Work on Grand Union Canal, Birmingham. Credit: Jonathan Berg

+ Work on Grand Union Canal, Birmingham as part of the £6m investment in cycle towpaths is a step in the right direction.

Why not prioritise canal towpaths for cyclists? They are currently underused and would offer an opportunity for several UK cities to develop safe cycling infrastructure.

In the UK many major cities including Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool have canal systems that run into the heart of the city centre. With relatively little investment these naturally green routes can be turned into effective cycle highways allowing people to cycle safely, separate from road traffic, in and out of cities.

Change in emphasis

The existing towpaths are used by cyclists but tend to be narrow and often in poor condition. This does not encourage use by less able or less enthusiastic cyclists. Look at the Netherlands in contrast. There, the canal system is often linked with cycle paths. These are wide enough to allow two-way traffic to flow efficiently and safely. This sort of inherently flat and safe route into the city encourages residents to get on their bikes.

Canals were built to support the industrial revolution in the 19th century and fell into disuse as the railways, and then the roads, took over. Today the canal system is still used by boats, although this is largely just for recreational use. So why shouldn’t they be adapted to fit 21st century requirements, as long as we can retain their historic value? Emphasis needs to change so that canal towpaths are attractive and accessible to all cyclists.

Design linked to use

For example, in Birmingham, which it’s often said has more canals than Venice, cycle towpath initiatives have been used for some years. This includes Sustrans’ National Cycle Network route five going north and the current investment on the Grand Union Canal to the south. 

While attractive to cycling enthusiasts, these initiatives do not do enough to attract ordinary cyclists, such as people who want to ride a few miles to work. A greater emphasis on design linked to intended use could achieve so much more. This could include widening the towpaths to allow for two-way traffic more easily and safety measures to ensure people don’t ride into the water.

The UK may be uniquely blessed with 19th century canals. But throughout the world there is similar transport infrastructure that is unused that could be adapted. As the population of our cities increases and space is less available, we will need to become more resourceful. 

Change of use should become commonplace in the design and planning of infrastructure such as the canal networks. However, it needs more innovative thinking in the design and execution phases if this old infrastructure is to be successfully given a new purpose.