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Carmen Sammut

Stranded... in the age of mobility

Malta desperately needs to develop a holistic plan to improve its internal and external mobility.

Carmen Sammut
5 July 2011, 12:00am
Following years of hype, expectations are sky high. But are our transport needs being met?

Take the new bus system... its birth was indeed followed by a baptism of fire. What we experienced in the past days revealed Arriva’s ‘teething problems’ after days in a boiling pot of confusion. Arriva officials were frequently quoted by the press as saying that everything was in place and everything was running “on time”. It now transpired that most of those statements amounted to a PR exercise and they now need to make a greater effort to restore public trust.

It is a pity that the image of the smiling driver on the billboard was brutally shattered by mutinous men flaunting their anger on the evening news. Their insubordination did not merely cost those drivers their job; but they are also possibly blamed for everything else that went wrong.

Long-suffering commuters had great expectations but their experience has now been marred by long waits under a scorching sun for vehicles that did not turn up; trips between short distances that became longer and more time-consuming. Hundreds reported late for work and important appointments. Moreover, there is a feeling that Arriva’s public awareness campaign did not effectively reach all segments. Many cannot decide whether they are failing to understand the new operation or if it is the system that is failing them.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating and Arriva needs to put its act together quickly if it wishes to bring the anticipated culture change. Meaningful reform happens when more of us are willing to switch from private transport to an efficient public system. We will remain reluctant to do so as long as we do not have the reassurance that in the age of mobility we will not remain stranded.

Narrower roads and stomach ulcers

Talk of transportation is not restricted to buses. In the street people, are frustrated with the sheer lack of traffic management and the silly decisions that are stubbornly being taken. For instance, most of us cannot fathom the motives behind decisions to narrow down decently sized streets, to one-lane roads. These so called “traffic calming measures” instigate road rage and set off stomach ulcers. You must know the feeling whenever you are unable to overtake a slow karozzin or a heavy long vehicle. Moreover, one keeps wondering what happens if our car accidentally stops in a one lane road, say the arterial  road that links Naxxar to San Gwann. Things will only get worse. Just look at the current road works; publicity leaflets boast of narrower roads, but much wider and nicer pavements, in various parts of the island.

Tunnel vision

Politicians on both side of the House are allured by one underground sexy project. It is the grand vision of a tunnel that connects Malta and Gozo. Opposed by environmentalists and those who wish to preserve the romantic picture postcard image of Gozo; it has become the favourite dream of islanders who wish to reduce the double insularity that is deemed to block the sister island’s advancement. 

Inter-island transportation has been on the national agenda for decades but we still have not laid out a long-term plan. In the early 1970s, government had commissioned a feasibility study which determined that an inter-island bridge was not a good idea. Since then we have seen the birth and demise of various helicopter services now replaced by a seaplane that still complements the ferry.

What politicians are now proposing is a tunnel vision spiced by polarized vote-catching tactics. The tunnel debate was recently revamped in an article by prospective Labour Gozitan candidate Franco Mercieca and then by Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi while he was touring the island. We shall not be surprised if it ends up in the list of electoral promises of both parties. Commentators are happily chattering about its exorbitant cost and feasibility. Newspapers reported it will cost at least €150 million but level-headed entrepreneurs and expert geologists immediately warned that the cost could even double, depending on the geological structure.

While we are happily dabbling with tunnel issues we are forgetting that in 2004 Gozo Channel was given an exclusive contract to operate a ferry service between the islands with an annual subsidy of €3.5 million. That subsidy was justified because of the ferry’s “public service obligation” but soon the European Commission insisted that the ferry should be subject to competitive market forces. The Maltese government faced music before the European Court of Justice as the Commission insisted competition is essential even when it acknowledged that such a small-scale ferry system hardly permits a profitable service run by a single operator.

Very soon state subsidies have to stop and government is already in the process of issuing a public call for tenders. In the meantime the ‘new’ ferry ships are no longer that new and for over three years we have been reading that they are showing clear signs of “fatigue”. Tunnel vision is now diverting our focus from these urgent issues.

Instead of fantasizing on costly tunnels, people need immediate measures and reassurances that the lifeline between the islands will keep running.

‘Ghasfur tac-comb ma jtirx

Talking about lifelines... for decades Air Malta’s “leaded birds” connected the islands to strategic destinations and the airline was a source of national pride and an intrinsic part of brand Malta. The context in which airlines operate has changed and unless the company adapts it will not survive. But there is one fact that has not changed. In the age of mobility, it is strategically important that Malta secures its lifeline with the rest of the world. While Air Malta needs to shed some baggage and learn how to survive in a competitive scenario on a level playing field, as an island state we cannot put ourselves at the mercy and mood of Low Cost operators.

