The Finance Minister is apparently delighted that, during the past year, over 40 million passengers made use of public transport. While this represents a seven per cent increase on the previous year, it could have been much more had the government not wasted millions of euros in the improvement of the road network. This money should have instead been channelled towards initiatives encouraging sustainable transport.
When the road network is improved, traffic congestion eases temporarily and, as a result, more cars take to the roads. This in turn leads to more traffic congestion – a direct result of government investment. Transport policy-makers have yet to realise that rather than improve the road network, they should increase exponentially initiatives to reduce the number of cars on our roads. It is in this area that major investment is required.
The government has decided to make a slow start in this area by announcing two initiatives to encourage group transport in relation to working places. The private sector is being encouraged to provide this through tax credits, whilst government entities employing more than 50 people have been instructed to prepare a sustainable transport plan. This is a belated slow start to addressing traffic congestion, which is related to people going to work using their own transport. The government has opted to use the carrot rather than the stick. Most probably, in the long term there is both the room and the need to use both.
A token incentive of free public transport for five thousand 18-year-olds who will reach that age in 2017 will do no harm. It could, however, have been presented in a more innovative manner – linking a longer period of free public transport with bicycle incentives as well as an undertaking from recipients not to seek a driving licence for at least 10 years. Now that would be an investment which would reduce cars from the road in the long term!
All initiatives that seek to encourage the use of public transport are worth a try, as they are a step in the right direction. It is, however, necessary that more investment in alternative and sustainable means of transport is forthcoming, primarily in setting up the required basic infrastructure. For example, the infrastructure required to encourage bicycle use is practically non-existent. This needs to be addressed adequately. A first step would be the sustainable transport plans which the Finance Minister is expecting from government entities during 2017. I would expect that, in 12 months time, these plans will start being implemented because government entities should be the first to set an example.
Most of our localities are a stone’s throw away from each other and this should make it much easier to encourage a reduction in dependence on the privately-owned car. Initiatives can also be taken on a local level and between neighbouring localities. In such instances, it can be much easier to encourage the use of bicycles. This would require streets where access to cars is prohibited, such access being reserved for bicycle users. In such instances, school children, under supervision, should be encouraged to go to school on bicycles, in bicycle-friendly streets.
Initiatives at a local level add up over time and slowly contribute to the formation of a bicycle-friendly society. Even in matters of transport, national problems can be resolved at the town and village level, eventually leading to a solution at a national level. This is a practical way of applying the environmental maxim “think global, act local”.
The problem of traffic congestion will not be resolved by the construction of a new generation of flyovers but by equipping our young generations to challenge the status quo.
It can be done.
published in the Malta Independent on Sunday 23 October 2016