In one of the many fairy tales spun by government advisors, we have been informed that the heavy infrastructural investment in roads will result in all of us having the possibility of an additional 12 minutes of fun every week. This additional quality time, we are told, will result from spending less time in traffic congestion. As far as I am aware, the text of this fairy tale has not yet been published. So far, we have only been informed of its existence in one of the many media appearances of Transport Minister Ian Borg!
Some years back, a more serious study entitled The External Costs of Passenger and Commercial Vehicles use in Malta, published by the Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development of the University of Malta and funded by the EU, had estimated that the time lost in traffic congestion per commuter in Malta was 52 hours per annum. This works out at approximately 60 minutes per week. Matters are today much worse, as this study was published four years ago in 2015 and the situation has deteriorated further. Apparently, advisors to Infrastructure Malta have not yet accounted for at least 80% of the time estimated to be lost in traffic congestion.
The basic problem with government’s current transport policy is that its measures and initiatives to address traffic congestion are focused on the effects of road usage. The causes of traffic congestion are generally addressed in an inadequate manner. In the long term, increasing road capacity will not give satisfactory results. It will only make matters worse, as a result postponing the problem until a later date when it will be substantially much worse.
Short term measures which increase the efficiency of our roads will only yield results if they are coupled with robust measures intended to reduce cars from our roads.
It is pertinent to point out once more that the National Transport Master Plan 2025 has identified that around 50% of private vehicle trips on Maltese roads involve journeys of a duration of less than 15 minutes. This signifies that local and/or regional traffic movements should be the real focus of transport policy initiatives. This is the low-lying fruit which could give results in a reasonable time, if tackled adequately.
Traffic congestion is the symptom of our malaise: car dependency. It is car dependency which should be addressed head on. This is the real issue which government and its agencies are doing their utmost to avoid.
To be fair various measures have been introduced which seek to encourage the use of alternative means of transport. These include free access to public transport to various categories and various measures to encourage bicycle use. Emphasis on the use of sea transport in the port areas is also beneficial as in addition to being an efficient means of mobility it also reduces cars from our roads. Addressing school transport was also an important initiative. Government has however opted to use mostly carrots and not sticks in implementing transport policy and initiatives. The reasons for this are obvious: to avoid political backlash as much as possible.
Fiscal measures should be used extensively to reduce cars from roads both permanently as well as during particular and specific times of the day.
Among the measures that can be utilised, congestion charges are the most used in other countries. This involves the payment of a charge depending on the duration of your stay in those zones subject to heavy traffic. Its aim is to reduce traffic in such zones.
Unfortunately, the congestion charge applied some years ago in Valletta was curtailed such that nowadays it is not very effective. If the congestion charge is strengthened and gradually extended beyond Valletta its impact could be substantial in addressing traffic congestion at all times of the day around the major urban areas. Gradually such a measure would lead to a permanent reduction of cars from our roads and a substantial increase in use of public transport as well as alternative means of sustainable mobility.
A focused transport policy which seriously tackles the causes of traffic congestion would yield much more than an additional 12 minutes of fun. It has however to deal with the real issue: car dependency. Until such time we will keep listening to the fairy tales spun by Minister Ian Borg’s consultants.
Published in the Malta Independent – Sunday 21 April 2019