When Luca Caruana asked his parents if he could cycle to school last year, they were reluctant to give him the go-ahead due to safety concerns.

“But when we agreed on a route that passed through country roads and villages they said yes,” recalled the 14-year-old.

He now cycles almost 5km from his home in Żurrieq to St Benedict College Secondary School, in Kirkop every day.

The school’s cycle to school initiative has seen a surge in participants since it launched in the 2021/2022 scholastic year, going from three daily commuters then to between 10 and 12 this year.

I’m free to go to places I otherwise wouldn’t be able to- Liam Agius Silver, 15

A total of 25 students now have a bicycle permit, which allows them to commute by bike following parental approval.

“All parents worry,” said Liam Agius Silver, who started commuting by bicycle two years ago, at the age of 11.

He and Luca say they still encounter drivers who impatiently honk their horns or overtake unsafely and would like to see safer bicycle infrastructure.

School taught pupils safety

But the school has helped its pupils to learn how to be safe on the roads and take precautions, such as always wearing a helmet.

Liam also makes sure to keep his bicycle in good condition. “I’m responsible for cleaning and some small repairs,” he said, proudly.

“The bicycle is so much fun but also has so many perks, for the environment and health. Because of it, I’m free to go to places I otherwise wouldn’t be able to.”

Cyclo-commuting initiatives are coming from the school itself, teachers, parents or students- Michelle Attard Tonna, former president of Rota

The pupils of St Benedict College Secondary School appear to be bucking a nationwide trend.

On Thursday, bike-sharing company Nextbike announced it will cease to operate, giving a list of reasons for its demise, including that riders were reluctant to use the service due to poor infrastructure and a general decline in road safety.

St Benedict College’s increase in bicycle takeup is unique, according to Michelle Attard Tonna, deputy dean of the University of Malta’s education faculty and former president of cycling NGO Rota.

Safety remains top concern

Other schools such as Siġġiewi primary school and Attard primary school have encouraged cycling but this is not an initiative coming from the top down.

“Cyclo-commuting initiatives are coming from the school itself, teachers, parents or students (rather than the education authorities),” she said.

Safety is the main reason why the authorities do not actively promote cycling to school. Routes to many secondary and some primary schools can be dangerous, she said.

The directorate for educational services does provide some bicycles but mainly to allow students to practise cycling.

An avid cyclist herself, Attard Tonna said cycling to school is possible for many children if they can find safe routes and avoid busy roads.

St Benedict College has strongly supported sustainable mobility among its students, promoting bicycle use, installing bicycle racks and holding events that encourage the use of two wheels.

Earlier this month, the school organised a cycle from Kirkop to Id-Dar tal-Providenza and back to promote micro-mobility while simultaneously collecting funds for the organisation that offers residential services to people with disabilities.

Some 20 students took part in the ‘Cycling4Charity’ event supported by Transport Malta, LESA and the European Commission Representation in Malta. The students presented a donation of €1,050 to Id-Dar tal-Providenza.

The initiative to increase bicycle use comes from students themselves. An environmental review by Ekoskola students found that the school had to prioritise sustainable mobility.

Green school travel plan

Ekoskola is a national environmental school programme which seeks to empower students to take the initiative in environmental actions and decision-making.

The Ekoskola students at St Benedict’s formulated a green school travel plan and highlighted a willingness among the student body to take up greener options for commuting. As a result, the school upgraded its bike racks which can now hold 15 bicycles.  

The school is looking to install a bike shelter for bad weather and is hoping to collaborate with the authorities to ensure that students have a safe trip when commuting.

In late October, Infrastructure Minister Aaron Farrugia promised to invest €35 million in 50-60km of cycle routes.

He also announced a forthcoming plan for heavier fines, a ramp-up of the penalty points system, publicly available road accident investigations and more emphasis on alternative mobility to ease congestion.

But pupils Liam and Luca aren’t waiting around for any of that. The pair have managed to persuade three of their schoolmates to start commuting by bicycle as well.

“One even hails from Birżebbuġa,” Liam said.

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