I recently had a story published in the Equal Times – one of my favourite publications to work with. As always, it was a demanding process, and I took a long time to work on it. As a result, I collected by far more stories than I could use in the article. Since then, a pedelec rental scheme has been launched in Valletta (I’m still to try it out), and the government hinted at more ferries and other solutions. The blog is a good platform to follow up on the story and reflect on various sub-issues.
To gain a historical perspective, I talked to Manuel (75) about his experience with traffic in Malta throughout his life. “My brother-in-law used to borrow a truck from his friend, pick us all up and drive North for one night and one day,” he remembers of his childhood. The journey would take two hours – not much less than a bus journey now takes from his town. Farmers travelled with mules or donkeys in his days, but Manuel himself got his own car at the age of 18 to work as a sweets hawker. Reflecting on the ballooning of Malta’s ‘vehicle population,’ he said, “It’s not very far, but we need it [the car] so much. You have to be very fast.”
“Now we’re down to 10-11% population that is using the bus, and it cannot go down lower, simply because you’ll always have a minority of the population that cannot drive by default, because they are too young or too old,” says urban geographer Maria Attard, quoted in the article. “The number of elderly people who are increasingly becoming drivers is worrying, because up till now a lot of people, the ones you see on the bus, are the ones who never drove, never got the licence. Those are now on the decline, because the younger, the 60 year olds, all have driving licences. […] The rising population will always have been drivers now, and they are completely car dependent,” she told me. “The young, of course, are completely dependent on the car by being chauffeured every day. I have students who have never used public transport, which is funny, but also very, very sad. That means that they never experienced independence, they’ve never experienced the social interaction that happens on a bus.”
Change “obviously needs input from various parties… You need politicians to believe in that, and I think for politicians to believe in that we need to start seeing them experience the realities of people travelling with alternative means, whether it’s cycling, on foot or on a bus,” Jonathan Sammut, also quoted in the article on behalf of the Bicycle Advocacy Group, said. “We need politicians to experience pushing someone with a wheelchair around, from here [we sat on a bench in Msida] to the end of marina. There is an obstruction – what do you do, you have to go on the road. On the road the cars are facing you – is it safe?”
Before this happens, what can individuals do to make a change when so many fear to brave the insufficient bus and cycling infrastructure? Renato Camilleri, also interviewed for the article, has a simple suggestion of multi-modality: “We’ve become more open to other modes. If you don’t restrict yourself that I have to travel by car, you can use the bus. The journey from Qrendi to junior college, when it’s not in peak hour, takes only 35 min by bus – and I have to catch two buses – which is excellent.” A mix of rental or own bikes, ferries and buses is a cheap alternative to stressful driving, circling the location to find parking, and cursing at every step of this process. Sometimes it’s actually faster.