Cycling in Malta: How to stay safe on the roads
Here are some phrases we often hear about Malta: "It's sunny most of the year", "the distances are short" and "traffic is insane". Put together these short but true statements sum up exactly why it makes so much sense to use a bicycle in Malta. So what is holding people back, if logically it would make life so much easier, healthier… and greener?
We spoke to Malta's (non-profit) cyclist lobby group - Bicycle Advocacy Group (BAG) - as well as bike-share operator nextbike Malta. They shared their experiences as well as some tips for cycling safely in Malta.
WHY CYCLE IN MALTA?
Many people perceive cycling as a dangerous means of transport. Others feel it's inconvenient since being on a bicycle exposes you to the elements. But experienced cyclists have another story to tell.
James Gabarretta picked up cycling to get to his destination on time. He soon found that, apart from avoiding traffic, he was also steering clear of stress.
"Cycling actually makes me happier. It gives me a sense of freedom, increases my focus levels and gives me the opportunity to carry out exercise daily. And being environmentally conscious is very important. Driving pollution-free makes you feel like you're really doing something positive for the planet," says James from nextbike Malta.
Similarly, Michelle Attard Tonna took up cycling as a last, desperate measure after endless commutes stuck in traffic - in a car. Her only regret, she says, is not having done so sooner.
Put in her own words: "Cycling is one of the simplest, yet most enjoyable means of staying active and travelling from one place to another. The bicycle gives me the freedom of reaching places at exactly the time I plan. I have removed all forms of anxiety from my commute as traffic and parking issues are now a thing of the past".
Now, both Michelle and James only use their cars on rare occasions. Michelle uses it when she needs to ferry her kids around, while James opts for his car in extreme weather conditions.
Through experience, they say, most people don't consider cycling because of misconceptions - about the unbearable heat, or unsafe roads. The heat can be managed by carefully selecting less hilly routes or avoiding peak hours. Michelle addressed the issue by opting for a pedelec (an electric bicycle) that does the hard work so she doesn't get to work sweaty. In fact, she wears her work clothes while cycling and carries her stuff in bags that attach to the sides of her bicycle.
"The commute gives me the opportunity to enjoy the ride, appreciate many areas in Malta which are inaccessible by car, meet people who often stop and chat with me, and arrive in a happy, relaxed state. And never one minute late. I lock my bike exactly outside my office door and take the opportunity to have that espresso before I start my day, with the happy knowledge that I have not polluted the air to get to work," adds Michelle who is also the president of BAG.
As for road safety, both cyclists agree, this can be overcome by picking safer routes with less traffic, learning the rights skills and observing the rules and best practices while on the road.
WHAT ARE THE RULES?
Cyclists are expected to abide by Malta's traffic regulations as outlined in the Highway Code. They must also follow the Low-powered Vehicles and Pedal Cycles Regulations, drawn up specifically for cyclists. Here are some main points:
Be heard: Bicycles must have a functional bell or horn capable of giving sufficient warning of their approach or position.
Be seen: They must be fitted with: (a) a front lamp showing a white light, (b) a rear lamp showing a red light, (c) a rear reflector, coloured red.
Dress safely: Do not wear clothes which may become tangled in the chain, or wheel or may hide your lights. Wear light-coloured or other clothing which helps road users see you in daylight and poor light. Wear reflective clothing and/or accessories (belt, arm or ankle bands) in the dark.
Cycling at night: This is not allowed unless all the above lights are fitted. The rear red reflector must be clearly visible for at least 50 metres from the rear of the cycle when light is projected onto it by a vehicle's headlight on low-beam.
Riding in public areas: It is generally not allowed to cycle along a promenade, in pedestrian subways, in road tunnels or on footpaths. It is only permitted with a speed limit of not more than 6 kilometres per hour and cyclists must give way to pedestrians. (Children under 12 can ride on footpaths and promenades).
Riding on the road: Cyclists must keep to the nearside left of the road as possible in the direction of traffic except on the approach to an intersection or a roundabout or when overtaking other traffic.
Riding solo: It is illegal for more than one person to ride a bicycle. Holding on to another moving vehicle while cycling is also prohibited.
GUIDELINES FOR CYCLISTS
While the law lays down what's allowed and prohibited on the road, there are other things to keep in mind to ensure safety on the road. As a key source of information for cyclists in Malta, BAG shares some 'best practice' tips to cyclists about driving in traffic.
Pass parked cars by at least a door's width. Watch for movement inside the car and faces in the wing-mirrors, which may give you early warning of a door opening in your path.
Check behind you frequently. It not only tells you what's approaching, it also makes the rest of the traffic more alert and responsive to your presence.
Communicate with the traffic. Use appropriate hand signals and head movements. Be predictable. Make eye contact with drivers, ahead and behind alike.
Large vehicles. When large vehicles stop at traffic lights, never pull up beside them. Stay well behind or, where practical, well in front. Fatal accidents can be caused by large vehicles moving off and colliding with cyclists they haven't seen.
Don't listen to music on headphones. Remain fully aware of your environment using all your senses.
Wear highly visible clothing. This way, you are always easily seen. Ensure your bicycle is visible and has front and rear lights (as according to law).
Don't ride in the gutter. Occasionally, you might find yourself doing this in the belief that it will help you avoid traffic. Not only does doing this expose you to the broken glass and other rubbish that will damage your tyres, but it also puts you more at risk of collision with pedestrians and decreases the leeway passing cars will grant you.
Cycling in the heat. Make sure you stay hydrated, dress lightly (consider changing into your suit once you get to the office), avoid peak hours, seek flatter routes and travel lightweight. Consider using an electric bike that does most of the work for you.
Stick to the motto. Predict and be predictable.
It's great to know the laws and best practices. But the first step to cycling is - learning how to ride a bike and buying a bicycle. You could, of course, start off by renting a bike from any of the outlets listed on Yellow where you will also find a list of shops offering sportswear.
Enjoy discovering local on two wheels - visit www.yellow.com.mt!