Cyclists are road users, too | Michelle Attard Tonna

Bicycle Advocacy Group president MICHELLE ATTARD TONNA argues that traffic authorities should stop looking at cyclists and pedestrians as ‘extras’ to be catered for separately. Everyone is entitled to public space, not just cars

Bicycle Advocacy Group President Michelle Attard Tonna
Bicycle Advocacy Group President Michelle Attard Tonna

There’s been a lot of talk about the Central Link Project recently, and some of it has been centred on (the lack of) cycling infrastructure. What sort of traffic system did the Bicycle Advocacy Group hope to see, both in this project, and on Maltese roads in general?

As an NGO, we are opposed to the Central Link project in principle, even if it included a bicycle infrastructure network. Because if you have to cycle through Attard to go to Rabat, Zebbug or Mriehel, or wherever… it doesn’t make sense, if all the other places lack the infrastructure. Apart from that, this project also promotes and reinforces our over-dependency on car-use. We have been lobbying about this for quite some time now. First of all, there is a lack of ideas and creativity from the authorities when it comes to mobility in Malta. Distances are very, very short. Every day in winter, I cycle from Zabbar to University. It’s about 9.5km. It takes me around 30 minutes, from the time I leave home, to the time I tie up my bicycle on campus. And I cycle very slowly: I am not a sports cyclist; I’m not after speed. I enjoy my commute. But to do the same trip in 30 minutes by car is impossible, in this day and age. It used to take me one and a half, sometimes two hours. A half-hour commute, on the other hand, is nothing special. And most car trips in Malta, especially for work, tend to be within a 5km radius. So why are we not thinking about this, instead of trying to solve the problem only by widening the streets? Or discussing mass public transit systems? I am not at all technical, so I don’t really know if it’s feasible or not. But why do we even have to go for that, when, for many people, cycling could be a solution? It’s not for everyone; we’re not really expecting all drivers to just ditch their cars. I have a car, too… and I use it, when I need to drop the children off, or carry a suitcase. It’s not as though everyone can cycle, all the time. But there is a large section of the population that can do it… that would like to use a bicycle to go to work, run errands, or do the shopping… but most of them are afraid. Or they think it’s not viable, because of the lack of infrastructure…

What would having a cyclist-friendly infrastructure entail, exactly? Are bicycle lanes the only thing that’s missing?

No, not at all. We have consistently gone on record saying that we can’t expect all Malta to have cycle lanes; because it’s not even possible. But there are main thoroughfares – like bypasses, fly-overs, the Central Link – which need to have segregated cycle lanes. There is a huge discrepancy between the speed of a bike, and the speed of a car, so the likelihood of accidents and injuries is much higher on arterial roads. In those areas, the lanes need to be segregated. But in many other places, like village cores, the space can be shared by motorists, cyclists and pedestrians alike. This is the crux of the matter: the way the authorities look at ‘space’, in Malta, is very irrational. They first create roads for the cars to pass. And then, as an afterthought, they say, ‘We need something for cyclists’. So they take up more space for a cycle lane. In principle, however, we need to look at space more holistically. Public space, by definition, is owned by everyone. Everyone is entitled to space in Malta. So we need to split it up according to the best way to move people about, from one place to another. You don’t have to take up more space for pedestrians or cyclists; the space is already there, to accommodate people who don’t want to travel by car.

Or who don’t have a car…

Precisely. Why should we be forced to buy a car in the first place? For instance, we have a number of members from other countries where there already is a bicycle culture. They would have a driver’s licence; but they may have never driven a car before, because they never needed to: they have good public transport at home, and a bicycle infrastructure already in place. They come to Malta, with the idea of cycling; they realise they cannot do it, because of the lack of infrastructure; and they end up buying a car, like everyone else. [Pause] How stupid is that? Instead of seizing this opportunity to bring new cultures of mobility to Malta, and trying to enrich the way we travel… we are forcing foreigners to travel the way we do: by car. This is very short-sighted, and very short-term. In five or 10 years’ time there is going to be a gridlock... if there isn’t one already. This is something we need to address as a matter of urgency; otherwise it will be crisis management.

On the flipside, most people who drive, do so because they want to. Some even criticise cyclists (and environmentalists) for making ‘excessive’ demands on a road network they clearly believe is designed just for cars…

Unfortunately, the authorities like to use that kind of excuse: it has been said on a number of platforms that ’24 sq km would be taken up by cycle lanes’, and therefore, more land is being taken up for cyclists. I think that’s a very unfair comment, because, as I said previously, everybody is entitled to space. So it shouldn’t be that we first think about cars, and then try and see where to fit everything else. It’s like the Marsa project: there were six lanes for cars, and they told us ‘we have to add another lane’ for cyclists. What do you mean, we need another lane? Cyclists are road-users, too. You can’t regard them as extra, separate entities. It is as though they like to create these ‘minorities’ – gay people, people with disability, sometimes foreigners, etc. –  in order to allocate ‘special services’ for them; to bring about the argument that the country is doing something ‘extra’ for those people. But it isn’t the case. I really don’t like the way it is being argued that ‘extra space’ is being taken by cyclists. We are not ‘extra’. We are part of the way people move about; and that’s what transport means. Meanwhile, there are pedestrians to consider. On those occasions when I drive, I sometimes see people doing extraordinary things just to cross a street … like climbing the barriers on a busy flyover. Because there are no traffic lights, or pedestrian crossings; or else, they are expected to walk 200 metres to the closest pedestrian crossing. Who’s going to walk that distance…  twice? Just to cross a road? Even here [at University], on the ring-road, people have to walk side by side with cars, with no space designed for them. It is extremely dangerous. Another big project coming up is the one at Msida. They are going to remove the traffic lights and put up pedestrian fly-overs, so as to keep the cars moving. That’s how the authorities think: ‘we have to keep traffic flowing, because otherwise, people will complain’. You cannot look at it like that. You have to consider that – given a safe, viable alternative – people might decide not to use a car. If you want to use a car… good for you. But if other people are using different modes of transport, you’re going to have less traffic on the streets, so you’re going to get to your destination faster. It’s a win-win situation for everybody….

