Cycling: Malta’s great uphill struggle | Jim Wightman

On paper, Malta should be as ideal for cycling as any city in the Netherlands. In practice, however, our rate of bicycle-usage remains among the lowest in Europe. Jim Wightman, of the Bicycle Advocacy Group, makes the case for a safer environment in which bicycles may provide a practical alternative to the all-powerful motorcar

Jim Wightman
Jim Wightman

“We suffer in Malta because we’ve got what we call the ‘lost generation’: children who were never taught to ride a bicycle by their parents, because they thought it was too dangerous. These are now going on to have children of their own, and they’re not teaching them either. So we’ve lost a couple of generations now...”

Jim Wightman does not belong to the ‘lost generation’ he now describes. On the contrary he considers himself one of the “belligerent, I guess” cyclists who – in his own words – were “fed up of being pushed around, and not seeing any useful changes in infrastructure”... and so came together to form the advocacy group known as BAG. 

“As individuals we were always complaining in the press, and we kind of naturally gravitated together. At first, we didn’t really expect it to be anything more than six grumpy old gits arguing about bikes. But it’s grown:  our Facebook group has over 2,000 members now...”

The number of bicycles on Maltese roads has also grown in recent years; yet it remains pitifully low when compared to most European cities. I for one may well be part of that ‘lost generation’ Jim has just mentioned: not perhaps in the sense that I was never physically taught to ride a bike... but more because I just don’t feel safe enough on two wheels in Maltese traffic. 

“You are not alone,” Jim promptly replies when I point this out. “There was a very interesting study by the Portland Transport Association in the USA in around 2004. They asked people what kind of cyclist they considered themselves to be. Were they the strong type who would go out in any traffic conditions? Were they, perhaps, a little more confident than others, but had their limits? Were they the type who would like to cycle, but only if it were safer? Or would they not cycle at all under any circumstances? In Malta we’ve got an awful lot of people who fall into the third category: they are interested, but they don’t feel it’s safe enough yet. That is partly what BAG is trying to do: create an environment which is safe enough for people who would otherwise cycle...”

Part of that involves an uphill struggle to overturn negative perceptions concerning road safety. Recent EU statistics paint a picture of Malta having the highest road fatality rates in all of Europe: admittedly, the data doesn’t always concern bicycle fatalities... but it is hardly encouraging for those who might be considering switching from four-wheeled transport to two. Do these perceptions really square up with reality, though? From the perspective of someone who cycles every day... how dangerous are Maltese roads in reality? 

“Maybe I’m a bit biased, because I’m perhaps one of the ‘strong’ types who would go out in any traffic conditions. To me, Malta is no worse than London in the 1980s... though London’s come a long way since then. I think most cyclists can actually get by here: the problem is encouraging those who are more timid...”

Part of this problem concerns the very earliest stages of the transition from car to bike. It seem to be a good deal easier for someone to start cycling in Malta... then to actually keep it up beyond the first few days.

“We have done quite a bit of work on ‘near-miss’ data supplied by our members. We find that the most common cause of a ‘near-miss’ scenario concerns cars getting too close as they drive past. Another thing we ask our riders is to log the number of kilometres they cycle each day. It turns out that the average is about 5.6km. Interestingly, the corresponding average for cars is 5.2km a day: so we’re actually seeing people cycle further than most people drive. But what we also found when extrapolating this data is that, by your second day as a beginner, you will have already had a near-miss. Someone would have driven by a little too close for comfort: and that is enough to put you off. So you can understand where their fear and concerns come from. Having said that, in Malta we have a cycling fatality roughly once every four or five years. That’s a really tiny fatality rate, when you compare to pedestrians, motorcyclists and other traffic fatalities...”

But isn’t that also just a reflection of how few cyclists there are on the road?

“It is a bit, yes; but you also have to factor in that cycling is growing all the time. We are seeing more bicycles on the road every year. This raises the question: why aren’t the fatality rates also going up?  It seems to be a long-term trend. And when a cycling fatality does happen, it is often a case of terrible misfortune or bad luck. But largely, most accidents can be avoided by drivers taking more care...”

