Before I moved to Malta with my bicycle, I was prepared for the worst.
If my hasty online research was anything to go by, Maltese road users were nothing but pent-up balls of rage, looking for any excuse to send a cyclist careening into a nearby stone wall. What’s more, the roads themselves were so narrow that cars flew past cyclists by a hair’s breadth, and the entire network was built on a series of Alpine gradients steep enough to bring tears to the eyes of the most hardened commuter.
Since I rolled off the ferry from Sicily, my beautiful blue bike has been my only means of transport, taking me to university, to the supermarket, to social engagements, and on day trips around the island. In this time I have found that the truth to cycling in Malta is a bit more nuanced than I had been led to believe.
Yes indeed, there are some less-than-ideal drivers on the road. The relaxed Mediterranean island attitude disappears swiftly for many once they get behind the wheel, no doubt in large part due to the congestion. However, the counterpoint of this is that, due to this very congestion, traffic tends to be slow, and I rarely find cars racing past me anywhere in the city area. Along country lanes, speeds are also largely kept in check as a side effect of the lack of visibility on the narrow, windy stone-walled roads. Though it might seem surprising, in my experience Maltese drivers are on the whole quite cautious on these routes, perhaps not by choice but rather out of necessity.
I have ridden my bike through more than half of the countries in Europe, and can honestly say that cycling in Malta does not stand out as a remarkable challenge. All countries have their pros and cons: England has a growing, buzzing cycling culture and gorgeous country roads, but the roads are desperately narrow, with fast traffic whizzing by much too close; Hungary is beautifully flat and perfect for longer commutes, but the wider infrastructure is lacking. In fact, the only thing that truly stands out in Malta is the disbelief directed towards cyclists: you’d have to be crazy to cycle here.
That said, things are still far from ideal. One method used by Sustrans (UK) to determine the safety of a cycle network is by asking the question “Would I be happy for a 12-year-old to cycle unsupervised here?” The answer, almost unequivocally throughout Malta, is a resounding no. However, all improvements must begin somewhere, and the first step towards an inclusive, normalised local bicycle culture will come from a groundswell of voices from those of us who want to feel safe to use their bikes freely here. This is exactly the approach taken by the Maltese bicycle advocacy group Rota, who organise cycling events and push for improvements in infrastructure and safety.
In the Maltese context, cycling has further side-effects that offer solutions to two major challenges. One is the aforementioned traffic congestion: Maltese car ownership is the fourth-highest in the EU, and the dependency on cars as a default mode of transport must be challenged if congestion is to be genuinely tackled. Second, and likely related, is Malta’s obesity rate, the highest in Europe. A growth in cycling culture means a resulting increase in physical activity and provides a practical way to tackle this issue head-on.
But finally, what about the hills? Yes, I’ll willingly admit that the hills are there, and the hills are steep, but the hills are also mercifully short – the Dingli Plateau ain’t exactly Mont Blanc. What’s more, the recent growth and accessibility of electric bike culture means that one can even opt out of pedalling for the steeper sections of a trip to the shops.
So if you’re thinking of commuting to campus by bike, my advice is to give it a try – you might be surprised to find out that it’s often faster than driving – and if you enjoyed it enough to try it again, join the University of Malta facebook group for cyclists and become part of the community. Here in Malta, every bike on the road is a small challenge against the pervading idea that this is not a country for cycling, and every journey made on two wheels is a step towards a healthier and safer country for all.