At its heart this blog has a simple message. Seeing a cyclist is something to cheer, an uplifting feeling from HG Wells’ experiences of cycling in the 1890s right through to today.
So it was all a bit worrying in Malta this week when I took 89 hours from arrival to see a single sign of cycling life, other than our visiting group. My colleagues said they saw one cyclist on the second day, but I missed him or her and from that point onwards the search became a bit like a birdwatcher seeking an elusive rare species. I almost cheered when I saw my first rider on day four, he must have wondered why this passing rider had such a silly grin on his face as he passed. This is indeed the only cycling post on Idonotdespair so far where I don’t have a single picture of a local cyclist, except our host Roberta on our group ride.
I was in Malta for a workshop as part of an international project to boost cycle commuting which has a Maltese partner as part of a 12 nation consortium. While we were discussing the high potential for further growth by learning from countries like Denmark and the Netherlands we were all sensitive to the huge challenge face by our Maltese friends to get cycling going here, especially at our press conference on the final day.
All week the local paper was full of stories about congestion on the roads and that is hardly surprising given that Malta has the second highest level of regular car use in the EU, one of the lowest levels of public transport use and very definitely the lowest level of cycling, by a large margin. When it comes to cycling it is congested, hilly, hot and has inherited many of its attitudes to cycling from that well known cycling laggard and former colonial power, Britain. I understand that it was probably the Brits who advised the Maltese on their transport policies in more recent years, not a recommendation from cycling point of view.
In fact we seem to have left such a great legacy that our other Mediterranean colony Cyprus joins Malta at the bottom of the cycling league tables. Not a good trend is it. British heritage = rubbish at developing daily cycling, British transport heritage and driving on the left, even worse, a special club combining the UK, Australia, Malta and Cyprus.
But knowing that we just did what we always do. We went for one of our multi-national bike rides to explore the reality on the ground, 20 foreigners forming a sort of critical mass in the late afternoon gloom. Then the following day I went for a solo ride despite a very stormy afternoon. So as usual I give you the I Do Not Despair snapshot of another country, with perhaps a bit less “adult on a bicycle” than the normal observations. The photography was even more challenging in the half light, wind and rain so apologies for the blurry edges.
Our group ride left our hotel at St George’s Bay to ride around the coast and inlets of St Julian’s Bay and Sliema, cutting across the steep headlands on the return. Only a few kilometres as the night closed in but a real taste of some of the challenges of Maltese roads. And doing it as a group we had a safety in numbers effect and lots of visibility. Lots of smiles
There were some attractive vistas across the bays, especially the capital Valetta which was tantalisingly close across the harbour.
Riding on my own to Valetta a day later I was less confident and spent a bit of time hiding on pavements and promenades which seemed more sensible, but the conditions that night were a bit extreme. (Post to follow)
What was it that led to this reticence? Yes there were no cycle paths and the roads were a bit hilly and narrow, but that is not exactly unusual in many of the places I ride, not least Brussels. No the main problem here was the cluelessness of the drivers. I wouldn’t call them super aggressive, it’s just that they had absolutely no idea how to drive around cyclists because clearly they hardly see any. In fact they weren’t particularly dangerous on the busy city and coast roads because their congestion and the narrow side streets acted as excellent traffic calming.
We got honked at a few times when we were actually doing nothing particularly obstructive or when it was absolutely clear that the street was only just about wide enough for a cyclist so there was no way a car would come past even if we pulled over to the side. When there was a gap the drivers didn’t hang back, they tended to pull up beside us which was disconcerting for our less experienced riders and pushed everyone in to the edge.
I tried to hang at the back of the group on the bigger roads a few times and take my preferred “primary position”, hanging out into the carriageway to try and deter their encroachment into the group but without much luck.
On my own in the dark and the wet I wasn’t trying the primary position but there was further evidence that motorists hadn’t much experience of cycling or walking when the roads got really wet. The dreaded bow wave, a wall of water sometimes over metre high when the cars accelerated into the puddles instead of recognising that there were people outside the car as well!
I don’t think the roads were so much worse or unforgiving than many other towns and cities with higher cycling levels. But as well as no cycle lanes there was very little other help from the authorities. For example the older areas were a wonderful maze of narrow streets, especially in the capital city Valetta. To cope with cars they have mostly been made into one way streets but that makes navigation around the city somewhat complicated. A simple adoption of universal contraflow cycling across the cities would open up huge networks of streets instantly.
And some parking restraint wouldn’t go amiss either, that could open up a hell of a lot of space and start changing an attitude that the car is king.
Off season the wide promenades are also perfectly good shared use spaces too, we were advised to use them by our bike tour operator and that was definitely a good call. Great views too.
There are undoubtedly some seeds of change and as usual we met some really committed people who want cycling on the island to succeed. Above all the congestion is reaching a point where the citizens and public authorities know something has to happen. And we know from other countries that part of the human rebellion that set cycling going was a reaction to congestion, when cycling is so much quicker and easier than other transport. A chap from the ministry of transport that I met at our press conference also suggested that e-bikes could be part of the solution, probably not a bad move in a hot hilly country. (Our rainy days were far from usual.)
I also heard that local cycling events can get up to 5,000 participants which is great, the cyclists must be out there somewhere and there are groups of cyclists coming here on tour which must raise its status. But it is going to be a long haul, there has to be a critical mass of cyclists that emerges in at least one town or city somewhere on the island to give it some profile and start educating the local drivers. And despite everyone at our press conference agreeing that it wouldn’t be easy they all then went off into little groups discussing great ideas and places where perhaps it would be possible to get people cycling to work.
My thanks to our hosts who made it an excellent trip and a special thanks to Denis Debono from Bybike who provided possibly the friendliest bike hire service I have come across. He provided the bikes, guide and running commentary on Thursday, then he dashed halfway across the island to bring us bikes on Friday afternoon’s ride and made himself available for a call when the storm caused most of the group to give up our ride to Valetta. Highly recommended and a good reason to cycling in Malta.