This brings us to the issue of what drivers may be doing to – even if unintentionally – endanger the lives of cyclists. From his own experience and that of BAG’s members in general... what are the most common causes of accidents (or close shaves) involving cars and bikes?

“Looking at the data, one of the main issues is cars pulling out of side streets in front of cyclists. Another is opening car doors. These are both areas where people generally don’t look. What we teach cyclists is to keep eye-contact wherever possible: if you’re coming to a junction, and someone is pulling out... you want to look at that guy, and you want him to look back at you. If he hasn’t looked back at you... then he hasn’t seen you.  So you need to start thinking about taking evasive action. Basically, you need to be on the ball more than they, because you’re the one who’s more vulnerable...”

But how much of this danger can be put down to ‘wilful’ negligence on the part of motorists? Often, cyclists complain of an attitude whereby car drivers feel they have a ‘privileged’ status vis-a-vis bicycles... as though the bicycle is some kind of trespasser on a road-network that was intended primarily for cars... 

“There is a tiny percentage of people who are bullies, yes... and let’s be fair: not just towards cyclists. They’re bullies towards other car drivers, too. They just have a belligerent attitude: they’ll get behind you and honk their horn, because they think you’re not getting out of the way fast enough. That’s really annoying, particularly for a beginner. They’ll come a bit too close... they might pull out even if they’ve seen you, because as long as they’ve got their back to you, it’s your problem, not theirs. But they do exactly the same thing with other cars. The thing is, there are good drivers and bad drivers... just as there are good cyclists and bad cyclists.”

What about the perception that cars have somehow more ‘right’ to be on the road than bikes? My understanding is that the Highway Code applies to bicycles as much as to cars... but it is undeniable that cars offer more protection to their occupants than bicycles. Doesn’t this also mean that perhaps cars and bikes shouldn’t be treated equally in the eyes of the law after all? That in the interest of safety, traffic regulations should somehow be made more ‘bicycle friendly’?

“I think there should be different rules. The modern way of looking at cycling – and it counts for pedestrians, too – is that the rules should be different, simply because the level of protection is different. One example of how this is done in other countries is segregated cycle lanes: particularly in London, with the ‘cycling superhighways’. From the moment they were built they were incredibly popular, because they provide an actual physical barrier between cyclists and traffic...”

It sounds a bit difficult to implement in Malta, though: with the roads being the size they are, and space too limited to create new ones...

“I recently said much the same thing at the European Conference on Road Safety, where I was chairing one of the workshops. I was discussing cycling infrastructure with a woman from Amsterdam, and I said: ‘We can’t really do it here, because we’ve got medieval cities, the roads are very narrow, etc...’. She replied: ‘What do you think we’ve got in Amsterdam? It’s a medieval city, too. We’ve got exactly the same problems: we can’t just widen the roads because of the canals, etc.’ So what they do [in Amsterdam] is have one street for cars... and the next street parallel to it reserved for cyclists, and pedestrians in general: a place where children can play in the streets, making for a more liveable community. I think that’s the way we need to go in the long-term...”

But there are other, simpler measures that can be taken in the meantime. “I think we have to go for low-hanging fruit. One of the easiest things we can do is set up cycling routes: not separate lanes, just signposted routes indicating where cyclists should go. One of the biggest problems people encounter when shifting from car to bicycle, is that they keep using the routes they are used to when driving. So they’re still in traffic: it’s smoky, smelly, noisy, there are cars passing left right and centre... no wonder they get a little frightened.  What we do is suggest new routes for cyclists to get from A to B, based on the experience of our members. We try to move them onto backroads wherever possible. Sometimes, however, it isn’t possible: you need to connect those backroads up, and this means getting back onto main roads from time to time. It’s also got to be efficient: bicycles are similar to cars in this respect... you want them to take you to your destination in the shortest and most convenient route possible. There’s no sense in going from San Gwann to St Julians via Siggiewi. But there are routes along backroads that you can take; and people may not know about them if they’re only used to driving.  So one thing that can easily be done is create formal cycling routes, with signage and marking, to actually help people find their way around...”

