Boris’s canal vision: what’s to be gained?

From the recent #Space4cycling protests and the weekend’s hugely popular Ride London, one thing is clear: London cyclists need space on the roads.

The Mayor and Cycling Commissioner believe disused railway lines and canal towpaths are part of the answer.

Quietways are part of the Mayor’s cycling vision, designed to tempt Londoners that don’t fall into the quick and the brave category onto their bikes, and canal towpaths, it was recently announced, will form part of these routes.

Meanwhile riding closed roads through Surrey during the weekend’s Ride London 100 Boris waxed lyrical about abandoned rural rail tracks: “As I cycled along I elaborated a bucolic vision: of a gigantic Rooseveltian scheme to get tens of thousands of young people into work – building a beautiful rural filigree of cycle superhighways, and making use of the old Beeching railway lines. At a stroke, we would allow everyone to do what I did yesterday, and enjoy our amazing country in a completely different way.”

In the countryside Beeching railway lines may form useful links between towns, as Johnson suggested, and successful examples include the Bristol-Bath railway path, though as it’s a shared path cyclists need to ride slowly – it’s not supposed to be a fast commuter route.
In cities it is a similar matter with shared towpaths.

There are 100 miles of canals in London alone. They are traffic-free and provide direct routes across the city, but the problem is the ones that are most useful to cyclists are already crowded, if not at capacity.

The Regent’s Canal is a case in point: during peak hours the UK’s busiest towpath carries 500 cyclists and pedestrians per hour in places. Walking here is intimidating at times as some ride far too quickly, while for people on bikes, it can be frustratingly slow.

People use canals to wind down by the water after a busy day or week, away from the traffic. According to the Canal & River Trust there was a 21% increased use of greenways, including canals, in 2012.

London’s towpath ranger for the Canal & River Trust, Dick Vincent, once told me the fact people crammed onto a narrow path by an open body of water in such numbers was a damning indictment of the state of London’s roads.

London’s Cycling Commissioner, Andrew Gilligan, while announcing canals will be used for Quietways, admitted that in places which are already at capacity, canals aren’t an option.
Where the Mayor’s Quietways encourage leisure cyclists there must also be alternatives for those who need to get to work in reasonable time.

The Canal and River Trust, according to Brian Fender, its Chairman, welcomed new cycle routes and investment in the towpaths but added: ” cycling will only be promoted where suitable.”

He’s right: the more quiet, safe options less confident riders have to cycle, the more people will be tempted out on bikes. What we have to make certain, though, is that real-world alternatives exist for people who use the bike as a fast, efficient means of getting around. This means reallocating road space to make streets pleasant for people on foot and bikes, and not just squashing more people onto narrow paths away from the roads, however attractive the view.

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