Let’s change our car-centric culture

The latest Malta Today survey tells us that the concerns related to traffic have decreased due to the COVID crisis. This is to be expected with less people gathering in certain areas together as often as was the norm previously. Traffic is not as heavy due to the dramatic fall in tourism and the emergence of the work from home (WFH) culture, we are beginning to see along with the closures of schools and colleges for extended periods.

The environment and overreliance on the automobile will return to give us headaches assuming we hopefully return to any normality we were accustomed to prior to March 2020. With the lull in traffic on the roads there is an opportunity for people to really get things done. We don’t need more car lanes, we need more car alternatives such as bus lanes, cycle paths and safe footpaths. Rarely outside towns can a person with reduced mobility get around without difficulty, and even in some town centres there are places when a footpath will not allow a mother with a pushchair or a person in a wheelchair pass unimpeded.

The WFH environment we currently experience with less traffic could and should be encouraged, flexi-time where possible staggered office opening times to alleviate the rush hour and on a return to normal after this pandemic car pooling should be encouraged by businesses and possibly by the government as well. Schemes paying people to use bicycles have helped in cities as close as Bari in Italy. To safely encourage cycling more dedicated cycle lanes need to be provided. There was great fanfare when there was a stretch of lane opened between Zejtun and the Hompesch Gate along Tiq Bormla but the path peters out to nothing and goes nowhere.

Community Rota, formally known as the Bicycle Advocacy Group, need to be consulted as they represent the main stakeholders regarding cyclist needs. It is no use for someone in the Ministry for Transport and Infrastructure Malta, who never cycled a bike, to plan bicycle lanes. These cycle lanes are poorly designed, and unsafe, as priority is always given to car traffic. The National Cycling Strategy published in November 2018 acknowledges the increase in licenced motor vehicles and the need for alternative routes. Grants for people making use of pedelecs and bicycles would be much more popular should there be a safe environment in which people could use them. Flyovers, and especially pre-completion opening parties costing €40,000, are not needed.

Malta does not have a cycling culture akin to more Northern European where almost 20% of all journeys are taken by bicycle. Imagine peak traffic being reduced by almost 20% it would be easier for everyone. Added to that the health benefits from the exercise and the reduction in excessive CO2 and other noxious gases from the traffic, it is really an avenue that cannot be ignored. In addition to the current car scrappage scheme, perhaps a double payment can be offered if a person decides to scrap two cars at the same time. Perhaps apply that car scrappage scheme towards electric scooters or electric bicycles instead of a new car. If the option is used then there will be a better understanding as to the wants and needs of residents.

The chance to make inroads is now, while the traffic has subsided temporarily. Once we return to normal the chaos on the roads will most probably resume and the chance will have been lost. The addition of a planned Bombi bus terminus is a welcome idea, if there are integrated shuttles constantly running into the capital, perhaps even a reopening or reuse of the old train line or the traditional old buses which could further reduce the traffic into Valletta and add to the touristic value. Additional regional terminuses could be used to reduce the numbers of buses tracking the same lanes before branching off. All buses to Paola, Isla, Bormla, Zabbar, Xghajra, Kalkara Marsaskala and Fgura from Valletta all share the exact same route until Corradino before a change in direction. This is repeated throughout the island. Shuttle busses to regional areas would be more efficient, perhaps even a return of the ‘bendy-buses’ for these larger routes. Some may scoff at the idea, but please assume the roads and routes used are not too narrow for the buses used. Once in the regional hub then smaller shuttle type buses can bring the passengers to their respective destinations obviously with regards to the demand on the routes. Dingli in the summer with the increased tourists will need bigger capacity and perhaps Qrendi will be served with a regular service year-round for example.

Malta is an ideal area to implement plans such as these due to the relatively small size, not to mention the history of Malta and how people used the sea to travel before the invention of the automobile. The growing imbalance between road building and saving the bit of nature left can be halted somewhat if just a small percentage of road users choose another more healthy form of transport & in the long run it will not only benefit themselves, with lower costs and increased fitness, it will also benefit everyone else as well.

Donal Kelly
ADPD Executive Member
Published in the Maltatoday – 21 February 2021