The Union Canal provides a flat and relatively direct route into Edinburgh from the West. It’s free from traffic lights and cars making it a popular route and potentially a great way of getting into Edinburgh.
However there are several problems with the route with a summary of the worst below:
- Very narrow
- Crowded with dogs, walkers and runners
- Blind corners at bridges
- Narrow crossings
- Poor surface
- Killer bollards
- Dark at night
So why is a route with such potential being neglected? With relatively little money the route could be upgraded to a wide smooth direct route into the city, catering for both pedestrians and cyclists and used for leisure and commuting. Below are specific examples.
The first issue for me is the worst but for the UK is not unusual: Bollards. At the end of the union canal there is a bollard which looks like it has been designed to castrate cyclists. Perhaps the hope was that by stopping them from breeding there will be less cyclists and thereby removing the need of spending money. The picture below shows the offending bollard.
I’m sure the person who designed the bollard was mighty chuffed with themselves for it allowed easy lifting and perhaps adding additional hoops meant extra bollards were not added. Putting aside the funny side, this is dangerous. If someone were to come along at night and not see the loops they could ride into it. Heck you might not even see it in the day time. Cheap solution: Angle grinder and repaint in bright orange. Best solution: replace with orange plastic bollard which can bend when struck.
The second worst piece on the route is the Slateford Aqueduct over the Water of Leith, or as I like to call it the Bridge of Khazad-dum for if you waver you will fall. During its day it was no doubt a mammoth achievement and still to this day looks like a solid piece of infrastructure. However we’re now in the 21st century and things have moved on. Solving this issue would prove difficult but considering the volume of traffic (yes peds and cyclists are traffic) it’s much needed. There are various solutions (1, cheapest) use the other side of the bridge by creating liftable bridges which are dropped in place to allow both sides of the bridge to be used, which can be removed when a barge comes along (this could be in the form of swing bridges). For the purpose of illustration there is a picture below showing how the other side could be used. (2) Widen the path. Even if you were to use both sides the path is still narrow and not suitable for those less confident cyclists. Therefore the solution would be to remove the railings and extend out the path as an overhang with the existing walls acting as a separator between the two roots. This would require significant structural changes and some would argue may permanently damage the aesthetics of the structure. However since the structure is to be enhanced and not demolished I think we can live with it. I also think that given the opportunity people would stop and admire the view, which right now you probably get in the way. Again there is a diagram showing how this might work below. As an immediate action the cobbles should be paved over. It’s ridiculous that they are allowed at all. Given their slippery nature and bumpiness they increase the chance of falling in. It would be interesting to find out how many people have fallen in…
Who’s round that corner? The bridges along the route are awful requiring you to slow and proceed with caution in the hope that a rider does the same coming the other way or has a bell and uses it.
The cheapest solution here would be widen the path before the bridge so you have a clearer line of sight. The more favourable solution would be to widen the bridge. This sort of thing is commonly done for electrifying railway lines, so why can’t it be done here? Many of the bridges along the route suffer from this problem.
The general width of the canal towpath is woefully inadequate requiring you to dodge dogs and weave around pedestrians leading to real potential for conflict and making the route inconvenient. Given the close proximity to water this becomes a potentially wet issue. Along some parts of the route LED lights have been placed marking the width of the route, which are a nice addition but stop at bridges where they’re needed most. If the path was only for walkers then the current width would be ok but given that this route is used by commuters on bikes going in both directions then the path is much too narrow and needs to be widened. This could be done by either in part infilling the canal or expanding the embankments.
In a bid to try and slow cyclists speed bumps and slalom barriers have been put in place instead of addressing the problem: lack of space. If the route was twice as wide then this would not be required. Furthermore the addition of these barriers is dangerous for there is the chance they are not seen in the dark, particularly so since they are painted in the customary camouflage of black and white. Angle grinder please!
When you get towards Ratho the path deteriorates to swamp like standards. Also, under one of the new bridges they have put cobbles in!? Cobbles may present a more authentic experiencing, taking you back to when horses pulled barges along but they’re awful to cycle on so please spare me the historical experience and remove them.
The lack of lighting along the route and the hiding places created by the bridges which are often at narrow points, does raise safety concerns. I’ve heard stories of people being pushed into the canal and when I’ve travelled along here at night I do so with some foreboding. This issue becomes particularly concerning during the winter months with longer hours of darkness. The solution would be to introduce lighting along all of the urban stretches and coupling that with increasing the width should make surprises less common. For areas which have the biggest problems then install CCTV.
Overall the Union canal into Edinburgh does provide a car free route into Edinburgh which at times can be picturesque. However there is considerable room for improvement. Some of the changes are needed urgently for safety reasons and others could also be implemented with little expenditure. The bigger improvements would require larger sums of money but if the Scottish government is wanting to encourage active travel it’s about time they started paying for it through good quality infrastructure.
This review only looked at the parts which I had ridden on recently and not doubt misses others. Feel free to comment those which I have missed.