Beyond the trees

The public debate of the Central Link project is currently concentrated on the manner in which it will impact the tree population along its route. It is an important discussion because it is concentrating on one of the visible impacts of the project. The trees should definitely by protected and preferably increased in number.

However the number of trees impacted is just an (important) detail. There are other “important details” which need to be considered, amongst which the agricultural land to be taken up, the emissions – which need to be reduced, in particular the minute particulate matter- as well as noise pollution.

Little discussion has, however, ensued on the basic question: do we need the proposed improvement of the road network?

To answer this basic issue, we need to consider the different options available to facilitate sustainable mobility around our islands. These are options that are available to each and every one of us, but do we make use of them?

Why do we make use of private cars for very short distances? Are we aware of the fact that around 50 per cent of journeys in private cars on our roads are of under 15 minutes duration?

To answer the basic question we cannot just focus on traffic congestion. Traffic congestion is, in reality, the effect and not the cause of our transport problems: it means that our roads are bursting at the seams. We need to consider the issue in depth and in a holistic manner.

The National Transport Master Plan for the Maltese Islands does just that. When considering the proposals listed in the Master Plan, it is not a question of pick and choose: it is an integrated plan. Some of the proposals are easy to implement, others are tough as they strike at the real cause of our transport problems: our behaviour. Little effort is being expended in this direction.

The operational objectives for road transport in the Master Plan place great emphasis on the need to reduce the role of the car in the busy congested urban areas as well as on the provision of alternatives to private vehicular demand in these areas.

Unfortunately, instead of implementing these basic operational objectives Transport Malta is focusing on increasing the capacity of the road network in order to address traffic congestion. As a result, it is addressing the effects and ignoring the cause of the miserable state of our road network.

Government’s policy of massive investment in the road network, will, in the long term, be counter-productive as it will only serve to increase the number of vehicles on our roads and, consequently, cause more congestion.

Just throwing money at problems in the form of substantial subsidies of public transport is not as effective as we would like. The positive impacts of these and other subsidies are being cancelled out through the massive road network investment: a declaration that the private car is the preferred mode of transport of the policy maker.

As a result, the clear message of Malta’s transport policy is that public transport is only tolerated as life is only made easy for the users of private vehicles. It should, in fact, be the other way around.

The National Transport Master Plan clearly emphasises that the lack of importance given to long-term planning means that a long-term integrated plan based on solid analysis with clear objectives and targets is lacking. This has resulted in the lack of strategic direction and the inherent inability to address difficult issues such as private vehicle restraint.

It is about time that the government starts implementing its own Master Plan which so far it has consistently ignored.

published in The Independent on Sunday : 24 June 2018


The costs of air pollution

WHO.air pollution cost

The WHO report published earlier this week entitled Economic cost of the Health impact of air pollution in Europe. Clean air, health and wealth is an eye opener to many who have shut their eyes to the link between environmental and health impacts.

This follows the OECD publication last year of another publication entitled The Costs of Air Pollution.  Health impacts of road transport.

The WHO report concludes that the impact of air pollution on health is substantial both in terms of premature deaths as well as in economic terms. The data quoted by the report compares the years 2005 and 2010. In terms of premature deaths the numbers are approximately stable at 228 deaths in 2010 being attributable to excessive particulate matter in the air.

The costs, on the other hand, vary with time and increase substantially. It is estimated that, in 2010, the economic cost to Malta of air pollution stood at €550 million.

It can be safely stated that in the absence of heavy industry in Malta, land transport is the major contributor to air pollution. To this one must add local contributors in specific locations, namely :  the Delimara Power Station through the use of diesel and HFO, ships in the areas close to ports as well aircraft exhaust in areas close to the airport where aeroplanes take-off or land.

Technological advances relative to fuel efficiency have, over the years, improved the situation though a lower contribution to poor air quality by individual vehicles, ships or aeroplanes.

Unfortunately this has been more than compensated for by the exponential increase in cars on the road. At the time of writing, the latest available statistics indicate that at end 2014 there were 335,249 vehicles on our roads –  an increase of 12,289 over the previous year. Most of that increase is in the passenger car category which, at end of 2014, amounted to 265,950 vehicles or 79.33% of the total number.

This number of vehicles on our roads is excessive: at peak hours even our main roads are clogged.

This state of affairs has developed gradually throughout the years as a result of the neglected state of public transport in Malta. The half-baked reforms of public transport over the last few years have not made matters any better and it will take much longer for public transport to gain the custom of Maltese (and Gozitans) to the extent that there will be a quantifiable impact on our roads.

An efficient public transport system will, in fact, be the major contributor to a reduction of air pollution but the benefits will be multiple. More efficient roads will be the most obvious benefit. This will be accompanied by a substantial reduction in respiratory illnesses and consequently less time lost by working men and women away from their work and by students from their studies.

An efficient public transport would also mean that less money would have to be spent on improving our road system through the construction of by-passes and flyovers.

All this shows that investing in public transport will pay dividends when it comes to the state of the nation’s health.  Why has it taken so long to realise such a basic truth?

Road Safety and Motor Sports project proposal

Road Safety and Motorsport Facility

I attended yesterday’s business breakfast organised by the Malta Motorsports Federation on its proposal to build a Road Safety and Motorsports Facility in Malta.  The proposal requires a land area of between 33 and 40 hectares and it appears that government has already identified the land which could serve for this purpose. Indications given so far are that it is in the vicinity of the airport, close to Safi and Kirkop.

During the Business Breakfast the Prime Minister expressed qualified support for the project. He referred to issues of noise and financial feasibility as being basic and which in his view require to be addressed in more detail before government considers the matter definitely to take a final decision.

I also heard veteran entrepeneur Maurice Mizzi air his views. He agreed with the road safety aspect of the project whilst disagreeing with the motor sports part on the basis of noise pollution.

The two aspects of the proposed project are complimentary. The Motor Sports aspect is considered to be the revenue generating part whilst the Road Safety aspect will contribute to an organised professional drive to have better trained drivers. The road safety aspect of the project was defined by one of the foreign speakers as being a CSR driven project, a means through which Motor Sports channels back into the community profits which are generated.

The issues to be examined are not only those relating to financial feasibility and noise impacts as emphasisied by the Prime Minister. Air quality and the emission of particulate matter resulting from the fuels which will be in use has to be studied in detail. One has also to consider the fact that the localities in the vicinity of the airport are already subject to excessive noise pollution resulting from the operations of Malta’s International Airport.

With this in mind whilst emphasising that the proposed project may serve as a much needed educational tool to improve driving skills much more needs to be examined before it can be given the go-ahead.

Our community may reap great benefits from this initiatve through improved road safety. As to the sports aspect one has undoubtedly to consider further. Eventually a decision will depend on the technical parameters of the project, the proposed mitigating measures and the precise location of the site. Any decision has to await such time as these issues are clear. It has to be clear that the communities close by are not shouldered with more burdens. They have shouldered more than enough to date.

published at on Friday 8 February 2013