Roadblock on The Regents Canal

For the purpose of this blog we’ll call him Brain. But let’s identify that he does work for British Waterways. Brian is about five foot ten and probably around fifty two years
old with a full grey beard and  paunch to match. He has glasses which tint with the sun.   Affable would be the description proffered by many.  Not I.  About ten days ago Brian was stood on The Regents canal towpath wearing an official British Waterways  coat.

 Like hundreds of cyclists each morning  I ride the canal but this morning as I approached a small canal bridge on the towpath the pathway was blocked,  full of people wearing   bright jackets  giving out leaflets and talking to bike riders. I did what bikers are instructed to do and in good time rang my bell.  Nobody moved so I  dismounted and worked my way through the bustling and obstructive crowd. “Brian” stood square on in my way talking to another cyclist. “excuse me” I asked.  Brian continued his discussion.   Unmoving he held up a leaflet for me to take. I held out my hand in the the manner to say no thanks and  said “no thanks”.   But brian didn’t move  “Would you take a leaflet” he replied still
holding the leaflet. “No thanks” I replied

“I noticed your attitude earlier ”  he said.  I paused to let his words settle. Did he just say that.  How in the few seconds of our communication after blocking my way could he come to the conclusion that it was I who had attitude. On what planet is that  valid. In what planet is that not offensive and confrontational.  I regard myself  a calm cyclist. Eventually a woman on a bike requested we sort it out so she can pass.  I noticed that Brian didn’t accuse her of having attitude. I simply left circumventing him.

It was a horrible way to start the day.  Today as I biked home from a wonderful day at
the Southbank I  saw him again but this time I got off my bike and walked up to him. I took off my glasses and asked  politely if I could speak to him.  After about five minutes I revealed my true reason. I wanted to speak to him to ask to whom I should make an official
complaint. “The director of British Waterways” he complied. 

We then embarked on a conversation. Here I feedback to him my concern that a young less articulate black man may have heard his “attitude” comment as disempowering and confrontation.  I felt this confrontational approach unsuitable and counter-productive.
“but this is why we are doing what we are doing” informed Brian. “It is to stop hot headed bikers from rushing on the towpath and to show them alternative routes.”

It was a flawed response.  “Everybody has got attitude of one kind or another” he furthered.  I wasn’t going to get into semantics. “Let’s just accept our  difference’s of opinion” he said. I think it was dawning on him – the gravity of the situation.  “I’ll accept nothing less than an apology Brian” I said.   “I apologise” he replied. I shook his hand  and got on my bike.   “Will you take one of our stickers”   Brian said. I agreed. And he  placed a luminescent sticker on my bike and I rode on.

3 thoughts on “Roadblock on The Regents Canal

  1. Dear Mr Sissay,
    Your blog has filtered its way to me and I have to thank you for that. In honesty it is well ‘spun’ but I find it interesting to see how I am perceived by other people and I’m pleased that your blog gives me the opportunity to fully explain my position and the apology I gave you.
    Let me start by restating some of what you know about me. I am one of the Towpath Rangers and I am employed by British Waterways to improve the towpath environment and the safety of the British Waterways customers who use the towpath. Please understand that I have come to British Waterways from an entirely different industry and I consider that I am hugely privileged to be allowed to work in the London canal network, I love the environment, the water and the greenery and the interaction with our customers and importantly I am passionate about cycling and in particular cycling on the towpath. One of my responsibilities is to promote the Towpath Code of conduct which is important necessary reading for all towpath users and is designed to improve their and your safety. That was the leaflet that you declined at our first meeting.
    I discovered this fabulous resource some decades ago I applied for and was granted my Towpath permit, which I prize, and which, thanks to TfL, I no longer require around the London network. TfL have been the catalyst enabling us to get more people on to the towpath, permits in London have been abolished and the towpath has been designated a cycleway and my passion extends to promoting the towpath and getting reasonable pedestrians and cyclists out there to enjoy this unique resource. But the number of cyclists on some lengths of the towpath has exploded and, if anything, British Waterways have been too successful.
    Opening up the towpaths to cyclists has had a backlash. Some stretches are overstressed and there are now an enormous number of complaints from other users, joggers, anglers and particularly pedestrians. Pedestrians continue to have priority on the towpath and that includes me at events, but considerate cycling is permitted provided the requirements of the Code of Conduct are followed. A lot, perhaps even most of cyclists who use the towpaths are sensible, reasonable considerate individuals and on reflection I think you fit that category. But there are some cyclists who are quite the opposite; they are arrogant, aggressive, bully boys (no girls so far) and a major accident waiting to happen. The towpaths weren’t designed as major cycleways and were definitely not designed for that type of cyclist. Despite some lengths of the towpath being over stressed there is, probably correctly, major resistance from heritage groups to have the towpaths radically changed to accommodate more cyclists.
    One part of the towpath that we are aware is overstressed is the section from the Islington Tunnel to Victoria Park, it has had more than it’s fair share of accidents, two bicycle accidents have been reported to us in two weeks and it has more than its share of the arrogant bully boys. It’s for that reason we have instigated a campaign to encourage the problem cyclists away from the towpath. We have events each week designed to slow cyclists, hence the event at Kingsland Basin, we have researched a parallel route to the towpath and we have had a map of that route printed and distributed. The route was trialled during Bike Week and you witnessed the towpath artwork which we commissioned to raise the profile of the campaign and which gained coverage in the national and the international media.
    I treat all British Waterways customers equally. I attempt to treat all people completely equally and I usually succeed. I apologised to you because on reflection I thought there had been a misunderstanding, although it’s omitted from your blog, I’m sure you remember that section of our second conversation? I think I made a mistake and I am big enough to admit that. I’d like to be quite clear that I did not apologise because I treated you differently to anyone else and your being articulate has no significance.
    To conclude, thank you because whether intended it or not, you included a couple of compliments in your blog and you are almost correct I am a six foot lump. My paunch is completely paid for and I have been immensely lucky, I have travelled the world and I have enjoyed ever moment and every mouthful that has made me what I am today. I enjoy what I am doing now and what I have done, I have great fun in what I do and I’m now trying to make a positive difference and in a small way I have already succeeded in that.
    I’d like to think you also enjoy life and make a positive difference? I look forward to our next meeting and if you are not fully conversant with the Towpath Code you could do worse than reading a copy. My best wishes to you.

