The Malta Independent 22 July 2019, Monday

‘Very clear’ that whoever wrote national cycling strategy does not cycle

Albert Galea Monday, 18 March 2019, 11:12 Last update: about 5 months ago

The amount of cars on Malta’s roads is ever increasing, with latest statistics showing that there was an increase of 78 vehicles per day in 2018. However, not everyone has taken to sitting behind the wheel. Albert Galea meets Michelle Attard Tonna, the president of the Bicycle Advocacy Group, which lobbies for bicycles to be put before cars.

It is “very clear” that whoever wrote the National Cycling Strategy does not because he has no idea whatsoever of the kind of proposals that should have been made within this strategy, the President of the Bicycle Advocacy Group Michelle Attard Tonna said in an interview with The Malta Independent.

The National Cycling Strategy was launched by Transport Malta last November, with the consultation period on the strategy closing at the end of last January.  However despite being the only NGO dedicated to advocating for cycling, BAG were not consulted in the writing of this strategy, Attard Tonna said.

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She described the strategy as something of a “piecemeal approach”, and said that it lacks any sort of vision in terms of improving the safety of cyclists, encouraging people to shift from cars to cycling, and in terms of simply promoting the mode of transport. 

Attard Tonna questioned the strategy’s vision of doubling cycling by 2050, saying that the last time a national study was taken on this subject was in 2010.  Even then, Attard Tonna said that the current amount of cyclists was 0.1%, before observing that the target of 0.2% by 2050 was “very poor”, especially when cities like Seville in Spain which, she said, is similar to Malta in climate and culture managed to increase their number of cyclists from 0.5% to 7% in the space of just four years.

Malta has seen a lot of work and money injected into its infrastructure as of late, however many have argued that the work is offering a short term solution to Malta’s problems in the transport sector.  Would you subscribe to that view?  Are Malta’s priorities in infrastructural improvement flawed or are they heading in the right direction?

As BAG, we are in favour of infrastructural projects and developments; if a road, a pavement or a bridge is going to be upgraded, everybody is going to benefit from that.  The problem however is that most infrastructural projects happen at the cost of alternative transport.

For example, in the last few months we’ve seen a direction towards road widening, taking roads like Buqana, Marsa, and Tal-Balal as examples.  This is not rocket science; the more you widen roads the more you are going to attract cars.  If somebody is usually stuck in traffic and would consider using another mode of transport, when the roads are widened and obviously the congestion temporarily decreases, they go back to using the car as they say that there is no traffic anymore.  In engineering and architecture they refer to this concept as “induced demand”; the more you widen the roads, the more you invite cars to come. 

In Malta we already have a huge problem with the amount of cars we have per capita, so incentivising people to buy more cars or to use a car for every trip they make, will obviously make the problem worse.  These projects are very car-centric and this is not only to the detriment of cyclists, but also to pedestrians. I become very aware when travelling by bicycle of pedestrians and their experiences.  When travelling by bike one uses routes which pass through the village core, away from the main roads, so one tends to meet more people walking on foot – and then you begin to realise that there is a complete disregard for people who are walking.

For instance, there are spaces where there are no pavements meaning that people do not even travel short distances which can be very practical, such as between Mosta and University, because it is too dangerous. I saw a picture of the works at Buqana recently, and the first thing blocked during the works was the pavement, meaning that if people usually have to use that stretch of road on foot to reach their destination they cannot anymore and are forced to use your car. 

Recently the Ministry for Transport published a National Cycle Strategy, consultation on which closed some weeks ago.  What is BAG’s stand point on this strategy?

We submitted our views as an NGO on it before the consultation period closed. 

First of all, it is very clear that whoever wrote this strategy does not cycle because he has no idea whatsoever of the kind of proposals that should have been made in this strategy. It was like a piecemeal kind of approach – a cycle lane here, a cycle corridor there, or places where you can tie the bike – but nobody spoke about the whole experience from when you leave home with a bicycle to when you arrive at your destination alive and unhurt.  

Safety is the most dominant problem for cycling in Malta; people don’t ride because they perceive it to be dangerous – and it is.  I do it every day, and because of bad design I am risking my life, as are most of our members.  The strategy seems to be missing a direction on how to address this danger which we experience, which is why it is clear that the people who wrote that strategy absolutely do not have any experience on a bicycle.

To encourage people to ride a bike, one needs to make it easier for people to ride a bicycle as opposed to driving their car – if it is going to be more difficult, dangerous or longer, then it is obvious that people are not going to ditch their car for a bicycle as there are no benefits to it.  This is also missing – there is no clear direction to make it easier for people to do that shift.

There is very little to promote cycling.  There is a target set out which says that by 2050 cycling will have doubled.  Firstly, we asked what figure they were using and how they knew how many cyclists there are on the street in 2019 – the last time a study was made on a national level was in 2010. As a vision though it is very poor; by 2050, God knows what is going to happen and in what state Malta would be.  Currently the number of cyclists is at 0.1% - so we’re saying that we’re going to bring it to 0.2%?  What impact will that have on the state of things in 2050? 

The city of Seville is an example which we should take; they had a level of 0.5% and managed to increase it to 7% in just four years.  They are a Mediterranean city similar to us; the same lazy culture mentality as us, and a similar climate.  However, they changed their whole infrastructure and prioritised bicycles over cars.  They left cars to take a longer route and fashioned the city centre in such a manner where it can be accessed only by walk, bike or public transport – leaving people to relax and socialise in peace. This kind of direction and these kinds of ideas bring change; we cannot expect people to change while leaving the infrastructure as it is now.

