Photos: Jess Connett
“I was wearing a helmet. But if I’d have landed on my head or my neck, it could have killed me.” Ian ended up in A&E with a broken collarbone, broken jaw, three teeth damaged and needed stitches in his tongue and lip. He was travelling at 20mph when a man stood at the side of the path and punched him off his bike.
This violent robbery by a gang on the Bristol to Bath cycle path in August is just one of a long list of incidents in recent months. Assaults, muggings and sexual harassment have left some scared to use the busy route. Reports have become so frequent on social media that local people have had enough and are now discussing how they can tackle the problem together.
One of these people is Duncan Edwards, who decided to record details of incidents on the path by collecting media and police reports and speaking to victims privately.
Duncan runs along the path everyday and when he saw a group of teengers deliberately blocking the path and intimidating people he took action. “I saw descriptions of very similar incidents on social media, it seems like it was a similar group. I felt we were missing patterns.”
Since starting the research, it has been a challenge to keep up. He has recorded 16 incidents in November alone, including attacks on cyclists, a mugging, and sexual assaults, with particular hotspots near Morrisons in Fishponds and Mangotsfield station.
“This seems like a change. People seem really engaged and want something to happen. It’s a turning point – lots of people are viewing the path as too unsafe to use. We need to make sure it’s safe.”
He has shared his research with the Mayor but hasn’t had a response. He hopes his record of incidents will start a conversation about what can be done, prompt more information sharing between people on social media and the police, and potentially lead to the creation of a group of volunteers.
“It could become a Neighbourhood Watch model. With GPS and cameras, you’ve got a cash-strapped police force and all these extra eyes and ears that can be used. It’s got to be with the police as well, though, otherwise it will end up with vigilantism.”
Even some people who have used the path for years are now thinking twice. “The way things are at the moment, I’d be reluctant to use it,” says Ian. After sliding 10m down the path during the crash near Chelsea Park, a member of the gang punched him, put him in a chokehold and stole his bike while he lay unconscious.
Following surgery, he is recovering from his injuries caused by the attack in August, but faces thousands of pounds in dental work and more treatment on his jaw. The police made a public appeal for information but no arrests have been made. He is yet to get back in the saddle but hopes to soon.
A spate of recent incidents
The Cable also spoke to other victims from only the past week who thought it was important to speak out about the issue.
Michael* was mugged on the path in Fishponds last week by a group of around ten people, some of them teenagers. They stole his bike, jacket, and bag with valuables in. “They had their hands in their pockets, like they had knives, and they were threatening me,” he says. “They were being really aggressive, one of them grabbed me by the throat.
“I feel like if nothing happens quickly, someone could get seriously injured. Someone could get killed. I could have been seriously injured if I’d resisted. They wouldn’t have thought twice.”
Teenager Harry* was mugged the day before Michael. People at school had been talking about violent incidents on the cycle path for several months, so his whole family have been avoiding using it. While cycling after school, three people wearing hoodies fought with Harry, pushing him off his bicycle. Though a bystander tried to intervene, one member of the group rode away on his bike.
“I was fine afterwards, I was just a bit shook up,” he says. “But if it happened to someone who was younger it could have a terrible impact. It’s really not great.” He’s been posting on Instagram to warn others that using the path could be dangerous.
This is not a new problem. Violent incidents on the cycle path have happened for years. In December 2019, police stepped up patrols on the path after a cyclist was stabbed in the leg. But it is surprising how many reports have emerged in the last few weeks. While researching this article, more reports surfaced on social media, including someone who ended up hospitalised with a fractured shoulder and broken ribs.
Police figures shared with the Cable showed that they received 33 reports relating to incidents in November, compared with 23 during the same month last year: an increase of 43%. From January to November 2020, there have been 177 reports compared with 152 in the same period in 2019.
Avon and Somerset Police have been doing extra patrols on the path, and on Tuesday (1 December) arrested a 13-year-old boy on suspicion of sexual assault, which they said was as a result of increased proactive activity. The suspect has been released on bail with enquiries ongoing.
Rebecca Haselhurst told the Cable that she was groped by a teenager while cycling on the path last Friday. “I felt shocked, embarrassed, angry, scared and a bit shaken up,” she said. “I was very fearful cycling through the Staple Hill tunnel. I’ve not seen anything like this happen in 14 years of living here.”
