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Leeds & Liverpool canal, Shipley to Leeds towpath upgrade

12th August 2015

Leeds & Liverpool canal at Rodley

The canal towpath of the Leeds & Liverpool canal from Shipley to Kirkstall has been upgraded. The money came from the DfT's Cycle City Ambition scheme, which also funded a Cycle Superhighway from Bradford to Leeds. The two schemes are known as Cycle City Connect

The towpath is a shared use path (walking and cycling), and is aimed at commuters and leisure riders and walkers. Travelling from Shipley to Leeds, it is on the left hand side of the canal. I cycled the route yesterday, from Shipley to the centre of Leeds, to see what it is like, and what other users think of it. 

Before riding it, I'd read a news item on the Cycle City Connect website from 30th July 2015, which gave me the impression that the towpath work was finished. 

This part is an update from the Canal & River Trust, and says: 

'This week's adverse weather has pushed the completion date back to the tail end of next week, when the work towards Shipley will be completed...There will be a full inspection of the work, to take place following completion; we are already aware of some issues on the compacted limestone surface which are holding water. Contractors will be asked to resolve these issues.'

In the article, Cycle City Connect say: 

'We have been assured that the tar spray and chip surface will be swept of loose gravel, and that the work will not be signed off until this has taken place. We would also like to remind people that there is a section not yet resurfaced. This will be a second phase of work. Arrangements are currently being made for this and work is likely to commence in the autumn...A member of our team rode the full route from Leeds through to Saltaire yesterday evening and can confirm the route is fully open...'

Re-reading the article now, I see that they are saying that first-phase work has been finished. It does say that 'a section' has not yet been re-surfaced (phase 2). In fact, there are several sections, and really quite a considerable length of path, which are not re-surfaced, particularly from Shipley to Calverley/Rodley.

Reflections in the Leeds & Liverpool canal

Leeds & Liverpool canal, Shipley to Leeds: the surface of the path 

Three different surfaces

At the moment, there are three different surfaces:

1) Non re-surfaced path - generally a rough, cart-track type surface. As mentioned above, most of these sections are between Shipley and Calverley. I really hope this isn't supposed to be part of the finished product.

Badly surfaced towpath on Leeds & Liverpool canal

2) Re-surfaced path, which is hard underneath, and has a lot of beige coloured gravel on the top. From the Cycle City Connect website, it appears to be called 'tar spray and chip.' These sections are between Shipley and Kirkstall.

Tar spray and chip surface, Leeds & Liverpool canal towpath

3) Smooth tarmac. This is mainly between Kirkstall and Leeds.

Kirkstall Brewery, by Leeds & Liverpool canal

I see that 'compacted limestone' is referred to on the Cycle City Connect website. I may not have recognised this surface when riding.

People's views

Cycle commuter on towpath near Apperley Bridge

I asked a cycle commuter (who had a cyclo-cross bike with road tyres, and who joined the canal towpath near Horsforth) what she thought of the surface. 'Not much,' came the reply. She told me that this is the second surface which has been put down, because initially they put down pebbles which were too big, and gave everyone punctures. She said the surface slowed people down, which wasn't a bad thing, as the the path is shared use. Anyway, she only has to ride a bit of the gravelly surface before getting onto tarmac around Kirkstall. 'It's better than getting killed by the traffic,' was her parting shot.

I also asked one of a party of three on a leisure ride from Shipley to Leeds and back, Sarah, about the surface. She said she didn't mind riding on it with her hybrid - it is a lot better than what was there before. Someone from the Canal & River Trust had told her that they had chosen the surface because it makes a noise, so walkers can hear bikes coming up behind them.

My opinion

Tar and chip surface, Leeds & Liverpool canal

The way people on foot and people on bikes interact is a legitimate issue, and it is certainly better if walkers hear cyclists coming. Is it so important that it's worth laying a surface that is significantly inferior to tarmac for cycling? In my opinion, no. The gravel surface is noisy and energy-sappping. I felt like getting a big broom, and sweeping all the loose gravel off it. Perhaps some of the gravel will get tamped down, or swept to the side by bike wheels, in due course? I hope so. When I reached a tarmac section, it was a relaxing relief. 

I did see a couple of road bikes on the towpath today (towards the Leeds end, where the surface is generally better), but the overwhelming majority of people were on mountain bikes or hybrids. I wouldn't take my road bike on that towpath. That is partly because of the remaining bone-jarring cart-track sections, but even without those, I wouldn't ride it a long distance on the gravel surface. It is unfortunate to effectively exclude a whole set of bikes from the path.

Mountain biker on Leeds & Liverpool canal towpath

The issue of warning walkers of cyclists' approach could equally be dealt with by using bells, or calmly and politely saying, 'coming up behind you on a bike/coming past on your right.' If the smooth tarmac from Kirkstall to Leeds is causing major trouble at the moment, then the choice of a gravel surface might be justified. As far as I could tell, though, admittedly just from one ride, people were managing to rub along pretty well on the tarmac section.

