Monday, October 12, 2015

My Grand Transport Experiment

Last week I undertook an experiment. Together with many other residents of the tiny little rock that constitutes Malta, I was growing increasingly dissatisfied with the traffic situation and the amount of time it was taking me to cover the distance between home and work. The Maltese Islands measure only 316 square kilometer, but are densely populated, with almost 450,000 inhabitants, most of whom get around by car: in 2014 there were over 300,000 registered cars. 

In the last weeks the already dismal traffic situation turned even worse. Every day I was confronted with the question what would be the best way to get to work. Take the car, because after work I would have a meeting in another town and I would not make it in time by bus? Go by bus, because I would not have to worry about finding a parking spot for the car? Take the ferry, because the bus would get stuck in traffic and take ages to arrive? By bicycle, because the ferry might leave late again? By car, because it might rain and it would be dangerous to cycle because the potholes in the road become invisible because of the water runoff? By ferry, because the traffic is even worse when it rains? By bus, because the ferry might not run because of stormy weather?

Day 1: Bus

Eager to do something and contribute to the current public discussion about the traffic issue, I came up with an experiment: use a different mode of transport every day of the working week to find the easiest and most convenient way to get to work in the morning, to show that there are alternatives to the almighty automobile. Every day I shared my experience with a different mode of travel on Facebook, including a photo and information on how long that day’s journey took, as well as a map showing the routes of my different travel modes:  

Day 2: Car

On day 1 I opted for the bus. It arrived 15 minutes late and got stuck in traffic almost immediately. In total it took me 1.5 hours to get from home to work. I opted for the car on day 2. Even though I took the shortcut through Dock 7 to avoid traffic in Paola and Marsa, it still took me 1 hour and 15 minutes to arrive at work, and I actually got lucky and found a parking spot close to work immediately, something that sometimes can take another 10 minutes to achieve. On day 3 I took my bicycle on the ferry that runs every half hour between the Three Cities and Valletta, then took my bike in the lift up to Valletta and cycled from there to Gzira. I cycled all the way from home to work on day 4, again taking the shortcut through the docks and then passing through Marsa and Hamrun down to Msida, and from there to Gzira. On day 5 I walked. Not because I thought it would be the fastest way to get to work, but because I thought it might actually be faster than taking the bus or the car. And it was. In the table below I’ve compared the time, distance, cost, carbon emissions and calories burned of each transport mode, to give a complete picture of the pros and cons of each mode.

Transport mode
Distance (km)
Cost single journey (€)
Carbon emissions (kg)[i]
Calories burned[ii]
Ferry + bicycle
(1.5 km ferry)
On foot

Day 3: Ferry + Bicycle

I was happily surprised to see that many other people are also shaking up their usual morning commute. The effects of this tragedy of the commons, whereby individuals act according to their own self-interest, but ultimately contrary to the best interest of the whole group have now become too profound to ignore. Some people look to the government to provide a solution, and there is talk of new roads, a better bus service, alternative transportation over water, changing work or school hours, the creation of tramlines, a light rail or even an underground system. However, none of these solutions, even though they might contribute to combating the issue in the long run, will provide a short-term solution to the current traffic nightmare.

Day 4: Bicycle

From my experiment it appears that cycling (whether or not combined with a ferry trip) is by far the fastest way to get to work for me. And I believe it can be a solution for many others. Of course there are obstacles to cycling, physical ones such as the many hills and narrow streets, and emotional ones, such as the fear to participate in traffic on a bicycle, and yes, the mad looks other road-users, friends or colleagues can give you. I must admit that I sometimes resort to cycling on pavements or against the flow of traffic in one-way streets. This is not because I have a slight disposition for disobedience (or well, maybe it is), but largely because of the lack of infrastructure that allows one to cycle in safety. In many other countries, one-way streets actually allow for two-way bicycle traffic, and pavements are abutted with bicycle lanes. I believe the creation of dedicated bicycle lanes and routes would be a tremendous support for the many people who would like to try out cycling, but are too afraid of partaking in traffic in the current infrastructural setup, and for sure they’re easier to construct than an underground system!

Day 5: On foot

It was so exciting to change up my morning routine every day. All transport options have their good and bad sides, but irrespectively, they all bring something fresh and rewarding: the bus ride that allows you to read another chapter of the book you’re engrossed in, the shameless singalong during a car commute, the invigorating feeling after morning exercise from a bicycle ride, the fresh breeze and beautiful vistas of a trip by ferry through the Grand Harbour, and the unexpected finds and meditative pace of walking a route you normally traverse at higher speed.

After all, there is no one size fits all. And this is maybe the best insight that my experiment provided for me. Not every day is the same, and to keep your morning commute interesting and accommodate the specific needs you have on a certain day, it pays off to experiment with different solutions. I encourage you to try it out as well! Who’s next?

[i] CO2 emissions of the journey, based on estimates and averages (sources below). Not taking into account manufacture or disposal of vehicles.
[ii] Values for walking at a brisk pace and for cycling at a moderate pace. Source:
[iii] CO2/km (in kg) for bus travel per passenger: 0.0891 kg. Source:
[iv] Price for fuel and annual car license fee. Not including insurance or maintenance costs.
Price for 1 liter of diesel in Malta in October 2015: €1.28/l. Source:
9.85 km = €0.61
Car license fee: ~€150/yr = €0.41/day = €0.21/single journey. Source:
[vi] CO2/km (in kg) for ferry travel per passenger: 0.02254 kg.  Source: