More and more Londoners are living on boats – but their lifestyle is under threat from new regulations

Houseboats in Richmond. Image: George Tsiagalakis at Wikimedia Commons.

The number of Londoners choosing to live on the water in mobile homes is rising. Whilst total house boat numbers have remained more or less static since 2012, the number of boats without a home mooring, the so-called “continuous cruisers”, has grown year on year – in part a response to property prices that are increasingly out of reach. Last year Greater London saw a 34 per cent increase in continuous cruisers, bringing the total in England and Wales to 4,904.

Under the terms of the 1995 British Waterways Act, a boat without a home mooring must move location every 14 days and be used “bona fide for navigation.” It is a licence that recognises that the canals have been used for hundreds of years by working, migrant families.

But recently the Canal and River Trust (CRT), the authority that manages 2,200 miles of the waterways in England and Wales, announced new plans to crack down on those boats without home moorings that it deems to be violating their licence by not moving “far enough or often enough”.

There is nothing in the Act that defines how far a boat should move, or how long a boat must remain away from one place before returning. As such, many continuous cruisers who live aboard move just far enough to keep their place of work, their children’s' school and their community within reach.

Journeys are dictated by the water-points and other amenities where boaters fill their tanks and empty their toilets, and the fortnightly navigation can take several hours, with queues for locks and other facilities. It can be a tough existence, especially in winter; but the freedom of the lifestyle, with a strong community at its heart, has made it an attractive option, particularly in cities where high rents and the anonymity of neighbours feel increasingly oppressive

CRT have long debated the interpretation of the phrase “bona fide for navigation”. Analysis carried out several years ago by British Waterways, as CRT was known before 2012, showed that half of continuous cruisers on the canals moved between two points less than 10km apart over the course of their annual licence. CRT's proposed minimum distance of 30km was dropped in response to these findings, as it was seen to be unrealistic to place half of all boats into the enforcement process. In the same document, then head of boating Sally Ash admitted that setting a minimum distance would be an overreaching of their powers.

Now, however, the Trust is looking to bring in the 30km target all the same. On 6 March, a day after saying that no such document existed, the Trust published an article on their website under the heading “How far is far enough?”. In it, it stipulated that “it is very unlikely that someone would be able to satisfy us that they have been genuinely cruising if their range of movement is less than 15-20 miles [24-32km] over the period of their licence. In most cases we would expect it to be greater than this.” Pamela Smith, of the National Bargee Travellers' Association (NBTA), who represent the interests of boat dwellers, called such a specification of distance “unlawful”.

Richard Parry, CEO of the Canal and River Trust, says that the authority has a responsibility to be enforcing the laws of the waterways; complaints about congestion on certain parts of the system, in particular in London, have brought the need to take action to a head. Smith disagrees. “There's enough space for everybody,” she says. “Just because there are more boats in a place than there used to be, people react as if there's enormous congestion, and there isn't.”

"Issues around provision of housing are not our responsibility. It would be a mistake for us to step into that space." 

If and where congestion is a problem, she says, it would be better solved by shoring up collapsed banks, and putting extra mooring rings into towpaths, allowing boats to spread out. (A lot of these rings were lost when banks were concreted over to lay fibre-optic cables several years ago.) Many feel the increase in boats has brought the waterways back to life, clearing them of rubbish and making the towpath a safe place to walk at night.

Nonetheless, as of May, boaters who fail to satisfy CRT that they have been genuinely cruising will be refused a renewal of their licence, unless they take up a residential mooring. But permanent moorings in London, which can cost 10 times more than a continuous cruising licence, are hard to find – especially ones which have the planning permission required for boaters to live on their craft year round.

CRT’s Parry accepts that there are “issues” with such a policy – “but that's the landscape as it stands. You can't uninvent that by asserting that you want it to be different, any more than you can say, 'I wish that it was cheaper to buy a house in London, or I wish I could get a better paid job.'”

If boats are being used as a response to the housing crisis, says Parry, it is not CRT's concern. “Issues around provision of housing are not our responsibility. It would be a mistake for us to step into that space.” He suggests that if people are finding it problematic in London then they might think about taking their boat elsewhere.

Yet many continuous cruisers, some of whom have lived on the water for decades, are worried that they are facing eviction, with little idea of what they need to do to satisfy CRT's requirements. Whilst the 15-20 mile target on the website gives some indication, it remains unclear what pattern of movement is expected within these parameters, or indeed what counts as far enough.

“I'm telling you that we believe, clearly, that it has to be more than 15 to 20 miles,” Parry has said. “How much more we'll be debating forever.” But such distances will make it increasingly difficult to maintain ties with work, school and community on land.

And an open letter published by the National Association of Boat Owners has claimed that many of its members are being alienated by CRT's communication strategy. One extract reads:

A typical comment we have received is: 'I'm not against the rules for [Continuous Cruising] or CRT trying to enforce them, but they really do not have the information to make fair and reasonable decisions, and there is a lot of assumption where there are gaps in the data. I suspect many people who are following the rules will end up with enforcement notices due to the enforcement attitude which appears to be guilty unless proven innocent.'

“This is all a completely manufactured problem,” says the NBTA’s Smith. “CRT has sufficient enforcement powers to stop boats overstaying in one place. It could just enforce the 14 day rule fairly and consistently, making it clear that repeated overstaying without good reason could lead to non renewal, without any threats about terminating a licence if you don't travel far enough, and not telling you what far enough is.”

Parry says that boaters who enter into a dialogue with CRT find that they have nothing to fear, and that many boaters have welcomed these attempts at clarification. But Smith describes boaters as being “frightened and panicked”, and a petition against CRT's proposed enforcement has gathered almost 15,000 signatures. “I feel worried about my future living situation,” said Ulli, a musician who has lived on the canals for five years. “I want to protect and support the life on the rivers and the tradition of continuous cruising, but I find that CRT does not prioritise this huge part of UK history. They only see it as a problem.”

Another boater, who asked to remain anonymous, described the stance as “threatening and vague.” “I don't understand what the problem is,” he said. “In Amsterdam it's seen as a tourist attraction and a way of life. Here they are just trying to get rid of us.”

Adam Weymouth is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in wide variety of newspapers and magazines, including The Guardian, The Atlantic and Lacuna. He lives on a boat on the River Lea. His website is here.

This article was amended on 19 March to correct Sally Ash's job title.


To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.

Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.