Leeds & Liverpool canal, Shipley to Leeds: is the path being well-used?

Mountain biker on canal towpath near Shipley

Yes. I was riding the path from about 8am. It was being used by both cyclists and walkers, but more cyclists than walkers. Early on, most people were commuting; later in the morning, there were more leisure riders and dog walkers. There were also noticeably more pedestrians close to Leeds.

Of course the nature of a canal towpath is that it cannot accommodate very high volumes of foot and bike traffic, because there is limited space, but from what I saw, it isn't yet near capacity.

Cyclist on canal towpath near Leeds

Leeds & Liverpool canal, Shipley to Leeds: route notes and suggestions

Shipley station to the canal

Shipley station

As people may come to the route by train, arriving at Shipley station, I checked out the way from the station to the canal. It is well signposted. Very soon, you have to cross a busy main junction in Shipley, and there are 'cyclists dismount' signs, so you have to wheel your bike. There aren't even any pedestrian or cyclist lights for the crossing - you just have to wait until traffic stops at a red light, and cross the lanes of the road in sections. It's very poor.

Cyclists dismount sign at main junction in Shipley

Shipley to Rodley

As mentioned above, this first part has the most sections of non re-surfaced towpath. 

Saltaire Brewery

Shortly after leaving Shipley, you're diverted from the towpath onto Dockfield Road, which runs parallel to the canal, and you go past Saltaire Brewery tap and shop. The slight diversion is no problem.

Horses by the Leeds & Liverpool canal   Heron on the Leeds & Liverpool canal

The route of the canal here is scenic, going past Buck Wood, Dawson Wood, and Calverley Wood. Although you're close to built-up areas, you wouldn't necessarily know it. There were a few horses close to the canal when I rode the towpath.

Bridge on Leeds & Liverpool canal near Shipley   Speed bump on canal towpath, Leeds & Liverpool canal

You have to take extra care at the bridges, where the towpath narrows, and you can't necessarily see if someone is coming in the opposite direction. In most cases, there are signs asking people to slow down, and speed bumps on the path.

The Tiny Tea Room, Calverley Bridge   Barrier on Leeds & Liverpool canal

At Calverley Bridge canalside walk, there's a cafe (outdoor seating), the Tiny Tea Room. It's right by the worst barrier on this stretch of the canal. You have to get off your bike and lift it over the upside down U of metal. This infrastructure should not be placed on a path where bikes are allowed. 

There are several of another type of barrier, where the metal angles inwards to block your handlebars and shoulders (see photo above right of someone wiggling their way through). These are irritating, and should be taken out unless they are truly vital for some purpose.

Leeds & Liverpool canal at Rodley

The canal at Rodley is very scenic, and there's a pub on the far side of the canal, the Rodley Barge.

Rodley to Leeds

Kirkstall Abbey

The canal passes close to Horsforth, then within sight of Kirkstall Abbey, and next to the Kirkstall Brewery buildings. 

Diversion from towpath to road near Kirkstall

There's a section where the towpath is very poor, but here, the cycle route is diverted onto a (traffic-free, or very nearly) road running parallel to the canal. This is the best quality section of the whole ride - if all cycle routes were like that, you'd persuade thousands more people to cycle. It's smooth, wide, and quiet - perfect!

Bridge at Aire Valley marina near Leeds   Locks on Leeds & Liverpool canal

There are a couple of cool bridges at Aire Valley Marina. There are also locks, which mean that the towpath isn't completely flat.

Canal bridge, Armley   Graffiti by canal, Armley

The surroundings get a bit more 'street' in Armley.

The way into Leeds city centre

Whitehall bridge, Leeds

At the moment, the canal path runs out short of Leeds city centre. 

Campanile, Leeds   Route map board, Office Lock, Leeds

There are two redbrick towers on the other side of the canal, called the Campaniles. The smaller one (nearer the camera) was built in 1864 and is modelled on the Lamberti Tower in Verona; the bigger one was built in 1889 and is based on the bell tower of Florence Cathedral. Opposite the towers, by a sign for 'Office Lock' and a route map board, you're sent across then away from the canal, down Canal Wharf and onto Water Lane. 

Leeds city centre map

The above open cycle map shows the end of the canal route, and Canal Wharf.

Sign board, Neville Street, Leeds   Neville Street, under railway line

You arrive at the very busy Victoria Street/Neville Street, with another map board, and a gusty winds sign, and - unless I've missed something - suddenly the cycle provision runs out altogether. The options are to ride on Neville Street with a lot of traffic, under the railway line, to arrive at the station/City Square, or to wheel your bike along the pavement.