Was BAG consulted before it was written?

No.  We contacted the department within Transport Malta entrusted with this strategy – which was actually first mentioned eight years ago – to remind them that, as the only NGO advocating for cycling, they should at least let us know what they are writing and consult with us. After all, we are the experts doing this every day. But no; about a month before it was launched we were shown a short presentation – they refused to give us a hard-copy – where they told us what they were going to do. 

Speaking of the consultation though, one point which we gave very detailed feedback on was the introduction of a cycling corridor to University, because this essentially starts from nowhere and, at points, ends nowhere as well.  Despite our feedback though it is now being implemented; so we get the message that whoever is responsible for the strategy is not reading the feedback and is just going on with whatever was planned. 

How would you describe the relationship between the government and BAG? Do you feel like your concerns are acknowledged and acted upon?

As a new committee – BAG was founded 6 years ago, but we took over last April – we met the authorities and told them that it is a win-win situation if we worked together, and we started identifying those infrastructural projects which were going to impact our members and road-users in general.

The first project we worked with them on was the Central Link project because we noticed that there was no link whatsoever for cyclists to connect between Attard and Zebbug. Initially they told us “yes, okay we’ll do this and that”, but then our ideas eventually were not taken onboard.  It is not a happy marriage with the authorities. 

However, we are noticing that pressure is increasing from the grassroots; there’s more awareness even from people who do not use a bike so it is entering the public discourse and being normalised. These are after all voters so maybe some kind of pressure is building up. Sometimes the authorities – even though it is mostly rhetoric – do speak of cyclists or cycle lanes when launching a project. I was not noticing that two or three years ago, so it is at least starting to be introduced in the public discourse.

Ian Borg gave an interview last month where he said: “We should help the portion of the population willing to do so, but we cannot fool ourselves into thinking Malta will ever be Amsterdam. We are not Amsterdam, in climate, culture or geography. How can you expect the most obese nation in Europe to cycle in 35 degree weather?”  What is your response to such a statement?

I think it was very irresponsible of the Transport Minister to speak in that manner, because he should be representing all road users, not just those driving cars.  It is also a very short-sighted view; how much can you widen roads for cars? Malta is already very small so space is going to be used up very soon and we will end up in a situation where we are gridlocked, and then we will realise that the road isn’t wide enough. Widening does initially decrease the problem, but it does not last long.  Widening roads is not some sort of miracle cure.

As regards to culture and us not being Amsterdam – actually we initiated a campaign on that, putting up photos on social media with #MaltaNotAmsterdam to show that we can still cycle here.  Amsterdam was, in the 1970s, like Malta.  There were many cars and many children dying from traffic accident fatalities.  The community resisted this, and instead now all you see there are bicycles. It is not like change is impossible; you can be the change and do the change.

We have a bike-friendly climate – it would be more difficult if we were living in a country with a sub-zero climate or which is raining all the time; our climate is mild enough to allow you to cycle.

With regards to this idea that we are an obese country...so what?  It is like a fat man who keeps going to the doctor with ailments because of his weight and the doctor tells him that he has to lose weight or he’ll have a heart attack, and the person does not want to listen – he likes eating and being lazy so he buys bigger trousers every time, giving him the illusion that everything is okay. 

This is what we’re doing in Malta; giving ourselves the illusion that things can be better by not addressing the situation.  Even those who decide not to use the car are suffering.  It’s like second hand smoking – you have children with respiratory problems; they don’t drive or decide on their mobility, but they suffer from the negatives caused by traffic anyway.  What are we going to do? Throw the towel and say that we’re lazy and this is Malta? No; we have to do something about it.

You say we have to do something about it – what is BAG doing?

BAG is, first and foremost, a lobby group and our main message is to put bikes before cars.  I meet a lot of people everyday who seem me on my bike and tell me that they’d love to do what I am doing but feel that it’s too dangerous.  Maybe some people are inherently lazy, but there is a section of the population who would like to try cycling out.  When the naysayers realise that it is quicker, wastes less time and money, and is cleaner, only then will the perception start to change.  The authorities have to do something and this is why we are lobbying. 

With regards to initiatives, we carry out educational campaigns in schools and with local councils and encourage people to start by carrying out small errands within their immediate area by bike. We also have a system cycling buddies; if there is a new person in our group it may be intimidating to cycle alone initially, so we find people from that area who can accompany that person till he or she learns the ropes.  We are working on a cycling bus that picks up people riding towards a common destination, creating strength in numbers and more visibility, along with organising various rides. 

We also carry out research, which is very important for us. When we see statistics published by authorities on the level of emissions being lowered through a certain project for instance, we have our own scientists and researchers and we calculate trip times and air emissions which give us a sound basis for our arguments.

You mentioned the need for more bike-friendly infrastructure – how would this look?

Firstly we always mentioned the idea that village cores should be free from cars. There is this problem wherein people are using less and less outdoor spaces because of the fear of being run over or because there is a lack of parking; so we want that the village core is left for pedestrians, public transport and bicycles.  That will slowly start clearing the village core from the amount of exhaust and pollution being created by cars.

Every new road must also cater for all road users.  It’s not acceptable that a pavement is too narrow for wheelchair users; it’s not acceptable that one has to walk 500 metres to use a pedestrian crossing, which, even then, are always planned for the traffic flow not to break – why are pedestrians treated as second class citizens?  As the people who pollute the least they should be given priority over car-users.  There are incentives which promote walking and cycling. We are not re-inventing the wheel; these are ideas which make a pedestrian’s or a cyclist’s life easier so that we don’t have to struggle for something which should be our right.

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