Autumn leaves IMBY (In My Back Yard)

Who doesn’t like beautiful autumn leaves?  However, a carpet of wet leaves is a slippery nightmare for anyone on a bike.  It’s also dangerous for walkers, especially elderly people.   Leaves that pile up on the edges of paths also make the space narrower, increasing conflict between people on bikes and everyone else.

A single bad fall can cost the NHS thousands of pounds and precious staff time. Even if someone is not badly hurt, they can be completely put off the idea of walking and cycling in the autumn and winter, undermining any attempts to get us all moving more.


All this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. What is a surprise is that it seems so hard to keep our Cardiff paths and trails clear of leaves, year after year.     

Last autumn, I decided to take matters into my own hands for the little bit of Taff Trail “IMBY” – in my back yard.  I bought a large leaf rake and some gardening gloves, and headed out to start raking.  I must say that I enjoyed it.  I work from home, so it was a nice change from sitting at a desk.  And raking up leaves is —mostly— much more pleasant than picking up rubbish.  (There should be a special circle in hell for people who leave dog poo bags behind – but thankfully, this is not common.)  So I started up again last week, after noticing the first big leaf falls.  

Passerby reactions differ.  Most ignore me, some people staring very intently at their phones to avoid any chance of eye contact. A few (especially women and older people) say positive things, which gives me a boost.  A few recount tales of their previous slips and falls.  And surprisingly, delivery cyclists seem to say thank you more often than most other people passing on bikes.  Last year, my favourite was an older Deliveroo cyclist who passed me twice, each time saying “Good Girl! Good Girl!”  (Once I might have been annoyed by this wording, but now I’m older and wiser, I’m just tickled.)   

Some people stop and ask me: why isn’t Cardiff Council doing this?  Well, the Council does have a regular schedule of cleaning leaves.  However, leaves pick their own moment to fall, often a lot of them at once  – and it can be two weeks until the next cleaning truck passes.  You can report a leaf problem to the Council via the app – but don’t expect instant gratification.

A wider question here is what we can expect the Council to be able to do for us, as funding cuts bite.  A recent article in the Economist magazine pointed out that, in the UK as a whole, “politicians are not willing to increase taxes enough to cover the real costs of the services voters demand. Nor are voters willing to pay them. And neither side is willing to forgo the dream of comprehensive services on the cheap.”  So we might need to make some tough choices.

Typical Adopt A Highway sign, as seen all over the western USA.

In the USA, where people mostly don’t expect much support from government, it’s common to see Adopt A Highway signs, where local businesses, Scouts, and other volunteer groups each take responsibility for cleaning rubbish from the edges of a 1-2 mile stretch of highway, all year round.  Here, Sustrans does have a program of path maintenance, and local groups like Keep Grangetown Tidy and Cardiff Rivers Group also do a good job, but it’s hard to mobilise volunteers to cover the whole of Cardiff, especially when it comes to short-term problems like autumn leaf cleanup.  Moreover, I take my own responsibility for the (minimal) risks I incur in raking leaves, whereas any organized volunteer group has to comply with health and safety requirements, which can be tricky.  

Another way could be what we could call the “IMBY” approach.  That is, individuals like me, or a few neighbours working together, could sign up to take responsibility for ensuring that their nearest small stretch of path is kept clean and safe.  This doesn’t mean that they would do all the work themselves — although they could do a little light leaf raking!  Their main responsibility would be to regularly go along their local bit of path and inform the Council of any problems (such as fly-tipping or potholes), then chase up until they are solved.  My friend Ann does this for a small section of the Capital Ring Walk in London, and it seems to work well.  One advantage of the IMBY approach is that the work is spread out over many people, and also, people who live nearby are better placed to deal with very local, temporary issues like leaf fall.  Might this be a solution for some of our main paths, for example the Taff Trail?

I don’t mind raking up leaves – in fact, it can be fun. There is plenty of work for everyone at this time of year – Council and volunteers alike.  I hope we can find a way, together, to keep our paths clean and safe for everyone.     

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and are not necessarily supported by Cardiff Cycle City.

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