The Union Canal path is one of Edinburgh's primary traffic-free cycle routes. It can be the ideal way to reach various parts of the city whilst avoiding motor traffic. However, I don't always use it because of a number of issues that I will discuss in this blog. These issues highlight why the Union Canal cannot always be a part of the solution to providing segregated cycling infrastructure for everyday journeys.
In a previous blog I wrote about my cycle commute using Colinton Road. The Union Canal path follows much of this road and it provides a traffic-free alternative, but I don't always find that it works for me and this is why:
1. Poor access onto the canal
If you are lucky enough to live right next to, or very close to the canal path then its easy to get on it. My closest access point is via the disused railway path that travels through the famous Colinton Tunnel. This railway path goes through Colinton Dell, alongside the Water of Leith and is a beautiful place for a leisure bike ride. However, for most of the winter months it is a muddy mess that is difficult and inconvenient to cycle through, particularly if you need to get somewhere in good time and you really do not want your bike to be messed up by all that mud.
I can use another access point just off Craiglockhart Road North and this avoids the muddy path. However, to get to Craiglockhart Road North you need to cycle on Colinton Road, which can be busy with traffic. You can avoid some of Colinton Road by taking the quieter roads through the housing streets of Craiglockhart, but it is convoluted, takes longer and it involves trying to cross over the busy Craiglockhart Avenue. Once you reach the canal access point you will find that there are steps. That's okay for some, but not everyone will manage to get their bike down these steps.
2. Slateford Viaduct
If I do access the canal from the disused railway path I will come across one of the canal's main pinch points, the Slateford Viaduct. This has an extremely narrow cobblestone path. The signage here states that you should not cycle on it and walk across with your bike, although some people do cycle it. It is too narrow for people travelling in opposite directions to pass each other without one person coming to a complete stop and pulling right into the edge. There is always a feeling that someone is going to fall into the water. Crossing the viaduct a few times a year for a leisure trip along the canal can be a novelty, but for everyday cycling for commuting or other purposes it is inconvenient and slows down the journey time.
3. Blind spots when cycling under bridges
When cycling on the Union Canal there are a large number of bridges that the path passes beneath. Many of these are pinch points with a blind spot that means you cannot see if there is another person approaching in the opposite direction. A collision is likely without the use of a bicycle bell. Not every person that uses the canal has a bell on their bike and some people might not hear it if they are listening to music. I slow right down at these bridges because of the risk of a collision, but I have seen many people on bicycles going too fast. The path under some of these bridges narrows and some have cobblestones which adds to the challenge of clearing these bridges safely.
4. The volume of people using the Canal path
The closer you are to the city centre the busier the path can be. It is extremely popular with joggers, dog walkers, other bike riders, families and anybody who fancies getting out and about for fresh air. The path is very narrow in places and this can make it a challenge to get anywhere quickly on a bicycle. The right thing to do is to slow down on this path and respect the other users. The huge number of people that enjoy this space and the large number of people using it for cycling is a clear message that the city needs more spaces like this. Everyone is cramming onto the few traffic-free green spaces that we have in the city.
5. The fast cyclists
I notice that there are some people using bicycles on the canal path that are in a rush and rarely slow down for anything. I guess they are using it for their commute and want to be able to go as fast as they would on a road. They will ring their bell and expect everyone else to move out of their path. If someone like this is behind me and I am taking precautions like slowing down at the bridges or slowing down for pedestrians I always feel that they are getting impatient. And if someone like this is travelling in the opposite direction I fear the possibility of a collision, particularly at the narrowest parts of the path.
These are the reasons that I do not always use the canal path for my everyday journeys. I think it largely depends on where you live and where you are travelling to as to how useful and convenient the canal path is, and if you mind dealing with things like the bridges and cobbles.
The Union Canal opened in 1822 and the purpose of the path was to allow horses to pull the boats along. It was never designed with cycle commuting in mind. It is wonderful to be able to travel by bicycle along this canal and I highly recommend it for leisure cycling. I feel fortunate to have the canal path as an outdoor space in my city. However, it cannot be depended upon as part of the plan to provide segregated cycling infrastructure for efficient, everyday journeys.
How about you? Do you use the canal path for your everyday bicycle journeys? Leave me a comment below.
My name is Colin Baird and I want to see all of Scotland by bicycle.