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:


Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Suzanne ! Brilliant ! Your experiment deserves wider publicity - It would make a wonderful article for a newspaper. If you have the time maybe you could convert it to about 800 – 1000 words and have one map to show all routes. Maybe Jim could get Sarah Carabott to publish an article based on your findings.

I also think your account is so elegant that it should be sent to our Transport ministerI regularly use the Sliema/Valletta ferry and it is brilliant . I once had to go to Bighi and used both ferries . I think there is a ¼ hour difference in departure times so it might be possible to time it so as to catch both ferries with a minimum of waiting ! ................ ............... .............In other words: Cospicua > Valletta ferry, Take Barraka lift - zip beautifully up to to the Barraka with the lift and then coast gloriously downhill across Valletta to the Marsamxett ferry on the other side of Valletta and go to Sliema “Ferries” and then ride to gzira ( I ride - carefully, slowly, etc on the Gzira promenade   ) . Going back home is slightly problematic as you have to cross Valletta the other way around and cannot take advantage of the lift. Problem: the Ferry fee is quite high . My advantage is that I only pay 50c as a senior citizen (bike goes free).

IMPORANT SUGGESTION :::: Maybe we could launch a petition to ask Govt to allow bike users to use the ferry at a subsidised reduced (senior citizen) cost as an incentive.

Borntoolate said...

Well done! Great job on trying alternatives and an interesting write-up too. We need more people like you on this island!

Unknown said...

This is a brilliant piece, and I totally with agree with George Debono when he says that it merits wider publicity.
I really think the transport problem is one of mindset. Because it is absolutely ridiculous that in such a small island getting around is so complicated. Probably the best and cheapest investment that we need to make is in cycling lanes, wifi in buses, and showering facilities in offices, coupled with policies to discourage commuters from using their car, e.g. parking meters, more no parking areas. Basically reduce commute traffic by 40% to allow the roads to be used by buses, delivery vans, trucks, etc. and the minority who will not change their mindset and are ready to pay for it. But this requires a bold decision which invokes another theory to the one you mention about the tragedy of the commons, and that is the zero-sum game: if one party had to take such a bold decision, the other party would pounce on it to take political advantage.

Unknown said...

This is awesome, well done. I suggest you add the costs involved with each trip since many think taking the ferry every day would be more expensive than using the car.

Unknown said...

Well done, great experiment :) I would have loved to see how a motorcycle compares against these modes of transport.

Borntoolate said...

@unknown. She did list the cost. There's a table.

Anonymous said...

I remember when I did research in Malta for my thesis, I met up with the minister of transportation. Back then, he was quite an overweight person, and tried to assure me, that "Malta is not an island where you can cycle". So, if the minister of transportation doesn't believe in cycling and public transport, what's going to change? I believe it's dangerous in Malta to cycle due to the cars...good cycling lanes would help.

Anonymous said...

Hello Suzanne,

I wanted to comment and join your outrage at the transport in Malta.
As a fellow foreigner who moved recently in Malta from the Netherlands I have very little patience for the traffic. Mostly because even though the traffic dissatisfies even the Maltese themselves, neither of them will do anything to change their bad travelling habits individually.
Any Maltese person I talk to about the excess number of cars driving on a daily basis responds with a million excuses about how that is the way they are used to living and how people just love their cars and will not give them up. Often times I even hear them proudly announcing that they haven't set foot on a bus since they were 15 (or less) years old.

The problem sure is not simple, but I think the steps to changing it are simple enough. I think the population here(native or foreign), needs get a reality check about distances for which it's worth using a motor vehicle for. Many people live within walking distance of their school or workplace.
Students or people who don't need to transport their family do not need a car. Bicycles or scooters are a fantastic solution to reducing traffic.
Malta is not suited for cycling? Then make it, fix the roads, create a better culture of driving, walk.

I have been walking to work ever since I figured it takes me less time than using the bus. Sadly even walking is not that pleasant. I'm breathing the gases and dust of the traffic all the same.

This whole island is the size of a medium European city, it can look and be so much better.
Ever since I got here I've been thinking of starting a campaign to popularize healthier living, reducing traffic, exercising and eating healthier food. I have no experience in campaigns and my job takes all of my time, but if anyone knows how to get something going I'd gladly make time to participate.

Borntoolate said...

@anonymous, join the Bicycle Advocacy Group on facebook. Not all us Maltese are lazy.

The aim is to encourage more and safer cycling, both getting the government to wake up to the benefits of cycling, but also to encourage more people to rethink their mentality as you say.

benpul said...

Lovely and inspirational!

I have unofficially tried something similar myself, but haven't documented it like you did. I commute from Sliema to Gzira everyday for work. These are somewhat my results:

1: Motor bike - 5 minutes
2: Walking - 20 minutes
3: Bicycle - 10 minutes
4: Car - 30 minutes (10 minutes looking for parking)
5: Bus - Between 30 and 45 minutes

Anyway, I really think your article should be put on the local newspapers .. these facts really aught to make us rethink how we travel.

Unknown said...

