Beyond free rides

Digging deeper into Malta's bus ridership stats.

It’s not hard to see: the number of both bus users and passenger trips have increased between October 2022 and September 2023. Simply standing at a street corner and observing buses as they go by will show you that many of them are, indeed, jam packed.

In replies to questions by The Journal, Transport Malta remarked that the rise in the number of people who are using buses can be interpreted as a sign that travellers are trusting the service more. We find that debatable, since one could also interpret it as a sign that more people who simply do not afford cars need to somehow commute every single day, and therefore must use public transport.

The government body responsible for overseeing and regulating the transport sector in Malta claimed that provisional figures for 2023 indicate that the average reliability of the services it offers stood at a whopping 97.2%. The Authority offers a wide range of services related to transportation within the Maltese Islands, covering both land and sea transportation, as well as aviation.

Let’s look at the statistics we were provided with in more detail, with specific focus on the free public transport system.

19- to 35-year-olds are busing the most

People aged 19 to 35 represent the biggest cohort of people who benefitted from the free public transport system between October 2022 and September 2023. However, details such as nationality are not requested when registering for a Tallinja card – which is mandatory to travel for free – and thus such data is not available. To put it more bluntly, the statistics available fo not allow us to really tell if this cohort represents mostly young foreign nationals who do not own a car.

The figures obtained by The Journal from Transport Malta indicate that the number of unique users can be distributed as follows:

Number of unique users4-18 years19-35 years36-55 years56-65 years66 years+TOTAL
Oct 22 – Sep 2328,05197,78663,40926,09150,041265,378

It’s important to bear in mind that this does not include the number of unique users and demographics of those who used non-personalised methods of payment for their bus fare.

The table below displays how the use of the Tallinja Card is distributed across different categories of users. Holders of a Tallinja concession card will travel for free on day routes, night routes, and special services.

Oct 22 – Sep 23180,4737,999,96436,835,4945,889,425602,491

The table below showcases the year-over-year percentage change in unique users of the Tallinja Card, segmented by age bracket over the past two years. Every age group saw an increase in the number of unique users, with the most significant growth occurring among individuals aged 19 to 55 years.

% change in unique users4-18 years19-35 years36-55 years56-65 years66 years +
Oct 22 – Sep 2331%46%46%22%16%
Oct 21 – Sep 2213%25%22%14%24%

The table below presents the number of passenger trips, divided by different passenger cohorts for the same periods, highlighting an actual year-on-year growth in passenger numbers.

Oct 22 – Sep 2336,238,2957,994,971197,2695,782,100595,323
Oct 21 – Sep 2220,899,1125,821,11589,9084,784,619369,813
Oct 20 – Sep 2118,913,7333,636,72078,0853,643,919301,656

Big hurdles, big investment

Transport Malta told The Journal that it is navigating several obstacles in offering transportation services, with a significant increase in passenger trips being a primary concern. In the past year alone, there was a 36.6% surge in the number of passenger trips.

In response to growing demand, last year saw an increase in frequency on 17 routes, representing an annual investment of €5.1 million and over 400 extra trips each day. Additionally, the service took a significant step towards sustainability by introducing 30 fully electric buses. This initiative not only makes the buses on our roads cleaner – cutting greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 70% – but also required the construction of a new charging depot, an investment totaling €20 million, capable of charging these buses simultaneously.

The challenges encountered fluctuate throughout the year. School days, traffic congestions, roadworks, and special events pose unique challenges, as well as individuals parking their vehicles inappropriately, affecting the smooth progression of bus routes.

Efforts to mitigate these challenges include adjusting routes and introducing new ones to better serve passengers’ changing demands. This also involves repositioning bus stops to improve public access.

New routes for new demands

To better cater to the specific needs of individuals traveling from Gozo to Malta, particularly students and workers, a new express route was introduced between Ċirkewwa and University/Mater Dei Hospital. This route is also extended to MCAST in Paola and to Valletta during inclement weather when the fast ferry service is not operational.

Another notable adjustment is the modification of route 84 in Birzebbuġa to start serving Tal-Ġebel, an area previously not covered by public transport. This change is set to take effect in the coming weeks, further illustrating the service’s commitment to adapt and improve accessibility for its users.

Is the ‘free’ bit the most attractive bit?

Transport Malta answers us with another question and an exercise in deduction: “The usage of the service has seen a considerable increase during the first year since the free public transport came into effect. One needs to ask the question: if these journeys were not done using public transport, what other means of travelling one would have chosen? Probably, and in most cases, it would have been the car. Therefore, we believe that this measure has reduced the number of journeys that would otherwise have been done using a car. It has also meant that the cost to travel for the individual passenger has been reduced drastically.”

Now whilst we found this reply rather vague, we must point out that Transport Malta serves as the regulatory authority overseeing various services, including the scheduled public transport service. It is Malta Public Transport that operates this service, after being awarded the concession rights through a public Request for Proposals process.

How to tackle diversity

The Journal asks how Transport Malta promotes cultural sensitivity and inclusivity on public transport, considering the diverse population using the services. We are told that, before a new driver commences their duties, the bus operator ensures they undergo a work ethics training programme. This programme includes a crucial component on diversity, focusing on the appreciation and understanding of various cultures, religions, genders, races, sexual orientations, disabilities, and social classes.

Additionally, Malta Public Transport arranges social events for its employees throughout the year. These events are designed to foster a sense of community and inclusivity among the staff, featuring cultural items and contributions from employees of diverse backgrounds, further enriching their understanding and respect for different perspectives.

No speakerphones or videocalls, please

There is a defined protocol or set of guidelines for passenger behaviour on public buses, that can be read in detail here. Whilst some are common sense, others less so. For example, you cannot use musical equipment, such as radios or mobile phones, in a way that could disturb other passengers. For security purposes, rollerblades, skates, hoverboards, or inappropriate footwear cannot be worn aboard buses, and neither can motorcycle helmets, ski masks, or any form of headgear intended to conceal your identity.

We ask how Transport Malta addresses instances of inappropriate behavior on buses and ensure the safety and comfort of all passengers. Whenever an incident is reported, Transport Malta advises the affected passenger to file a police report. The Police handle these situations very efficiently, frequently consulting CCTV footage for evidence, as every bus is equipped with CCTV cameras.

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