Yet there seems to be resistance to this, not just from the authorities. I have seen hostile, aggressive comments directed at (among others) cyclists online. Do you think our ‘car culture’ has also created a prejudice against cyclists?

I’m seeing a slow change regarding perceptions of cyclists in Malta. Maybe it’s because I’m biased – being a cyclist myself, I tend to be very positive in my approach. But most of the drivers I encounter in the street are very encouraging, very accommodating. They always give way; they stop at junctions and roundabouts so I can cross safely… because they understand that I’m a commuter, too. I wear normal clothes when I cycle: they can see from my bag that most probably I have a laptop, etc. So they perceive that I’m just like them: I’m trying to reach my place of work, like they are, only not by car. Usually, the negative perceptions tend to be towards sports cyclists: which is very unfair, because obviously, they also have an entitlement to use the roads. But when drivers see that you’re a commuter like everyone else… they understand that you have the same rights as them. Perceptions are changing, in this sense. People are also understanding that this road-widening exercise is ultimately futile. It might work for a few years, but then we’ll be back to square one. The most recent road-widening exercises, like the one at Tal-Balal, are already clogged up with traffic. People see this; they understand that that is not the way to go. Even the issue regarding the trees: the campaign to save the Rabat Road trees brought about a lot of sympathy for the way we should respect space in Malta, and the way we should use that space. So I am seeing a movement towards more understanding of space and mobility; and also more awareness. You hear more people say, “If public transport was efficient and reliable, I would seriously consider it.” Or “If there was good cycling infrastructure, I’d cycle”. Or “If there was shade, I’d walk”…

But as you yourself said earlier, cycling (or even walking) is not for everyone. It requires a certain level of fitness, unimpaired physical co-ordination, the absence of any disability, etc. Some people might feel it is a mode of transportation only for the young or the athletic. How true is this perception?

It is true that not everyone can ride a bike, and that some people wouldn’t want to. But you don’t have to be all that fit to ride a bicycle: especially a pedelec [i.e., pedalling assisted by an electric motor] like mine. I, for example, am not athletic at all. I’ve never done any sports in my life; in fact, I hate sports with a passion, when people say it ‘releases endorphins’, and ‘you become happy’… I could never understand that. I tried, but it never worked with me. I’m a super lazy person. So I did not take up cycling to ‘get fit’; I took it up because coming to University by car was too much hassle. Initially, I rode a normal bike; but some of the other members – because I’m a ‘newbie’, really: I only started cycling two years ago – suggested a pedelec instead.  It has completely changed the way I move. Up-hills no longer require any extra effort. You still pedal… but it feels as though someone is giving you a push. Like you’re on a horizontal level, all the time. So no, you don’t have to be super fit to cycle. Not at all…

Yet for all these persuasive arguments, we still seem hellbent on designing a road infrastructure just for cars. How do you account for this, personally? What is it about cars that makes them so privileged?

One factor is that politicians are afraid of taking bold steps that would make them unpopular. We need to admit that some people are so attached to their cars, they’re like ‘fifth limbs’ to them. Telling those people, “You can’t drive your car on Sundays… or to Valletta, etc.”, would be political suicide. There’s that, too. So basically, we need politicians who have the guts to take these bold measures. Because at this stage, any measure that will make a difference will have to be bold. But I think it has mostly to do with the economic argument. There is a very strong car lobby in Malta. You see it everywhere: adverts; bill-boards; politicians offering a ‘free car’ as a raffle prize at a campaign event… Just yesterday on TV, there was an advert for a barbecue, promising ‘free parking right outside the venue’. By default, it is assumed people will go there by car. Our whole life is structured around the motorcar: because you get your driver’s licence at 18; and immediately you’re almost coerced into buying a car. You don’t really have much choice. Then these 18-year-olds upload pictures of their first car online, and everybody congratulates them... it’s like a rite of passage, for them. The ‘status symbol’ factor is there: autonomy, independence, prestige... many people still think of it like that. But ultimately, it boils down to money. There is a lot of money connected to road construction. Some contractors are making big, big bucks out of it. And roads require constant maintenance. It’s not like you build a road once, and it’s there forever. You have to keep digging it up: to put services underneath, to fix the potholes, etc. So there’s a lot of money going into that, too. Then there’s fuel consumption and taxes. Authorities receive a lot of revenue through taxes connected with road licences and fuel. There are studies which quantify all this revenue: it runs into millions. So we’re not naïve enough to ignore this reality. A bicycle is much cheaper, it doesn’t harm the environment, it doesn’t take up space… and this also means: no revenue in parking, no equivalent of car-parks or petrol stations having to be built to accommodate them, no contracts, etc. There’s a whole argument that cars generate money for some people; and that is the only argument the authorities ever listen to.