All these issues point towards one reality: Malta desperately needs to develop a holistic plan to improve its internal and external mobility.

Wayne Zerafa
.I admit to to the existence of intial hiccups when a radically new bus system is being installed but I came across something which borders on the farcical this morning. Signs indicating the route to MScala placed on the wrong side of the road (see bus stop in front of CCF, Paola. Maltese commuters can easily figure this out but can you imagine the confusion this creates among tourists unless they are fortunate enough to meet locals on the bus stop who point them in the right direction (on the other side of the road)? This takes some beating!
Wayne Zerafa
It is virtually impossible to contemplate travelling to and from University or Mater dei with these buses. It took us 1hr 45 mins to get to Paola and those hospital workers from Gudja and Zurrieq must have taken 2 hrs to get to their destination. The route from Mater Dei to the South is a farce as the bus goes to sliema and then returns to mater Dei goes down to the university terminus (if at all) and returns to mater dei before moving to Marsa/Qormi depot and then onto Paola and airport. That takes about 2 hrs which renders it exasperating for hospital and university employees and students. Come October there will be mayhem if this route is not modified. The routes seem to be destined to favour people from the North. Will MPs representing constituencies from the South stand up and raise a hue and cry?
Patrick Agius
It also now transpires that drivers are scapegoats. Surely they cannot be blamed for the surreal bus routes, lack of consultation, poor communication strategies; buses, software and ticketing machines that break down etc etc ... Sad situation
albert leone
There should and must be holistic plans about when one sees the amount of Consultants' fees each Ministry continues to fork out! . . Isn't there any return on investment on these fees or do we also have to support and sustain not only Highly Paid Ministri Cwiec, but also HIghly Paid Ministers' Consultants Cwiec as well!
chris galea
Part of the problem in our culture is that our systems tend to work in a very unstructured informal almost anarchic way. it is known in systems theory that anarchic systems develop their own ways of doing things and coping with situations and what they apparently display on the interface is not the way they are actually working. Let me just quote two instances from the current new transport system hiccups. One: Question: Why are there so many delays and buses are taking so long to cover their journey?. Answer: There is no proper infrastructure to allow the relatively large buses imported to move freely. No bus lanes or lane discipline and if you are a new driver with the responsibility of a 150,000 euro bus you will sure be careful. Question But how did the previous buses and their drivers manage?. Answer: They developed the habit of being kings of the road ignoring lay bays stopping where they felt would hinder their progress least and coping with traffic by virtually clearing the road ahead of them with their cowboy attitude .In a sense they created their own emergency path like ambulances. . Two: Question: Why did the previous owner drivers rebel against their new employers and the princely wage of 35 euros Question Does anyone believe other than transport authority who previously costed the service for subsidies the actuqal bus owner figures of earnings?. Answer: The drivers and owner drivers earned way way above a 35 euro a day wage and only fools work for greatly reduced earnings subject to greater discipline. Of course Arriva did not know this because they do not form part of our culture and the officials at the transport authority might have been economic on such hidden facts on the ground.
Patrick Agius
Given the small size and huge demographic pressures I fully agree that the problem is lack of long term planning. We are now reaping the dividends of decades of stop-go decisions, based on miopic strategies influenced by political and economic power brokers.
noel spiteri
"Things will only get worse. Just look at the current road works; publicity leaflets boast of narrower roads, but much wider and nicer pavements, in various parts of the island." What?! Standard-sized pavements?! How dare they! Whatever next?! Some pavements are so narrow that they're practically unusable and in some areas there are no pavements whatsoever - this in 2011. The pedestrian has rights too, you know (as do other road users like cyclists). As the old city planning adage goes "you get what you build for"... and for too many years the car was (and still is) king. Everything has a cause and an effect. Everyone wants a sea change in public transport, our air to be more breathable, our obese teenagers (the fattest in the world) to get slimmer, our EU record-breaking rates of asthma to diminish, our towns not to be the colour of "nugrufun", our alarming dependency on car use (one of the highest in the world) to decrease, our streets to be quieter and more pleasant and our few remaining green areas not to be taken away from us... but no one wants to get out of their car. It would be comic if it wasn't tragic. (and, yes, I DID get out of my car)
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