Going on a diet

The health problems we face by being overweight are not resolved by changing our wardrobe or loosening our belt but by going on a reasonable diet. And it is the same with our roads.

Addressing traffic congestion will not be resolved by road-widening or large road infrastructure projects but by addressing the root cause of such congestion: the number of cars that are using of our roads.

The opposition to the Central Link project is not about trees. Trees, symbolic of environmental vitality, are an important detail in the project that Infrastructure Malta is undoubtedly only too willing to concede through promises of substantially increasing their availability, even though the plans of the project have, at various times, indicated otherwise. This is apparent from the current bombardment of TV adverts by Infrastructure Malta. The opposition to the project is rather about the short-sighted transport policy that ignores the causes of traffic congestion and deals exclusively with the effects thereof. Avoiding the root cause of traffic congestion will only result in temporary relief.

The Environment Impact Assessment on the Central Link project considers six different scenarios: Scenario 0 to Scenario 5. Scenario 0 is defined as the “do-nothing option” with the other five scenarios being different combinations of interventions in the road infrastructure. The “do-nothing option”, as implied, signifies that no infrastructural interventions are involved: everything remains as is.

Infrastructure Malta’s brief is limited to infrastructural interventions. As a consequence, the authors of the Environmental Impact Assessment did not consider it worthwhile to examine whether it is at all possible to address traffic congestion through focused policy interventions over a suitable time frame. The government has already taken some positive steps in this regard through the offering of various carrots enticing different sectors to use alternative means of mobility, which include initiatives on both land and sea transport alternatives.

In the pipeline is the proposal to widen the appeal of public transport through making it free for everyone. Various other policy proposals have been implemented, including the provision of school transport to all schools, with the aim of reducing traffic during peak hours. This is all positive and could form the basis of an exercise to realistically address traffic congestion without the need for substantial infrastructural interventions.

What is the anticipated environmental impact of all this and possibly more? We are none the wiser through reading the Environment Impact Assessment.

The Transport Master Plan emphasises that the average journey length of a private car trip in Malta is 5.5 kilometres and that 50 per cent of trips take no more than 15 minutes. This obviously leads to the important consideration that regional and local public transport, if organised efficiently, could address the movement of a substantial number of cars on our roads with considerable environmental benefits. The EIA is silent on this basic information, which, if properly acted upon, could result in a substantial number of cars being removed from our roads without the need of any infrastructural intervention!

What role does environmental taxation have in encouraging a change in behaviour of those who can address their mobility needs in a reasonable manner without the need of using a private car?

Scenario 0, which considers environmental impacts without any infrastructural interventions, does not consider this. In so doing, the EIA is incomplete as it does not assess all the available options that can have an impact on traffic congestion. This contrasts with the provisions of the EIA Regulations which broadly regulate the process of analysing and reporting on the environmental impacts of major projects and emphasise that a “sufficiently detailed and reasonably exhaustive initial appraisal of potentially suitable alternatives” is essential.

This signifies that the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) has not carried out its role in moderating the contents of the EIA appropriately. This could possibly explain why, very strangely, Professor Victor Axiaq did not utter one single word during the public hearing of the Planning Authority Board during which he voted in favour of the Central Link project!

The long-term aim of Malta’s 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 locations in our harbour areas.

Transport studies carried out all over the world indicate that major road works always end up generating additional traffic. The Central Link project will not be an exception and consequently, it will not follow the direction spelt out by Malta’s Transport Master Plan approved by government in 2016!

published on The Independent on Sunday : 28 July 2019

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