Are community-led solutions the answer?
Amy, a local resident and charity trustee, who herself has been a victim of a recent incident on the path, thinks community-led responses can be key in tackling the issue.
“Loads of stuff has happened in the past, such as nightwalks. It’s rumbled on for such a long time: a light is shone on it for a while, resources get put into it, but as with anything, resources have to be put elsewhere. We need to come together to do something.”
Amy says CCTV and extra policing in certain hotspots can make people feel safer and perpetrators think there’s a greater chance of being brought to justice. But this won’t work on its own.
She’s involved in community groups in Easton and Lawrence Hill who are already looking at the issue. “It’s important to communicate so there can be a joined up response. It’s in everybody’s interest to work together for the whole space rather than focusing on their area. It’s all interconnected.
“Some of these incidents are involving young people, which connects with much bigger social issues of them having nothing else to do.”
Amy suggested money from housing developments could be spent on the path to improve things like lighting. Equally important is investment in social infrastructure, such as walking groups or supporting people to travel together.
One such solution has been created by Luke Champion. After reading about “shocking” recent incidents, he set up a WhatsApp group for cyclists to share details of their journey and arrange to ride together. Eight people had joined the group at the time of writing, but no one had yet managed to buddy up. “It may be that people aren’t choosing to use the path now,” he says.
Luke says some online conversation has veered towards ‘vigilante’ methods – one person said they’d be carrying a weapon in their backpack in case they were attacked – which he doesn’t condone. Others suggest using helmet cameras and passing footage onto the police. Luke is considering buying one.
“The overall solution is multi-faceted,” he says. “The best way is increased police patrols, helmet cam footage, increased lighting, and guided rides – by me or someone else.”
The path is one of the most important bits of infrastructure for walking and cycling in Bristol, Amy says, and needs long-term investment so it can be used safely: “It’s about a visible reclaiming of the space [and] rebuilding the confidence of people to use it.”
What are local institutions doing?
Walking and cycling charity Sustrans are the custodians of the cycle path, working in partnership with local authorities and landowners. They say the responsibility for installing CCTV and improving lighting lies with the three local authorities the path straddles – Bristol, South Gloucestershire, and Bath & North East Somerset.
However, a 1.7-mile stretch through Easton and Clay Bottom is being improved by Sustrans, partly because of safety concerns. £1.1m has been secured from the Department for Transport for the One Path BS5 project.
“People feel excluded because they’ve experienced crime and conflict,” says James Cleeton, South of England director at Sustrans. “It’s the more vulnerable people who aren’t using the path and they’re the ones who will benefit from it most.”
Sustrans have run a series of co-design workshops with people who don’t use the path, to better understand the issues. “It takes time and money and effort but it means we’re designing for everyone, rather than just people on bikes.”
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The project has been “massively delayed” because of Covid-19, but the building phase is due to start in spring 2021. The plans incorporate urban design principles to prevent crime and anti-social behaviour, including supporting a wider range of activities to take place on the path, meaning people use it at different times.
A count conducted before the pandemic found 1,000 cyclists per hour passing through Whitehall. “We know thousands of people use it every day, and 80% are people on bikes,” James says. “It’s a very successful mass movement of people. If they were all in cars, Bristol would grind to a halt.”
He’s been using the path almost daily for more than 15 years, and has seen a handful of incidents in that time, including a sexual assault in January 2020 and a mugging. Recently, his teenage son had a near-miss in Newtown Park, when a group tried to force him off his bike. But recent incidents have not put him off using it “at all”.
A spokesperson for Avon and Somerset Police told the Cable: “A problem-solving plan has now been put in place in response to public concerns following recent incidences of anti-social behaviour, sexual assault and theft reported on the Bristol to Bath cycle path.
“Working with local partners including Sustrans and Bristol City Council, measures include targeted high-visibility patrols and days of action, bike marking days and an emphasis on information sharing between Bristol East and South Glos neighbourhood policing teams, both of which cover the length of the path.
“We’d encourage anyone who spots a crime in progress or has concerns about groups of young people being intimidating, anti-social or blocking the path to call 101 as soon as possible, or 999 if they fear a crime is being committed. All reports will be thoroughly investigated.”
* Names have been changed
One place to find out more about community efforts on this issue is the Bristol Cyclists Facebook Group