  2. To Brian I would say accusing a black person of “having an attitude” is like accusing a woman of being aggressive or not smiling enough. It's an historical thing a form of branding and it's only human to object to the branding and you were right to apologise.
    To Lem I would say that I walk to and from work along the tow path in Hackney during rush hour at both ends of the day, it used to be a lovely walk but in the last few years it has become a stressful experience because of the commuter bikes. The two tings policy, while well intentioned, is often useless as most cyclists seem to have no common sense, they ring their bells and plow on regardless even under the humpbacked bridges, so walkers either have to flatten themselves against the wall (or jump into the canal). An education programme is needed for cyclists: ringing your bell does not give right of way.
    And to both of you lets face it, there are just too many bikes on the tow path during rush hours for it too work amicably. I have counted an average of 1 every 6 seconds between Broadway market and Kingsland Road for 10 working days 8-9am and 5.30-6.30pm. Since the number of bikes is increasing and since BW seem to be paving over the grassy strips next to the canal, the poor ducks and geese have no longer any where safe to sit. Never mind if they had, because we and our children couldn't get near them anyway for whizzing bikes.
    This is all bad enough, but I spoke to a man surveying the tow path yesterday and to my horror, he told me of plans to replace the historic humpbacked bridges to give cyclists more room.
    If this is true, can you explain to me how this fits with one of BW stated main objectives to protect the heritage of the waterways? These bridges have the marks of tow ropes from the early 1800s onwards grooved into them. Also how does BW plan to safeguard the rights and tranquility of the walker, especially those with prams or sometimes wondering, wandering children, are we to continue to be forced onto pavements next to busy polluted roads to drop our children and continue on to work?
    Don't misunderstand, I am all for people taking to their bikes rather than cars and for most of the day and at weekends they are not a problem, I for one think we should be moving towards a car free city (except essential services, disabled, and a restricted number of taxis and delivery vehicles) this would free up the roads for dedicated commuter cycle routes rather than using our canals just because they are there. Also in Hackney/Islington at least, cycle routes could be built along some of the disused land beside our overground railways and perhaps even aerial routes in some areas. There is a proposed parallel on-road route as you mention but is this well publicised and is it a pleasant journey?
    Rather than squabbling when cars are the main enemy it is important to unite to make the London boroughs and the Mayor do their job and create an overall strategy on where bike traffic can safely go in London. In this area the sheer number of commuter bikes already means the towpath is not a solution. It is impacting dramatically on local peoples enjoyment of the canal and our quality of life. You could just go on pretending that a bit of politeness, some signs and a few tings will make it alright but these are just putting plasters on a festering sore. I think if you carried out a survey of the also ever increasing number of walkers during rush hours you would realise there is a boiling frustration and anger out there, both at the number of cyclists and the constant ringing in what was once a tranquil place.
    BW has been landed with a huge problem and this situation will only get worse and at the end of the day BW will have to show its commitment to neighborhoods by making it clear to government that the towpath is not suitable as a commuter cycle route and that no matter what Sustans does it never will be suitable without sacrificing the very qualities BW was set up to protect. They should follow this up by instigating a ban bikes from it between Victoria Park and Islington during rush hours: 7-9am and 5-7pm, so they have to use the parallel route, with a hefty fine (like the dog poo fine) and employing more rangers.
    Lets try to make sure our precious towpath doesn't continue to be used a race track for those whose only interest in the canal is a means of getting to work. It's a recipe for disaster.
    yours, with hope

  3. Hello,
    I agree with Ruth's comments on this matter. Cycling doesn't work on this stretch of the canal between 7 – 9 and 5 – 7. There are just too many idiots who seem incapable of cycling safely or considerately. I've been cycling from Dalston to the west end every day for the last 12 years and used to use the canal but made the decision 5 years ago to stop using that route. It was just too congested and not a pleasant ride. I think it is far more dangerous than using the roads.
    I continue to cycle everyday, I am a committed cyclist, but am also firmly of the belief that cyclists have ruined that stretch of the canal for other users, making walking up the canal during rush hour a stressful and irritating pastime and that the two tings approach solves nothing.

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