things will not give you any right of way and will not cede any ground. They always seem to position themselves so you are water side of them as well, the tricky little bleeders.

Not a lot of options with them though, other than slowing right down and hoping for the best.

posted by farrell [1662 posts]
30th December 2012 - 15:41


The Canal and River Trust need to apply pressure to Boris, as this is just a symptom of the poor cycle routes across north/east London.

posted by a.jumper [770 posts]
30th December 2012 - 16:54


a.jumper wrote:
The Canal and River Trust need to apply pressure to Boris, as this is just a symptom of the poor cycle routes across north/east London.

Conflict will inevitably occur when traffic levels increase, particularly with the disparate speeds of bikes and peds. Expecting cyclists to slow and pedestrians to voluntarily and consistently restrict themselves to one part of a facility is pie in the sky, a hopeless dream.

This conflict is one of the reasons I don't generally use shared facilities, along with the proliferation of broken glass, dog sh*t, poorly placed mid-path singposts and sudden endings, usually where a cyclist has to join a stream of motorised traffic or get off and walk. They're invariably a shoddy compromise, token facilities put in place by councils who want to claim they're doing something while really doing nothing because they don't want to install anything that prioritises peds and cyclists over motorised traffic.

Simon E's picture

posted by Simon E [2184 posts]
30th December 2012 - 19:16


500 cyclists per hour, and a few dog walkers per hour, but they ask the cyclists to cycle elsewhere. Perhaps if the dog walkers don't like cyclists then they should choose a less busy time of day.

The canals where built as a transport mechanism.

The canal paths are pretty rubbish for cycling on, the roads are worse.

posted by kie7077 [620 posts]
30th December 2012 - 19:28


I think they're asking cyclists to take it easy and look out for pedestrians, as they would be the weaker party in a collision. And pedestrians to look out for bikes.

One could rephrase your point for london roads, where there are far more cars per hr than bikes.
Perhaps if we don't like cars on the road, we should chose a less busy time of day to ride?

posted by gio71 [10 posts]
30th December 2012 - 19:53


If I'm in any sort of hurry I would never use the regents canal path, it's just too busy at most times of the day. But if I have the time to cruise along slowly it is a nice place to ride.

posted by mrkeith119 [88 posts]
31st December 2012 - 3:19


No need to worry! Stay calm! Bo&Ba will come to the rescue. Boris and Banks will provide Aquabikes! No more discusions about trouble with bridges - go aquabike! Big Grin

I once walked from Camden Market to Kings Cross along the Channel, for riding I would pick another way for sure.


Dr. Ko

posted by Dr. Ko [109 posts]
31st December 2012 - 8:16


Think people should stop having pop at cyclists at every opportunity. Have a go at Horse riders instead, No road tax (whatever that is!!) insurance, MOT, License etc! Big Grin

Do think that police should fine night riding without lights, FAST pavement cycling and unroadworthy bikes. I've seen bikes on the road with no working brake!

posted by jimmyd [100 posts]
31st December 2012 - 11:12


I've only ridden along the canal once and frankly I won't be again. It's too slow, too narrow, and why people walk straight down the middle of the path is a mystery to me.

Also the stretches where the path slopes towards the water are dangerous; I know that tyres grip at quite serious angles when cornering but all it takes is a couple of wet leaves and I'm taking a drink of duck-juice.

Boardman CX Team '14 | Cannondale CAAD8 '12 (written off, SMIDSY) | Scott Sportster '08

Gizmo_'s picture

posted by Gizmo_ [1086 posts]
31st December 2012 - 11:20


Too much stick and not enough carrot. It's like the calls for cyclists to be banned from A roads.

I don't ride up the A2 in Kent because the stretch I use has a brilliant cyclepath that is generally wide enough to negate the fact it's shared use. Most commuter cyclists wouldn't use the towpath if there was a suitable, safe alternative!

CraigS's picture

posted by CraigS [135 posts]
31st December 2012 - 18:22


@CraigS: "Most commuter cyclists wouldn't use the towpath if there was a suitable, safe alternative!" - yes, indeed; the problem is that the burden of providing a safe alternative route across London really shouldn't fall on the Canal & River Trust, an underfunded charity. The Regents towpath is suffering as a result of the failure of London councils to provide proper infrastructure.

Doctor Fegg's picture

posted by Doctor Fegg [142 posts]
1st January 2013 - 7:30


As a narrowboat resident on the Regents, cyclist and business owner (Cycle Systems Academy is on Eagle Wharf) I can see much I agree with above.

Fact is the space is too narrow for all users to use safely with current levels of 'traffic', especially many users are rude and disrespectful irrespective of their method of propulsion. I personally find the joggers the worst.

CRT have been going on about this alternative route for years, but the councils won't ever give space over from cars as would be needed to provide a similarly safe route for cyclists.

Sean L's picture

posted by Sean L [10 posts]
2nd January 2013 - 10:21


Let's look on the bright side. This is actually good news! Cycle numbers are increasing and causing a hopefully short-term capacity problem, which someone is actively trying to remedy by getting alternative infrastructure provided. This is how we get better infrastructure -- sometimes by its proactively being provided, sometimes by the need becoming apparent and being addressed.

I agree that 'the burden ... shouldn't fall on the Canal & River Trust', but it is to be hoped that what is provided is better for cycling than canal towpaths are. Most are too narrow for commuting speeds. Perhaps local cyclists can get together with the Trust to campaign with the local authorities.

posted by arowland [109 posts]
2nd January 2013 - 17:08

1 Like

A shoulder-nudge into the water solves the problem.

posted by Cauld Lubter [122 posts]
4th January 2013 - 12:07