Our car addiction

The front cover of Malta’s National Transport Master Plan 2025 boldly bears the logo of the European Regional Development Fund, indicating that it was funded by European Union funds.

This Master Plan, published by Transport Malta, was finalised in October 2016. The Transport Malta Chairman and CEO, in the statement preceding the actual text of the said Master Plan emphasises that it is fundamentally “about improving the quality of life of our citizens”.

One of the objectives of the Master Plan which we do not hear much about is the one that seeks to provide alternatives to private vehicles in order to encourage sustainable travel patterns and thus reduce private vehicular demand.

Given that, as pointed out by the Master Plan, 50 per cent of trips with private cars are of under 15 minutes duration, it follows that mobility is primarily local in nature and on very short routes. Do we need private cars for this? Are not alternative means of transport sufficient for this need (and more) in a country where practically everywhere is within a stone’s throw?

We have become too dependent on private cars. The Maltese traveller, we are informed by the Master Plan (page 88) expects that everyone else will change their travel habits so that they can continue to drive their car.

This is the real problem with our roads: our behaviour and our expectations. Traffic congestion is, in fact, the result of this addiction to private vehicles. Unfortunately, the massive infrastructural road projects planned or in hand ignore this national addiction and instead focus on the perceived need of removing bottlenecks through an increased road capacity. Instead of transport policy being focused on the causes of our mobility problems, they are more focused on reducing the impacts of the effects. That is until such time that the effects increase once more – at which point it would be time for more roads and obviously more flyovers! A truly myopic vision.

Too little investment is made by the state on the need to cure us of our addiction.

This massive investment in road development sends one clear message: the private car is the Maltese government’s preferred mode of transport. This attitude is clearly the easy way out as it throws money at the problem of congested roads and avoids the very difficult task of addressing our attitudes and behaviour. Our attitudes and behaviour are an accumulated response of the country’s sustainable mobility requirements to the state’s neglect over a long time.

When the state sends out such a clear message it neutralises the positive impact of the few under-funded initiatives which promote sustainable mobility. These include, among others, public transport subsidies, incentives to purchase bicycles and subsidies for the creation of facilities such as showers at places of work encouraging cycling to work.

Some four years ago, the University of Malta’s Institute for Sustainable Development and Climate Change published an EU-funded study entitled The External Costs of Passenger and Commercial Vehicles Use in Malta. The conclusions of that study had indicated that, every year, traffic congestion in Malta gobbles up 1.7 per cent of our GDP.

Isn’t it about time that we start tackling the issue seriously, which means focusing on our attitudes and behaviour instead of on the number and dimensions of our roads? Our addiction to cars needs a cure.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 3 June 2018

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