I go from Sliema toward Gzira (and beyond) almost daily for errands, shopping etc, - i wouldn't dream of using anything but a bike !

Unknown said...

i bet that your job is not standing up all day and moving around and lifting and carrying heavy things. not every one has an easy job.

Luke said...

Joseph, every job has got its pros & cons. I don't think it's fair to tell other people that they got an easy job. By bet is that you wanted to say "not everyone has a physically easy job". :) Also, if you rightfully can think of having a physically stressful day at work, have you considered a motorbike? My life turned upside down since I started using one and I suggest many more people to do the same. It's quick, efficient, no parking problems, not physically tiring... all for the expense of being careful in the streets. But it's totally worth!

PS:- well done Suzanne. Hopefully many more people will be inspired to resort to alternative ways for commuting. All the best!

Josephine Burden said...

I appreciate your positive approach to researching alternatives in dealing with the traffic gridlock. I live in Valletta and made a deliberate decision when I moved here from Australia 6 years ago that I would not get a car on such a small island. Buses, walking, ferry and for the first few months when I was in Marsaxlokk, a bicycle, have been my means of transport. In recent years it has become more difficult because I have felt more threatened by traffic gridlock and the sense of entitlement exuded by car drivers. Pedestrians and cyclists and buses are regarded by people in cars as an impediment to their own progress. Your approach in valuing a range of options when we travel from one place to another and making our transport routes more accommodating of cyclists and pedestrians is great and I support the other comments here suggesting that we need to spread these ideas more widely. Thanks for getting the ball rolling.

Kevin Farrugia said...

Great read and great experiment!

I am part of the Bum a Lift project ( and we're trying to create a carpooling culture in the country, because essentially a large percentage of drivers are able to carpool together if they would wish so. During the first 6 months of the year I travelled exclusively by walk or bus (I'm not a good cyclist and would be scared to cycle on our roads) and whilst I still occasionally walk to work, taking the bus was too time consuming. A 30min walk would become a 50min bus ride and most of the time I would be standing in a bus full of sweaty people.

Out of curiosity, now that your 'experiment' is over, what mode of transport are you using?

Unknown said...

Well done on your experiment!

As a person who used to travel mostly on foot wherever I went when I was (much) younger, I did try cycling to work when I started my working life. But having to start the day drenched in sweat was not much of a prospect in our hot and humid country.

My life changed (yes it did) once I bought my motorcycle 6 years ago. I have a 125cc scooter that's perfect for traffic and finding parking spaces. You're as flexible as a car for going round the island on your own timetable, but have VERY little traffic and parking problems. Also, it only cost me approx. 5-6 euro a week to commute between Rabat and Gzira. Only downside - if it rains.

Nowadays I work from home, so luckily don't have that problem any more :)

Danjeli said...

Absolutely brilliant!

Suzanne Maas said...

Thanks everyone for your encouraging and insightful comments! The response to my experiment and this blog have been quite amazing for me, it’s really lovely and encouraging to see how many people care about this issue :)
I’d like to respond to some of your comments:
@George Debono, I agree with you totally that the ferry can be promoted more as a good way to beat the traffic on the road and that it would be amazing if bicycle use could be incentivized by reducing the ferry ticket (as it is quite high). In my own case, I only use the Three Cities-Valletta ferry one way, as then I cycle from Valletta to Gzira, and after work I normally cycle all the way home, as in that way I’m more flexible timewise and at home I can have a shower if necessary :), so for me even the ferry option costs ‘only’ €1.50 a day.
@Alex Borg, thanks for your comments on other solutions to the traffic issue (cycling lanes, wifi in buses, showering facilities, higher costs for parking). I totally agree with you and think there are many of these relatively easy and cheap solutions that can collectively contribute to changing the contemporary transport paradigm. Unfortunately you’re also right about the complete lack of political will, once again this 2 party system stands in the way of progress.
@Jeremy Borg, I’m sure the motorcycle would be a very good option. I don’t have a motorcycle or license myself, so couldn’t include it in my experiment, but agree that it would be interesting for comparison.
@Anonymous, as I’m Dutch myself I can relate to your frustration. Keep in mind that most northern European cities went through the same transport transition, from complete car-domination to a much more diverse mix of transport modes. If you want to contribute, do join the Bicycling Advocacy Group and help them with actions, activities and campaigns! :)
@benpul, great results! And I think my story will be featured on a newspaper later this week, keep your eyes peeled :)
@Joseph Dimech, wrong bet :) At the moment I’m actually working as a manager of a cafĂ©/restaurant and making longs hours and standing on my feet most of the day. Cycling back home actually gives me a boost of energy!
@Kevin Farrugia, that’s a great idea! I was actually thinking about this idea as well on one of my trips (you get a lot of time to think when you take the car) and think that apart from an online portal to find carpoolers, a physical presence (in the form of carpool spots, where people looking for a lift can wait and people offering a lift can pick people up), could be a good service in addition to that. At the moment I’m using different forms of transport, depending on what my day looks like, sometimes the bus but mostly the ferry + bicycle combination, which is my personal favourite :)