Cycling in Malta: An alternative to everyday commuting
Malta has all the features to make cycling a major form of travel and commuting. The place is small, the whole island is almost one city, and weather conditions are good for about 350 days a year. The size of the island, apart from the two "edges", can be reached within half an hour or 40 minutes. Below I will take a look at what the difficulties are and how easy it is to overcome a good part of them.
But before I do, it let's see what's happening now!
We can say that Malta is full of cars. It's no wonder: seventy new cars arrive every day, counting the average 12.5 nm space requirement, 962 nm a day from the usable area of the island. This is an annual parking space equivalent to the area of Ta' Xbiex.
If we would destroy Mdina and build a large central car park in its place, it will be full in three years. Today, the two biggest problems are traffic jams and parking. Because of this, it has become very difficult to get anywhere, the living space decreases, the sidewalks are not able to fit in the normal way as pedestrians, community spaces disappear, the air stinks, the environment is noisy. There is no solution to this, one cannot move further from the downtown, because there is no place, only the sea.
The Maltese spend a lot of time sitting in traffic, they considering the traffic difficulties as if they were natural, they would not have caused it themselves. Little anecdote: I lived in Gudja when I moved to the island, my friends in Valletta were shocked: are you living in the SOUTH? The distance between Gudja and Valletta is 7.6 km, by bicycle at a normal pace 20 minutes. However, because of the jams it is half an hour to 45 minutes with car - not to mention the public transportation.
The government is currently choosing the worst possible solution: widening the roads. This is a huge area of demolition on the island, with plenty of trees, some of which are indigenous, and moreover, it does not solve anything. First, it is not the roads that aren’t wide enough but the intersections that cause the congestion. Secondly, as soon as a road is more accessible, more cars will go on it and sooner or later the original traffic jam will return. Finding a parking space near our destination (except for one or two small villages) is worth a lottery jackpot. In busy places, cars park double, often triple, thus causing even more traffic. The average speed of vehicles varies between 18 and 20 km/h (15 km / h for buses), but slows down to 6-10 km/h during peak hours. The car in Malta is not the solution but the problem. It is a necessary evil that needs to be kept to a minimum.
What's the solution?
Definitely two-wheeled vehicles. The average distance taken in Malta is 5 km. In this distance the fastest way of transport is the bicycle. The time spent in traffic should not be the only time calculated - one needs to consider time and movement to the vehicle, search for a parking space and then from the vehicle to the destination. This does not happen for the bike, as the bike travels with us, wherever we go. Bicycles and motorcycles occupy much less space, increase the permeability of roads and crossings, and eliminate parking space problems.
The biggest advantage of the bicycle is that it is clean, quiet and does not pollute the air. Today in Malta traffic stinks and noise can be perceived constantly in our streets (that is, except for one or two quieter parts practically everywhere). It just seems to be true that if there is silence and clean air due to a possible road closure,we tend to be surprised, because we are not used to this scenario anymore.
For a bicycle, the three most deterrent forces are cycling up hills, the heat and the headwind. (Rain is not an obstacle, a man does not soak up with the right bike and clothing, in the same way when people need to travel when leaving a car or going to the building from the bus.) In Malta, there are all of the three challenges - the hills are not high but sometimes steep, winds can reach 6-7 in the winter and spring months and the summer is hot.
The solution is the electric bicycle. Plenty of them have been sold in Europe in recent years. Modern computer-controlled electric bikes should be driven just like a normal bike without any special learning or preparation. The feeling is as if someone is sitting on a backseat and is pushing you forwards. Thanks to this, the headwind becomes nearly negligible. Except for one or two steepest hills, the hills can be rolled up without much effort, and the heat, apart from the exceptionally hot days, is not a problem, because we get a much more pronounced headwind, which provides adequate “air conditioning”. An uncomfortable "afterburn" after cycling that is post-stop sweating is minimized by raising the pace and the assistance.
The bicycle is a vehicle and as such its place is on the road. Maltese roads are narrow and surrounded by walls on two sides. Many people say that they are not suitable for cycling, although on the contrary they are not suitable for car driving! I have never seen a technical fault with bicycle cause a traffic jam - this usually happens because of a car that has broken down or parked irregularly. The cycling infrastructure is weak and poorly designed, apparently built in many places only for compulsion and for the acquisition of tender money. The solution is: don’t use it. Use the road!
Most people live in the misconception that it is dangerous to cycle in Malta. This is partly true. First of all, let's make it clear: cycling is not dangerous, driving is! It is very rare for a cyclist to hit a pedestrian or two cyclists and suffer serious, life-threatening injuries. In most cases, serious accidents are involved in motor vehicles! Malta is so small and densely populated that limiting the speed does not result in loss of time, but safety is multiplied. This is already caused by traffic jams themselves. The safest today is to cycle in rush hours, as vehicles are so slow that even in the event of an accident there is no serious injury. The solution is to limit the maximum speed of motor vehicles to 40 or 30 km/h, with the exception of two or three main roads. Keep in mind: nowadays this speed is the reality for most of the times during the day due to heavy traffic.
Moreover, even in the current situation, it is not more dangerous to ride in Malta than in other big cities. Although Maltese drivers are not yet prepared for cyclists, cyclists can safely ride with the right technique and mindset. The biggest problem now is that drivers are inexperienced and have no skills on how to deal with bikers. As the number of cyclists increases, this will be an increasingly minor problem. Eventually, cyclists will reach a critical mass also in Malta.
At the same time, most cyclists do not know how to deal with traffic in urban environments. They do not consider themselves as participants, nor as partner, but see vehicles as enemy monsters. With proper training this problem can be addressed very easily.
- Cars are slowly occupying every place on this small island. There is no way to move out here!
- The solution is two-wheeled transportation, including the bicycle, which is the least polluting mode of transport.
- In Malta, all environmental conditions are good for cycling. The place is small, there are no mountains, it is never cold.
- The physical difficulties of cycling can be easily overcome by modern electric bikes.
- As people get more and more benefits from the traffic jam when riding a bike, traffic becomes better.
This blog post was contributed by Balázs Pécsi - a BAG member and avid bicycle commuter .