Beyond roundabouts and flyovers

 

The need for adequate traffic management is apparently, at last, very high on the list of matters preoccupying the Maltese public. The solutions to the problems we face, however, depends on the behaviour of each and every one of us.

Traffic congestion is a constant irritation, as our roads are clogged for longer periods of time and in addition to wasting an ever-increasing amount of time in traffic, we are simultaneously constantly reducing the quality of the air we breathe.

Tackling traffic management adequately would hence address two fundamental issues: air quality and our clogged roads.

I do not dispute that improving the road network eases the flow of traffic. However, it has to be stressed that this is only a short-term measure. Adjusting the roundabout at Manwel Dimech Street in Qormi or the traffic lanes close to the airport or constructing flyovers at Kappara and Marsa will address and rationalise traffic movement now.

However, this further development of the road infrastructure is simply an encouragement for more cars to use our roads. It is only a matter of time when it will be the turn of the new developments to burst at the seams.

The present state of affairs is the direct result of the long-term neglect of transport policy. Public transport – as well as alternative means of transport – has been given the cold shoulder for far too long.

We require a transport policy that actively encourages the reduction of the number of vehicles on the road. Having around 800 cars on the road for every one thousand people in a small country is ridiculous. The small distances between localities in Malta and Gozo should make it much easier to encourage a reduction in dependence on the privately-owned car. Initiatives can be taken on a local level as well as between neighbouring localities. In such instances, it can be much easier to encourage the use of bicycles or the use of public transport or even to walk short distances: our health will surely benefit.

Isn’t it about time that we claim back ownership of our streets? We need more pedestrianised streets inaccessible to cars at any time of the day in every locality in Malta and Gozo. More streets need to be traffic-free, safe for children and parents to walk to school and back. We also need wider pavements for the use of pedestrians (not for tables and chairs to service catering establishments).

In the 2016 Budget speech, Finance Minister Edward Scicluna announced that, during 2017, government entities should be finalising sustainable transport plans. In the coming weeks these should be made public and, as a result, we expect that all government entities will commence addressing the mobility requirements of their employees and their customers. If carried out properly, this exercise could also impact on the private sector thereby (hopefully) substantially reducing a substantial number cars from our roads at peak times. In turn, this could have a considerable impact on public transport because with fewer cars on the roads, it should be more efficient.

Concurrently, government should also address the proposal to electrify the whole private transport sector through banning petrol and diesel cars from our roads, after a reasonable transition, and switching over to cars running on electricity. In Malta, this proposal was launched as part of Alternattiva Demokratika’s 2017 election manifesto. Since then, it has also been taken up by the French and UK governments. Removing petrol and diesel cars from our roads would substantially improve the quality of the air we breathe in all our localities and consequently in the long term will contribute to a considerable reduction of respiratory ailments.

This is the only way forward by which traffic is brought under serious control simultaneously ensuring sustainable mobility and improving the quality of our air.

 

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 10 September 2017

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Transport and the budget

budget-2017-speech

 

The Finance Minister  is apparently delighted that, during the past year, over 40 million passengers made use of public transport. While this represents a seven per cent increase on the previous year, it  could have been much more had the government not wasted millions of euros in the improvement of the road network. This money should have instead been channelled towards initiatives encouraging sustainable transport.

When the road network is improved, traffic congestion eases temporarily and, as a result, more cars take to the roads. This in turn leads to more traffic congestion – a direct result of government investment. Transport policy-makers have yet to realise that rather than improve the road network, they should increase exponentially initiatives to reduce the number of cars on our roads. It is in this area that major investment is required.

The government has decided to make a slow start in this area by announcing two initiatives to encourage group transport in relation to working places. The private sector is being encouraged to provide this through tax credits, whilst government entities employing more than 50 people have been instructed to prepare a sustainable transport plan. This is a belated slow start to addressing traffic congestion, which is related to people going to work using their own transport. The government has opted to use the carrot rather than the stick. Most probably, in the long term there is both the room and the need to use both.

A token incentive of free public transport for five thousand 18-year-olds who will reach that age in 2017 will do no harm. It could, however, have been presented in a more innovative manner – linking a longer period of free public transport with bicycle incentives as well as an undertaking from recipients not to seek a driving licence for at least 10 years. Now that would be an investment which would reduce cars from the road in the long term!

All initiatives that seek to encourage the use of public transport are worth a try, as they are a step in the right direction. It is, however, necessary that more investment in alternative and sustainable means of transport is forthcoming, primarily in setting up the required basic infrastructure. For example, the infrastructure required to encourage bicycle use is practically non-existent. This needs to be addressed adequately. A first step would be the sustainable transport plans which the Finance Minister is expecting from government entities during 2017. I would expect that, in 12 months time, these plans will start being implemented because government entities should be the first to set an example.

Most of our localities are a stone’s throw away from each other and this should make it much easier to encourage a reduction in dependence on the privately-owned car. Initiatives can also be taken on a local level and between neighbouring localities. In such instances, it can be much easier to encourage the use of bicycles. This would require streets where access to cars is prohibited, such access being reserved for bicycle users. In such instances, school  children, under supervision,  should be encouraged to go to school on bicycles, in bicycle-friendly streets.

Initiatives at a local level add up over time and slowly contribute to the formation of a bicycle-friendly society.  Even in matters of transport, national problems can be resolved at the town and village level, eventually leading to a solution at a national level. This is a practical way of applying the environmental maxim “think global, act local”.

The problem of traffic congestion will not be resolved by the construction of a new generation of flyovers but by equipping our young generations to challenge the status quo.

It can be done.

published in the Malta Independent on Sunday 23 October 2016