Gusty winds sign, Leeds   Cycle parking, City Square, Leeds

It's disappointing when cycle infrastructure just gives up and leaves people in the lurch where it gets difficult. It would be much better if the cycle route continued to the centre of Leeds - the station, and the bike parking in City Square. I could see work going on on the left hand side of the canal - perhaps there is a plan to allow people to continue along the canal?

Leeds & Liverpool canal, Shipley to Leeds: comments and suggestions

These are the positive points about the route:

1) It's away from the traffic, and a scenic route. It also takes you right into the heart of Leeds (or very nearly).

2) From what I hear, much of the surface is a lot better than it was before.

3) The towpath is being well-used by cyclists for commuting and leisure rides.

These are the negative points/items which should be looked at, and changes considered:

4) It's a shame that a relatively poor cycling surface has been chosen (by, as far as I can gather, the Canal & River Trust). I realise that one has to weigh up different considerations. In my view, far too much weight has been given to one consideration - it's better if walkers can hear cyclists coming - and not enough to a fundamental one - we're supposed to be building a cycle-friendly route, let's lay the best possible surface. 

The surface they've chosen isn't awful, it's just not very good. It's a poor compromise. I would give it a 5 or 6 out of ten. That's extremely unfortunate, when for once, there was funding in place, and the opportunity to produce something that would be excellent. Instead, we've got something that will be just ok when it's finished. It's a big missed opportunity. It's not as if we don't already have enough mediocre or outright rubbish cycle infrastructure in the UK.

5) The crossing of the main junction in Shipley, when going from the station to the canal, is unacceptably poor.

6) There are some nuisance barriers along the way, which should be removed or made cycle-friendly.

7) The route ends at a very busy road, Neville St, before the centre of Leeds, or if it doesn't, I couldn't see the continuation of the route. People on bikes should be accommodated by good infrastructure right into the city centre.

Leeds & Liverpool canal, Shipley to Leeds: comment from Leeds Cycling Campaign

I asked Leeds Cycling Campaign for comments. They said:

'Originally, the work was to be finished in time for the Tour de France 2014, so there has been a considerable delay.

The surface is the biggest problem. It wasn't done right the first time - a poor quality surface was laid which resulted in a lot of people on bikes gettting punctures. 

Now with the second attempt, the tarmac is lumpy and the surface covering is unpleasant and won't last. It has clearly been designed to affect cyclists adversely. The concern about antisocial behaviour won't be addressed by prejudicing all users in this way - and note that kids and wheelchair users are hampered much more by the gravel and speed bumps.

The route isn't well-connected to Leeds city centre.'

(This was the cycling campaign's optimistic article in December 2013, which gives an idea of what was promised).

Swan on Leeds & Liverpool canal   Moorhen, Leeds & Liverpool canal

Leeds & Liverpool canal, Shipley to Leeds: comment from Cycle City Connect

Cycle City Connect commented on some of the points mentioned here. 

On the tar spray and chip surface: 'We have worked in close partnership with CRT throughout the towpath upgrade work, and the surfaces laid down have been used to good effect in other areas of the country. The tar spray and chip surface for example has been used on a stretch of towpath alongside the Rochdale Canal and this has resulted in a hard-pack surface, useable by a wide range of people, including people on road bikes. The surface will be swept of excess gravel following a natural bedding in period. There will be a full inspection of the work to take place following completion; we are already aware of some issues on the compacted limestone surface which are holding water and we have asked our contractors to resolve these issues. When deciding which surface to use, CRT considered a number of factors, such as the surroundings through which the towpath will pass and the different user groups, not just cyclists.'

How much of the towpath hasn't had any work done on it, and is there a firm date for completion of the whole project?: 'Where required, the towpath was scheduled to be upgraded between Kirkstall and Shipley. To date, most of that stretch of towpath has now been resurfaced. The section between Apperley Bridge and Rodley will be surfaced as part of phase 2 of the project; arrangements are currently being made for this and work is likely to commence in the autumn, alongside extensive structural work being carried out by CRT along the same section of the canal.The stretch between Dockfield Road heading east to Buck Mill swing bridge won't be resurfaced.' 

'Whilst writing the bid, we anticipated that we would not encounter any issues with this resurfacing project and indicated that we would complete in time for the Grand Depart. We encountered a number of issues during the consultation and detailed design period which delayed the project, but it still falls well within the time set by the funders to complete the whole programme.'

Are there any plans to make the barriers more cycle-friendly (particularly at Calverley Bridge Canalside Walk)?: 'Replacement of these barriers will be reviewed as part of phase 2 of the work. However, you can actually avoid [the Calverley Bridge] barrier by riding in front of the Railway Inn and re-joining the towpath 300m further on. We accept the A-frame barriers aren't ideal, but at least they don't require you to lift your bike to get through.'

Have you ridden this route? Do you ride it regularly? What do you think?

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