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

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TEN-T : The Għadira Nodes

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published Saturday 27 December 2008

by Carmel Cacopardo

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Two important points have to be borne in mind while searching for a solution to upgrade the Ten-T (Trans-European Transport Network) road link at Ghadira Bay, Mellieha.

Firstly, all identified solutions will have an environmental impact. Secondly, in order that the public discussion be fruitful all information must be freely available.

The stakeholders are not just NGOs and specific economic operators. The whole community is the stakeholder. Stakeholders require information not just from the perceived interested parties but more so from the public authorities that are vested with authority to defend the community’s interests.

A number of reports have been made public. Some have been quoted selectively. Others are still under wraps.

BCEOM (French engineering consultants), in its 2004 report entitled Feasibility And Environmental Impact Studies For Transport Infrastructure Projects In Malta – Final Feasibility Study Report and AIS Environmental Limited, in its 2005 report entitled Proposed Review Of Ghadira Road Options, identify the upgrading of the existing road along the beach as the preferred option.[vide also 1 and 2]

Since then a number of proposals have been publicised. These revolve around two possibilities: the retention of the existing road with modifications or the construction of an alternative road to the south of the Nature Reserve and the Danish Village.

Preliminary appraisal of environmental impacts has been drawn up and on its basis the authorities have issued opinions that have not yet been made public. These indicate the detailed studies that have yet to be carried out in order to arrive at a definite decision.

In particular, it is to be noted that the AIS report dated November 2005 states (pages 2 and 3) that BCEOM had rejected the tunnel design beyond the Danish Village, which would have reclassified the beach front route as a local road.

These proposals were rejected by BCEOM on the basis of “excessive and unpredictable costs”. In addition, the AIS report emphasises that “Mepa had rejected the tunnel options on environmental grounds because the area in question is classified as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC)”.

The AIS report further states that subsequent to the above-indicated Mepa rejection, ADT reassessed the situation and proposed three options, two focusing on the existing road and the third being a new road incorporating a tunnel and bridge through the garigue (an SAC) south of the Danish Village, which, like the SAC-protected Nature Reserve, has been officially approved by the EU and forms part of Natura 2000.

It is within this context that Mepa has requested a “holistic preliminary assessment of the impacts arising from the various options that ADT is now considering”. Mepa has requested a number of studies related to beach dynamics, ecology, agriculture, geology, geomorphology and hydrology, archaeology and others. These studies were requested way back in 2005 and none has to date seen the light of day, notwithstanding that everyone seems to be in a hurry! These studies, if properly carried out, are of fundamental importance in determining the manner in which the Ghadira Ten-T link is to proceed, if at all!

Various statements have been made in the past weeks. The most conspicuous were those related to the sandy beach. It is by now clear that these have originated (without scientific justification) from a consultant commissioned by one of the economic operators in Ghadira Bay and were intended to reinforce his proposal for a beach concession as a result of a possible re-routing of the Ghadira road.

Within this context it was highly unethical for the Ministry of Transport to invite the said consultant to sit alongside the ministry’s officials in a recent meeting with NGOs and the press. The ministry’s subsequent declaration that it would oppose proposals for beach concessions in the area can only be interpreted as an attempt to correct its ethical short-sightedness!

A further important statement was made last week by nature itself. The sea level temporarily rose to the road level, thereby reinforcing arguments already brought forward that the existing road during the winter months is doubling up as a coastal defence to the Nature Reserve, which, being sited on former salt pans is partly below sea-level.

At this point in the debate, matters are slightly less nebulous than they were in the beginning. The declaration by the Minister for the Environment that all the required studies will be carried out is welcome.

However, such a declaration risks being viewed as a cheap attempt at damage control unless an explanation is forthcoming as to why these studies have not yet been finalised notwithstanding that they were requested by Mepa way back in 2005!

It is clear that, until recently, some thought that these studies could be dispensed with only to realise at the 11th hour that the environmental lobby is vigilant and will keep insisting that the government, through its various agencies, should shoulder its responsibilities!