Friday, April 11, 2008

Public transportation

Malta is a bit less than twice the size of Washington DC (proper, not all the suburbs). It is densely populated. It is fairly wealthy. Malta is one of the most wired countries in all of the EU and it shifted to the Euro with aplomb. Vast numbers of its young people go to university. It has thoughtful and decent medical care. It should have the most perfect public transportation in the world. Instead, it has a mess.

Public transportation is so "out of synch" for the quality of the country that I simply can't get over it. The bus system is an embarrassment to the country, and it is one of the major reasons why there is so much air pollution (over 30 times the EU limit!) and traffic congestion.

I've been appalled by the buses ever since I got here. I decided, however, to keep riding them to give them a fair run. But, now I've been here and on those buses for seven months.

What's good
1. They are inexpensive--.54 Euros (~75-80 cents US) for me to get from my home to university, a bit less if I just want to go a little ways. I think they are perhaps free or nearly so when you are retired.
2. They go everywhere, with a bit less service on Gozo.
3. If you want to go to Valletta there are a lot of choices.
4. Around 31 million people ride in a given year.

What's Not Good
1. If you are going to the university or Mater Dei hosptial from the St Paul's Bay/ Mellieha bus every hour, because the two most likely buses often run about 5 minutes apart from each other.
2. Because they don't have enough bus service at peak times, you need to allocate TWO hours to get 15 km if you have to get to a meeting. I needed to go the hospital for care and ended up waiting 1 hour and 40 minutes for a bus in St. Paul's Bay. Possibly I could have gotten one sooner if I'd walked to a more distant stop (which I normally do...but I wasn't feeling so hot). But one of the buses that would have taken me was full and so it blew by me and it would still have been full at the other stop. I waited another 40 minutes.
3. They do not appear at reliable times. This is not just in my area and it is not just a whining American--I hear this from the Maltese who take the bus. There is roughly a 20 minutes early/late gap. Hard to plan, hard to be on time.
4. The buses need replacement or at least shocks. Some are getting replaced. Check out the website of the bus service:
5. The buses often allow diesel fumes into the bus--I had to put up a plastic bag against the window, on one junker running between my area and Rabat.
6. Buses that are going to the hospital may have very high steps. Only a few buses are modern and can "kneel" for the elderly or handicapped or sick. In my view no bus going to Mater Dei hospital should be inaccessible to the infirm.
7. The buses have no heat or air conditioning (or none that I've noticed).
8. Some, BUT certainly NOT ALL, bus drivers are rude and abusive. I have also had wonderfully kind drivers, the ones who could help train their colleagues in customer service and quality.
9. While there is no smoking on the bus, the drivers routinely smoke.
10. If you don't know where a numbered bus is going, you have to stop the bus to ask. The driver will either be helpful or swear at you and pull away.
11. I don't think they use operations research to figure out when to put more or fewer buses on the road.
12. Buses are owned by the individual drivers, so there is almost no control over them.

Taxis are extremely expensive--I checked on the fare to Mater Dei and they wanted 20 Euros (30 US). I do take cabs, but I try to minimize it.

RESULTS: Malta roads are jam packed, it can take two hours to get from St Paul's Bay to the university by car if it has rained, depending on construction blockages and accidents. Most cars--like the US, only on a tiny space--have one person in them. There are no rail systems or subway systems. I think the extreme use of cars, other than a Maltese love for independence, is due to the unreliability of the bus service and possibly the need for more earlier and later buses.

Tourists use the buses a lot. Perhaps it is charming for two or three days. It is not charming thereafter.

What I wonder.

While, I don't understand why the system isn't nationalized, I will respect the drivers who love their buses and who want to hand down the work to their sons (I've never seen a female driver, but they may exist).

A) Raise prices to a Euro, so that drivers can afford the rising price of gas. If the government wants to subsidize users and not foreigners like me, that would be fine. This would also save the drivers a lot of time making change.
B) Ask the University to help them with operations research.
C) Change the rules on what buses can go to the hospital.
D) Turn on the heat and AC when it gets extreme--wind in the windows only helps a little.
E) Have extra buses from the Gozo ferry to university, especially in early morning from the ferry and late afternoon from the U. Perhaps there should be a dedicated one for Gozitan students going home for the weekend.
F) Have some smaller van type operations that cost more, but might be deployed as needed or on a highly regular bases between places. I don't know if "on demand" would make sense--5 Euros to go the hospital or get near where an appointment is going to be, would be no problem for me. It wouldn't have to be door to door. even.
G) Consider adding a monorail, train, subway.
H) Perhaps there could be more regular ferry service to more places, but I have little experience with this.
I) Introduce the concept of car pooling to the Maltese.

