Wanted: a transport policy which makes sense

Everywhere is within reach in the Maltese islands: distances are relatively small. It is, in addition, an established fact, documented in the Transport Masterplan, that 50 per cent of private car trips on our roads take less than fifteen minutes. Do we need to be dependent on private cars for such short distances?

Over the years public transport was neglected. In the absence of suitable public transport, and as a reaction thereto, a pattern of car dependency has inevitably developed. The resulting congested roads are a symptom of this fact rather than being, as suggested in Parliament earlier this week by a government backbencher, the direct consequence of an increase in the country’s standard of living.

There have been improvements in public transport in the last years: these are however insufficient. Having free public transport is a good but pre-mature initiative as public transport has yet to be efficient and reliable. The decision announced last week by Transport Minister to invest in cycle lanes, is welcome, even if it comes a little late in the day.

The heavy investment in road infrastructure over the years has been misdirected as it has focused on the effects instead of on the causes of traffic congestion. The financial resources utilised in the Marsa Road network, the Central Link and elsewhere, will, at the end of the day, prove to be monies down the drain as traffic congestion will build up once more. This is already evident even in these early days. Others have been there before us as is revealed by countless studies carried out all over the world on the link between traffic congestion and improvement of the road infrastructure.

It is only through the provision of alternative means of sustainable mobility that the problematic behavioural pattern we have developed over the years can be addressed. Moving away from car dependency will however be a very slow process if policy makers keep continuously sending conflicting signals.

Making it easier for the car user through more or better roads is no help in solving the problem. It will make matters worse. Likewise, the subsidisation of petrol and diesel is sending a clear message to all that car dependency is not even considered to be a problem.

Three specific factors are currently in play: traffic congestion, fuel cost and the transition to transport electrification. If properly managed, together they can help us move towards a state of sustainable mobility. The transition period is however necessarily painful unless it is properly managed.

Postponement in tackling traffic congestion properly will only make matters worse.

Improvement of road infrastructure has postponed the issue of tackling traffic congestion into the future. Fuel subsidies have added to the problem as they blatantly ignore it. Electrification, unless coupled with a reduction of cars on the road will add acute electricity dependency on foreign sources to our current problems. Energy sovereignty has been problematic for quite some time: it will get worse.

The second electricity interconnector with the Sicilian mainland will worsen our car dependency as a result of linking it with a dependency on electricity generated outside our shores. We know quite well what that signifies whenever the interconnector is out of service, whatever the cause!

We need to go beyond the rhetoric and act before it is too late. It is also possible to ensure that the vulnerable are adequately protected. This would mean that instead of having across-the-board subsidises, these would be focused on those who really need them. All those who have mobility problems should receive focused assistance to help them overcome the difficulties which could result from a modal shift in transport. We cannot however go on with subsidies for all: it is not sustainable, neither economically, nor environmentally or socially

Land use planning can also be of considerable help if it is focused on the actual needs of the whole community instead of being at the service of the developers. We need to ensure that each community is self-sufficient in respect of its basic needs. This will, on its own, decrease traffic generated by the search for such needs.

The climate change debate is a unique opportunity to rethink the way we plan our cities as one way in which to combat the climate crisis. The idea crystallised as ‘the 15-minute city’ by Carlos Moreno, an architect advising the Paris mayor, entails turning current urban planning on its head to ensure that all our basic needs are available within easy reach, not more than 15 minutes away.

Carlos Moreno speaks of a social circularity for living in our urban spaces based on six essential functions: to live in good housing, to work close by, to reach supplies and services easily, to access education, healthcare and cultural entitlement locally by low-carbon means. Can we reassess the nature and quality of our urban lifestyles within these parameters?

All we do is essentially linked. At the end of the day traffic congestion and the related car dependency are a product of our mode of behaviour.  Thinking outside the box, we can tackle it successfully, as a result unchaining ourselves from our car dependency, consequently adjusting to a better sustainable lifestyle.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday 20 November 2022

Green Icing on half-baked cake

times_of_malta196x703published on 15 November 2008


by Carmel Cacopardo



The budget environmental initiatives can best be described as green icing on the cake. However,once you cut through the icing there is not much to be overjoyed with. These initiatives could be considered as a declaration of intent: the good intentions being severely hampered by the government’s lack of action in the past, even the very recent past. As a result it is very difficult for these initiatives to yield positive results at the present time.

A number of initiatives are linked to transport. While the proposal to refund 15.25 per cent of a bicycle’s cost is welcome, it lacks the support of the necessary infrastructure thereby severely diluting its significance and possible impact. There are very few cycle lanes on our roads, and those that exist are frequently obstructed or else end abruptly. Few bicycle racks were installed in our towns and villages, the most notable being the ones in Birkirkara installed by the local council on the initiative of Green local councillor Mario Mallia during his term of office some years ago.

Others exist in Attard, a credit to Attard Green councillor Ralph Cassar. But very few exist elsewhere. AD is insisting through its local councillors in Attard (Ralph Cassar), Sliema (Michael Briguglio) and Ta’ Sannat (John Mizzi) for more initiatives which would make our roads bicycle friendly. It is only thus that the budget bicycle initiative could make any sense. What about some action by ADT?

The new car tax regime (both registration tax and circulation tax) could have been designed in a better manner. The age of a car, for example, is not necessarily conducive to increased environmental impacts.

The actual emissions as resulting from the VRT test would have been a much better point of reference than vehicle age in determining car taxation. This would encourage and reward those who keep their cars in good working order.

The budget also increased the licence fees (circulation tax) to be paid relative to cars currently on the road. When viewed within the context of the practical inexistence of a reliable public transport service, in the short term this is bad policy.

In the long term, however, it could be an adequate policy tool to encourage the reduction of the 295,000 cars currently on the road. In order to function properly eco taxation requires the existence of an alternative to what is being taxed: the alternative in this case being public transport. In the absence of an alternative the end result will be socially regressive: reduced accessibility to those at the lower end of the social ladder. If the real objective of the new car licence rates (circulation tax) is environmental, it would have been much better for all if they were not applicable immediately. Their applicability should be linked to the reform of the public transport system.

Government’s encouragement of photovoltaic panel installation is very limited. It is generous but due to financial constraints it will be limited to around 200 households.

It is also hampered by other issues which have not yet been addressed. Issues of ownership of airspace have to be examined and new concepts as to its use have to be developed. Likewise from a land use planning point of view any future increase of permissible building heights has to be balanced against the right of access to solar energy.

The direct subsidy of photovoltaic panel purchase is not the only way to encourage installation. The government should explore schemes through which the purchase price is paid through the electrical energy generated. An initiative such as this would render solar energy accessible to those who do not have the required capital outlay readily available.

The eco tax applicable to incandescent light bulbs and the increase in eco tax payable on plastic bags were long overdue. However, the government must explain how it will tackle its major loophole in this respect. It is a known fact, at times documented in the media, that the manner in which eco taxes are being evaded is through overland supplies from neighbouring Sicily. It is eco tax versus the free movement of goods. Will checks be introduced at the border to control blatant and obvious tax evasion?

It is also amusing to note that the government is a late convert to the applicability of eco taxation in the tourism sector. The rate to be applied as from 2010 is insignificant but at last this green principle, which was under attack on the eve of the 2004 European Parliament elections, has now been accepted. Tourism has to date been excluded from the applicability of the polluter pays principle. Hopefully it will slowly come in line. Next to follow should be MTA encouragement of eco and agro tourism. These are forms of tourism with substantially lower environmental impacts than conventional tourism.

The green icing may be fine, but if the cake is half-baked what’s the use?