The Environment Authority is becoming a sick joke

The current public debate about fuel stations is a wake-up call.

Earlier this week, the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) produced a (sick) joke of a proposal which could reduce the maximum permissible size of a “new fuel station” to 2000 square metres from the current 3000 square metres.

The joke becomes a fully-fledged farce when Environment Minister Josè Herrera declared that the 14 pending applications for fuel stations will not be subject to the amended policy.

The ERA should have objected to the Fuel Stations Policy in principle, and come up with a proposal for a no-nonsense moratorium as, at this point in time, we do not need any more fuel stations. We have had more than enough compromise with only one net result: the further accelerated rape of the environment in Malta. With its proposal, the ERA has joined the queue of boot-lickers justifying the unjustifiable.

If, at some point in time, flesh is put on the bare-bones of the government declared policy of doing away with cars running on an internal combustion engine, we will need even fewer fuel stations – and eventually we will not need even one. So why does the ERA not take the bull by the horns and confront head-on the never-ending compromise that always finds some form of excuse in order to justify the rape of our environment?

For some that may be wishful thinking but it is, however, the only way forward.

Once upon a time we had a National Sustainable Development Strategy. It was drafted after an extensive exercise in public consultation and carried out after considerable in-depth discussions between all the relevant stakeholders. The public sector and the private sector, as well as the voluntary sector, were all involved.

This strategy produced a blueprint for action which was, unfortunately, generally ignored.

Among the issues addressed in the National Sustainable Development Strategy was that of sustainable mobility: an integrated transport strategy encompassing sustainable mobility is required that takes into consideration efficiency in transporting people, the protection of the environment, the promotion of public health and safety, and social inclusion.

What does ‘sustainable mobility’ mean? Put simply, it is the model that enables movement with minimal territorial and environmental impact: planning our mobility requirements such that negative impacts are the least possible.

We need to address the causes of the current transport policy mess and not tinker with the effects. Rather then playing about with fly-overs and tunnels, the Ministry for Transport needs to address the issue of car-ownership: the cause of the mess. Instead of initiating measures to reduce the number of cars on Malta’s roads from the current staggering figure, Malta’s Ministry of Transport is determined to make it easier for cars to keep increasing their dominance of those roads.

The infrastructural projects to ease traffic congestion at Kappara and Marsa, or the proposed Santa Luċija tunnels, for example, will only serve to increase the capacity of our roads – which means more cars on our roads. Traffic congestion may be addressed in the short term by these infrastructural projects, but they will, however, also increase the traffic on our roads, until another flyover or another tunnel is deemed necessary!

This shifts the problem to the future, when it will be much worse and more difficult to address.

The government is acting like an overweight individual who ‘solves’ the problem of his expanding wasteline by changing his wardrobe instead of going on a painful but necessary diet.

Within this context the Fuel Stations Policy serves the purpose of ensuring the servicing of an ever-increasing number of cars on our roads. Who is benefitting from such a policy? If this madness is not stopped, there is no way we will – as a country – be in a position to implement the declared policy of reducing from our roads vehicles running on internal combustion engines.

As a result, we will not be honouring our commitment to decarbonise the economy.

The Planning Authority has lost sight of its mission statement long ago. Unfortunately, the Environment and Resources Authority has followed in its footsteps.

 

Published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 15 April 2018

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Transport planning : a long-term view required

new_road_traffictraffic congestion and GDP

 

The pre-budget document for 2016 published by the Finance Ministry projects a real GDP increase of 3.2 per cent the year 2016, yet at least half of this projected increase will be wiped out as a result of the impact of traffic congestion in the Maltese Islands.

In fact, earlier this year the University of Malta’s Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development published an EU funded study entitled The External Costs of Passenger and Commercial Vehicles Use in Malta. This study estimated that 1.7 per cent of our GDP is wasted annually as a result of traffic congestion, a conclusion reached after taking into account both the fuel wasted as well as the time lost.

It is in this context that one has to consider the Education Ministry’s White Paper entitled School Opening Hours and Traffic Congestion, published earlier this week. Unfortunately, the Education Ministry had to fill the void created by the Transport Ministry.

Traffic congestion is not caused by school transport alone – this is just one of many causes. The solution advocated by the Transport Ministry over the years has been to focus on the effects rather than the causes, with the result of even more space being ceded to cars. It has opened up more roads, widened existing ones and introduced flyovers. These “solutions” have encouraged more cars so that our roads are now bursting at the seams, with 340,981 licensed vehicles on the road at the end of the second quarter of this year.

This translates into 802 cars per thousand population, and most probably is the highest vehicle ownership profile in the world. It is even higher than the vehicle ownership profile of the USA (786). Comparing it to other EU countries, the figure for Italy is 682, the UK 516, Spain 592 and Switzerland 573. Even Luxembourg – at  741 per thousand is lower than Malta.

Such a large number of cars is not an indication of affluence. It is rather a clear indication of the failure of the state of Malta to realise that the smallness of these islands was an untapped benefit in developing policies that ensure sustainable access.

It is clear that, over the years, the state of public transport has been the single biggest incentive to private car ownership and use. Cars have been allowed to fill the void and take over our streets.

The cumulative impacts of this take-over has been a reduced access to public spaces in our towns and villages, a general deterioration of air quality and the associated respiratory diseases and accelerated urban decay in such areas as Pietà, Ħamrun, Msida, Paola, Fgura and Marsa.

This present state of affairs is the result of a lack of long-term planning. Transport planners in Malta preferred the easy way out: the construction of new roads, tunnels and flyovers engulfing more land as well as the creation of more parking spaces. The resulting impact compounded the problem: In the 25 years since 1990, the number of vehicles on the Maltese Islands roads increased by a staggering 145 per cent.

The situation was made worse by the removal of a number of bus termini in a number of localities, the decisions to build a number of schools in the middle of nowhere and having industrial zones not serviced by public transport.

In addition, the lack of enforcement of speed limits for vehicles making use of our roads served to squeeze out bicycles and small motorcycles as alternative means of transport.

This is the situation which has to be addressed.

The long term solution is an efficient public transport system and a corresponding decrease in the number of vehicles on the road.

The White Paper published by the Education Ministry is one such exercise, intended to reduce the number of vehicles on the road as a result of ferrying school children to and from schools in their parents’ private cars.

Better organisation of school transport, as well as more incentives to encourage its use, is a definite step forward. In addition, the  Education Ministry could try to ensure that the catchment areas of its secondary schools are not spread over a very wide area as this is one other contributory factor that has not yet been identified as an additional culprit.

The debate, however, has to be much wider than schools, because, at the end of the day, our schools are just victims of the accumulated lack of transport planning.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 6th September 2015