Nonetheless, the present motoring infrastructure still needs revisiting on a number of fronts. Some of BAG’s suggestions in this regard are likely to prove contentious.

“One thing we might have to consider is removing or restricting car parking spaces. This is a very thorny subject: we’re very careful about suggesting it, because we know it won’t go down very well. But we’ve got a Catch-22 situation here. There are a lot of one-way streets, which were made one-way to increase parking: by making both sides of the street parking zones, instead of only one. Meanwhile, government doesn’t want to bring in parking meters or introduce congestion zones, or do anything to stop people getting more cars. But that means you’ve got to try twice as hard to help people use alternative forms of transport...”

Government’s reluctance can easily be explained by electoral concerns: anything that will create ‘inconveniences’ for motorists is considered an automatic vote-loser. But this illustrates another Catch-22 situation. Ultimately, the people complaining most about traffic are the ones who are actually stuck in it: i.e., car drivers. We can all see the traffic situation worsen each year... we continue to contribute to it ourselves... and then we complain when governments try and address this very issue through ‘unpopular measures’. How does one get out of a vicious circle like that?

Jim Wightman argues that we must face the fact that cars no longer fulfil the purpose they were meant to serve: that they are no longer necessarily the quickest or most efficient way to get from A to B. 

“Let’s be honest: cars are not doing a good enough job of it. We’ve let them overpopulate our road-space... and they’re not even moving anymore. So you can hardly say they’ve done a good job. It’s about time we started looking at other alternatives. Now, we look at cycling because that’s where our interest lies: but whatever alternative transport we talk about – be it a metro, or a monorail, or ferries, or whatever – it would have to be planned so as to provide a real alternative to cars. If it’s an underground railway, for instance, one would have to be able to reach the station on foot. Otherwise it just won’t work. Even if we build multi-storey carparks at every tube station... people won’t bother parking there. Once they’ve driven that distance, they’ll just keep driving all the way to their destination. So we do have to be a little careful when planning these things...”

It remains debatable, however, whether our national reliance on the motorised vehicle, as preferred mode of transport, can be lessened merely by providing alternatives.  At the risk of simplifying: people like cars in Malta. You could almost say we’re addicted to the automobile... there is an entire mini-economy built on vehicle ownership: importation, the sale of new and second-hand cars, garages and mechanics, car accessories, etc. How does one even begin to convince people to change such a deeply ingrained relationship with the internal combustion engine?

“It’s something we’ve been arguing for some time about within the cycling argument: do you tell drivers that, eventually, they’re going to reach a grinding halt, and therefore have to do something about it now? Or do you just let them? When we started out, our attitude was mostly: ‘just let them’. Eventually, they’ll find out the hard way. But it was pointed out to us that this approach simply won’t work. When you think about it, we used to be able to get just about anywhere by car in around 10, 15 minutes.  Now, you might be looking at an hour. We’re not happy about it, true: but we accept it as part and parcel of owning a car. What about when it becomes two hours?  Chances are we would still accept it. So the idea that people will get fed up and stop using cars... well, some will; but the majority won’t.”

This suggests that the change will somehow have to be imposed from above. 

“Let me put it this way: it’s a bit like a festering zit on a teenager’s face. At some point, it is going to pop. Now: who actually squeezes this zit... whether it’s the Nationalist or Labour governments... I don’t know. But at some point, the transport minister is going to have to take that zit and squeeze it. You can’t just keep adding 28 cars to the roads each day, and then build more roads to accommodate them. On an island this size, you can’t build enough roads for the number of cars we keep adding to them.  It simply can’t be done: we can’t build our way out of this. So we need to start thinking of ways to get people to use their cars less...”