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