Free public transport

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat is right when he emphasises the need to have free public transport. Public transport is much better today than when we were subject to the Arriva fiasco piloted by Austin Gatt and his sidekick Manwel Delia.

In the past, government had introduced free public transport which it made available to a limited number of categories, notably young people and pensioners. The number of people using of public transport has increased significantly from 39.9 million in 2015 to 53.4 million during 2018: a staggering increase of 33.8 per cent in four years.

The numbers are significant and hats off to Malta Public Transport. These numbers signify that we can have hundreds, possibly thousands, of cars off our roads thanks to these millions of commuters who have opted to use public transport. This is a basic fact that must feed the implementation of a Transport Policy.

The Transport Master Plan 2025, which runs for a ten-year period that began in 2016, identified the basic problem of Maltese Transport policy: we think in the short term. As a result, positive policy initiatives are not as effective as intended because they seek to resolve the problem being considered without considering its long-term impact. Four years is the maximum span of our vision, opines the Transport Master Plan 2025.

Consider, for example, the Prime Minister’s statement in favour of free public transport for everyone. How does this statement fit in with large-scale road infrastructure projects such as the Central Link project?

In my view, the two are contradictory. The Prime Minister’s statement signifies that more of us will be encouraged to take the plunge in favour of public transport, occasionally or on a regular basis. As a result, there is great potential for a further reduction in the number of cars on our roads. So what, may I ask, what is the purpose of the Central Link project in view of this laudable initiative? Is this not a textbook case of one branch of government not being aware of what is going on elsewhere, within government?

We are aware, courtesy of the Transport Master Plan 2025, that 50 per cent of journeys by private cars are of a short duration: less than 15 minutes. These would be short distances either within the same area or between neighbouring areas. Imagine transport policy effectively targeting these journeys through, for example, well-planned regional public transport, or frequent circular bus routes in the large localities. Isn’t the prize of being able to reduce traffic by a staggering 50 per cent worth the effort? We do not need fly-overs and massive investment in road infrastructure to achieve this target. Just some common sense and the ability to plan long-term is all that is needed. The alternative will further increase traffic, and, consequently, congestion on our roads.

The long-term aim of Maltese transport policy is spelled out in the Transport Master Plan 2025: it is a reduction in the number of cars from our roads. This will increase mobility through the use of sustainable alternatives such as public transport, cycling, walking and even sea transport between places in our harbour areas.

We may remember that a study carried out by the University of Malta in 2015 indicated that, on average, we spend 52 hours a year stuck in traffic. Congestion can be tackled without resorting to meddling with our road infrastructure.

Transport Minister Ian Borg needs to sort out his priorities as soon as possible. We are still awaiting his commitment to his own government’s Transport Master Plan!

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 27 January 2019

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