Your questions about our questions, answered!

Since the end of 2016 we've been running a survey to find out what you think about walking and cycling on our towpaths, and the response has been huge. We've had well over 3,500 responses so far. See the bottom of this page to find out how you can still take part.

Busy towpaths in Birmingham Busy towpaths in Birmingham

Having read some of the responses, it’s clear that there’s a huge interest in this subject and there’s a really wide range of views too. It’s been fantastic to get your comments and ideas; it really helps us to understand how to do our job better.

It’s also been the case that many people have asked us many questions about what we do through the survey too, so we thought we’d put together some answers for the most frequently asked ones. Here they are:

Is the cycling or running speed on the towpaths really an issue?

Most people use common sense, but yes it’s one of the main things people contact us about. In truth, because we only know what people tell us, we don’t really know how big a problem it really is, or even if it’s changing, but in many senses this doesn’t actually matter. It’s about personal safety and not spoiling the experience for others, so even if one person is hurt or is scared, that’s a bad thing and it’s something we all need to work together to avoid.

The one thing we do know, however, is that towpaths aren’t the only shared space that has issues like this and it’s a sad fact of life that there’s always a few people who do daft things sometimes. (And we can all be daft, of course.)

Do you want to get rid of cyclists and runners on the towpath?

No, if fact we’d like to see more of them. Towpaths are for everyone to enjoy, the more the merrier. That does mean, however, that everyone’s got to use their common sense and be nice to each other. If some don’t, others feel excluded. It’s as simple as that and that’s why we’re running our Share the Space, Drop your Pace campaign.

Why don’t you bring back the licence for cycling on the towpath?

It’s amazing how many people ask for this! We don’t think it’s really relevant for today’s towpaths, which people tell us they want free and open for everyone to use. The licence that British Waterways used to have related to the bylaw which says you need permission to use a vehicle on a towpath and that’s still the case.

These days, however, we give general permission for bikes and mobility aids as long as folk are respectful of each other and the towpath code. The reality is, we don’t have the resources to police a license (as British Waterways didn’t in fact) and as there’s no evidence to say it would encourage better behaviour, it would be pretty pointless. There is some evidence, however, to say that it would put some people off using towpaths in the first place, so it’s not something we’re considering.

Why is there not a speed limit on the towpath?

This was in the survey so here’s the answer, as a charity, Canal & River Trust doesn't have the resources, or the legal powers, to enforce speed limits and as far as we are aware there’s never been a case where anyone has been able to enforce a speed limit on people running or cycling. Although some people do use apps and other gadgets to log their speed, these aren’t mandatory like a speedo on a car.

There isn’t any evidence to say that an unenforced speed limit would be treated as a 'good guide' for moderating pace but there is a school of thought that if there was a limit some visitors might treat this as a ‘speed they are entitled to do’ which would be wrong. Not all towpaths are the same, so it wouldn’t be possible to have one limit which would suit all locations at all times.

This survey seems biased, are you trying to get support for barriers?

No, but so many people ask for them to be installed, we thought we should ask people what they thought. In truth we’d rather not put them up and we have no plans to add more, but we can’t rule them out either. There are some places where ensuring safety might mean that it’s an option but these are very few and far between. As towpaths are generally narrow spaces it’s rarely possible to install such things without limiting access for others or introducing other hazards. It’s also worth bearing in mind that there’s not any evidence (that we’re aware of) to say that they have an overall effect on speeds, other than at that single point where it’s installed.

How many accidents involving cyclists occur on the towpath each year?

We only know about what’s reported to us obviously, but considering we have 368 million visits a year the numbers are very small. Last year (2015) we were told about 11 collisions that involved cyclists and, thankfully, only one of those led to an injury. That being said, we think that accidents are only part of the problem – the worry of an accident is a big concern too and we know this can sometimes put people off visiting canals, especially at busy times. This is why we run the Share the Space, Drop your Pace campaign and it’s also where everyone can play their part by making sure they’re more mindful of others.

I think there should be more signage about this in my area, how do I report this to you?

Please email your local team – you can find the details on the local offices webpages. We are working hard on this, however, and we’ve got a national project to improve signs throughout. Better signage is actually a major part of our better towpaths for everyone policy.

I think the towpath in our area has a lot of potholes and needs some attention, where can I report this?

This is almost the same answer as above – please contact your local team. The better towpaths for everyone policy also aims to provide better infrastructure too, although this is a more difficult and expensive thing to do, obviously. This is why we work in partnership with local and national authorities (like Sustrans, TfL and CCAG, for example) to fund and deliver great new towpaths for all the many uses that people have for them today.

Why do you improve towpaths? Doesn’t this just mean that cyclists go extra fast?

While some people might go a little bit faster, when we improve towpaths we do it in a way that reduces conflict and accidents, not increase them. The fact is a wider towpath without pot holes, muddy patches and overhanging hedges and trees is safer for everyone – not least because visitors don’t have to spend their time looking at the ground and can pay more attention to what’s ahead of them instead! You can learn a bit more about how we improve towpaths by watching this video.

What should I do if I am involved in an accident with a cyclist or walker on the towpath?

In most cases If someone is seriously injured it is more likely to be a civil matter as opposed to a criminal one, but, if you suspect a crime has been committed (such as failing to stop and report an accident for example) you should contact the police. They are the best people to deal with such things and are ultimately responsible for public order.

What incidents should I report to Canal & River Trust?

Any that you think might be relevant to us. To be honest, we’d rather people told us things than didn’t and some things might not seem that important, but turn out to be in the long run, so don’t be shy! There’s 2000 miles of towpaths, and we can’t be everywhere, so it’s great to have so many eyes and ears to let us know what’s going on.

Would the Canal & River Trust be interested in getting involved in the wider conversation about cycling infrastructure?

In many respects we already are. Our towpaths already play a major part in the NCN network (roughly 25% of it in fact) and in London, Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham they are a considerable part of the growing efforts to provide more sustainable travel, benefiting from local funding for improvements as a result.

We also work directly with local authorities in areas with busy towpaths to help provide safer, better, alternative routes for cyclists on adjacent roads too. This has led to many small but vital improvements, such as those we’ve seen in Hackney along the Regent’s Canal.

Furthermore, in the area of behaviour change and encouraging visitors to use shared spaces considerately – put simply – we’re not aware of anyone else doing more. We’re often approached by other authorities who have similar concerns and we’ve made a huge effort to share our experiences and learn from others too.  

Hopefully this answers your question too, but if not, please don’t be shy… email us!

And if you’d like to know more about this you can read our better towpaths for everyone policy on this too.

Join us for a Q&A session

Our Twitter Q&A will be taking place on our Twitter account @CanalRiverTrust with @TowpathRanger on Tuesday 17 January from 12pm. To take part just tweet your questions to @CanalRiverTrust and include the hashtag #SharetheSpace

If you don’t have Twitter or can’t join us on Tuesday, you can still send your #SharetheSpace questions to us anytime.

Last date edited: 13 January 2017