In American cities, where there is high density, all kinds of people--bankers, govt workers, teachers, sales people, iron workers, you name it--take public transportation. It is just what's done. Here, there is a tendency to think the bus is for students, the poor, pensioners, and tourists who won't be back. Better public transportation could move Malta in a better direction. I want the bus drivers to have a good living; I want Malta to be livable.

OK. I'm done with my soapbox. My apologies if I have, as the outsider, given offense.


Anonymous said...

great read! you have captured my opinions perfectly! Believe me, you have given the locals no offence. I'm a student at the university and can completely understand your every point. Every Maltese person thinks the same as you do. For two years I have suffered this situation, determined not to add one more car to this increasingly congested piece of rock, but I have given up. . I am now currently learning how to drive- all my friends are doing so- mostly because the public transport system is exactly as you describe it. Nothing has been done, the system is archaic and needs to be scrapped and updated. Your suggestions are clearly very good ones- this article should be read by someone at the ATP. One of the reasons I refused to vote the past election was that no single political party mentioned the disaster that we call public transport, or proposed anything to change all that. Why doesn't it change? I was thinking that perhaps there may be pressure on the government from the local big name car importers whose interests go against a transportation system that actually works. Yet as the time goes on I think that it's also the Maltese mentality. Ideally, the buses should be privatized; competition should be injected in the market, resulting in better choices for commuters to choose their favourite means of getting where they want to be, in less congestion, less swearing, less traffic accidents, and most importantly, less pollution.

aldo said...

You are both right as regards the bus situation in Malta. Mrdyingflame, in my opinion, privatisation is never the solution when no competition exists (it did not work for UK trains). It seems public transport is already private in some ways (the buses are owned by the drivers). On the other hand, what we need is a system whereby drivers would loose their licence if they don't perform well. A substantial number of Maltese believe they have a right to their job irrespective of their attitude towards it. They demand their rights but ignore their responsabilities. The association that represents the bus drivers has been known to be as agressively irresponsible as some of the drivers themselves.

Mary said...

Thanks! It's good to see that the issue might be coming to a head. The nonsense from the association that only they should verify whether their buses are polluting and the strong govt and public reaction against that stance, might be a good start.

If I understand the news reports correctly, the govt wants competition, and that's one way. But it might not be the best solution. Nationalizing the system might be better. On the other hand, I have no idea what the costs would be. It could be that ending the monopoly by the association would work in the short term.

STAG said...

I missed an important meeting because of a driver who didn't show up for his run one morning! On the other hand, there were no hard feelings because, well, it was the busses right! We rescheduled, everything was fine.

Aldo, you said it right! Privatization without competition is called "monopoly".

Busses both in America and Europe are a fifty year old solution to a hundred year old problem. This is a country that doesn't get frost for goodness snow and ice to block up tracks...there should be a high tech solution.
The short term solution (both in America and Malta) of course will be 9 passenger and 12 passenger taxi vans running on schedules made up by subscribers to the service.

Mary said...

What a disappointment on the emissions testing. Keep things the same until some distant future decision that, apparently, won't change anything. This is a topic that would be hugely popular for the Nationalist Party and...nothing.

Well, let's see if Minister Gatt liberalizes transportation.

Anonymous said...

Good morning Mary,
I hope you enjoyed the blogger's dinner, it was nice talking to you.
I was looking through your blog and found this extremely good post about Maltese transport and wondered whether you would allow me to post it (in your name of course) on this joint blog project started vy gybexi (another Maltese blogger) about Public Transport in Malta.

If it is ok do send me an email on my gmail account or leave a comment on my blog. The PT blog's address is .

Anonymous said...

Good morning Mary,
I hope you enjoyed the blogger's dinner, it was nice talking to you.
I was looking through your blog and found this extremely good post about Maltese transport and wondered whether you would allow me to post it (in your name of course) on this joint blog project started vy gybexi (another Maltese blogger) about Public Transport in Malta.

If it is ok do send me an email on my gmail account or leave a comment on my blog. The PT blog's address is .