Canal & River Trust is the charity making life better by water. We care for over 2000 miles of towpaths in England and Wales which are mostly permissive paths, provided as open to everyone public spaces, free at the point of use, for the benefit of our nations. They are managed as ‘shared spaces with a pedestrian priority’.
When we became a Trust, we embedded our commitment to providing open public access by publishing our ‘Better Towpaths for Everyone’ Policy in 2014 which also included a Towpath Code and is endorsed by a range of partners including Sustrans and British Cycling. Shared use is now a key aspect of our individual and community ‘wellbeing’ proposition, and we estimate that 9 million people visit our waterways in a typical two week period.
In 2019/20, an average of 1.7 million of these people were cycling and approximately 6.5 million were pedestrians. In addition to walkers and cyclists, our towpaths accommodate a wide range of other users. This includes anglers and people accessing boats from the towpath (including canoeists, paddleboarders, rowers etc), as well as people just sitting and relaxing by water — all sharing this constrained space.
We don't specify speed limits on the towpath. We ask that everyone uses common sense, with primary consideration for pedestrians, those that are moving slowly or are stationary and those handling boats, as they are often the most vulnerable. When people are in a hurry, it is appropriate for them to find an alternative route.
E-Scooters are not mentioned in the Towpath Code or in the Better Towpaths for Everyone policy. This was created before the development of E-Scooters and when their use was not common place as they are now. This means that, by default, their use is currently prohibited, much as they currently are on roads, pavements and other public spaces where they are also illegal to use.
In the case of towpaths, E-Scooters are prohibited under the Trust’s General Canal Bye-Laws in the same way as any vehicles are which have not been given permission by us. We have given general permission for all bicycles and vehicles that are designed for, and used as, mobility aids. We also do give specific permission for some operational vehicles such as sit-on mowers, quad bikes and vans where towpaths allow and only on an individual basis to complete vital operational and engineering works.
The world has changed a great deal since these laws were created, however. Towpaths are now used in a hugely different way from how they were envisaged. What was originally designed for a horse pulling a boat to move cargo is now a vital part of the modern transport system and plays a major role helping everyone to be happier and healthier.
The Trust has seen a huge (and welcome) increase in towpath usage over recent years and during the Covid-19 pandemic there was significant increase in local use during lockdown within residential areas in urban conurbations, metropolitan boroughs, and former industrial towns as local people discovered new ways to travel and bring wellbeing into their lives.
As part of this, although we have very little data, we know that more people are using E-Scooters on our land, despite their exclusion under the law, very much as they are on pavements, roads and other public spaces. We also recognise that many people enjoy using them, they can act as a vital mobility aid and as transport solution they could play a key part in help build greener, healthier future for our nations.
To this end the Trust is now actively working with the Department of Transport, local authorities, national bodies and commercial operators to understand if (and how) E-Scooters can be used safely on towpaths. Many of our towpaths are over 200 years old, and now used for a multitude of sometimes competing uses so there will be a great deal to understand before we can make any changes. It’s also worth bearing in mind that as a charity the Trust does not currently have funds for making as such changes.
Above all else we know there will be obvious safety concerns, so until we can be satisfied that people will not be put at risk we will not be giving permission for E-Scooters to be used, except in controlled trials. In the meantime, therefore E-Scooter users should not use towpaths and use alternative routes instead.