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Raphael Vassallo

I might think I might have just solved that national problem of ours...

Maybe we could solve the traffic problem by breathalysing all the people who run the Malta Transport Authority.... instead of the ones who get caught up in all the traffic they’ve created

Raphael Vassallo
9 January 2018, 8:11am
‘Amusing’ is not normally a word you can associate with Malta’s traffic problem at the moment
‘Amusing’ is not normally a word you can associate with Malta’s traffic problem at the moment
As a general rule of thumb, I tend to be sceptical of ‘simple solutions’ to complex problems. But then, you read something like this is the local paper: “[...] the assistant police commissioner has a serious drinking problem. [He] is responsible for coordinating traffic in the country...”

Yikes! A bit like a car-crash, really: you hear a sudden squeal of brakes, then experience a moment of intense lucidity before everything blacks out with a smash and a tinkle.  So THAT is why it now officially takes me less time to get to San Gwann on foot than by car. It’s not because my walking speed has increased through all the extra exercise: no, I’m still the type of walker who stops to read all the street-graffiti, or take a closer look at a plant growing out of the pavement. (Mind you, with traffic the way it is, you’d probably be able to read Dante’s Divine Comedy cover to cover, and do a PhD in Botany by correspondence over your mobile phone... all while driving up Rue D’Argens, through Mrabat Street, and up the hill to Tal-Balal.)

And all it takes to explain this phenomenon is the random juxtaposition of two unrelated sentences. Whoever co-ordinates Malta’s traffic must be drunk. Yes indeed, makes perfect sense to me. So maybe there is a simple solution to this country’s traffic problem after all: maybe we could solve it by simply breathalysing all the people who run the Malta Transport Authority... instead of the ones who get caught up in all the traffic they’ve created. (Hey, you never know. Nothing else has worked, so we may as well give it a try...)

Sadly, however, my original gut feeling still holds. Tempting as it is to identify the ultimate scapegoat in that hapless assistant commissioner – I reckon he’ll be blamed for global warming next – it is also patently absurd to blame Malta’s chaotic traffic mess on the personal problems of a single man... whatever the responsibility of his office. That’s why I blotted out the name, and didn’t include any details about what is ultimately a case of domestic violence. If I mentioned it at all, it is only all because I found the subliminal inference rather amusing, in a mischievous sort of way. And ‘amusing’ is not normally a word you can associate with Malta’s traffic problem at the moment. It just... isn’t... funny... anymore.

Truth be told, it’s depressing. And I mean that in the broadest sense: it brings us down, in all sorts of ways. It certainly slows us down... and I’m told (by people who understand these things better than I) that the time lost in traffic jams translates into lower productivity, lower competitiveness, and - in a nutshell - more money flushed down the drain.

Now: normally I don’t care much of a hoot for that sort of argument. I dislike this idea that we only ever view things as ‘problematic’ when they start affecting the national balance sheet. I’ll make an exception in this case, however, because lurking somewhere in that observation is a colossal paradox. I’m clearly an exception to this other general rule, but... Malta has (or is supposed to have) a reputation for being ‘canny’ and ‘savvy’ when it comes to things like money. You know: ‘descendants of pirates’, and all that. And it’s true: money is almost a spoken language here. It is invariably invoked as the be-all and end-all argument in any discussion, on any topic: it is the factor by which all things are measured, and all things can be justified or disputed.

Yet here we all are, on this money-minded little rock of ours... unable to alleviate a problem that is costing us the one thing we all supposedly care about (and understand) the most. It’s like the traffic situation itself: you have to be drunk to even conceive of such a paradox in the first place.

Meanwhile, I won’t turn this into a list of all the other ways in which traffic lowers the quality of life: pollution, road-rage, the extinction of punctuality, etc... because these are all things you experience yourselves every day. What worries me more is our collective inability to ever hit on any innovative solutions.

And I say ‘collective’, because it’s something we’re all guilty of. Myself included. Oh yes: if, for a moment, you thought I was unaware of my own hypocrisy in all of the above, you were molto sbalgliato. I have a car. And even if I drive it as infrequently as I possibly get away with – the few times I do, I instantly become part of the problem I so freely criticise in articles like this.

So OK, I’ll admit it. Guilty as charged. But that doesn’t solve the problem, does it? And even if I did put my money where my motor-mouth is, and give up driving altogether... I am seriously considering it, by the way... it would be but a drop of petrol in a 500 gallon tank. Not even enough to catch a spark, let alone propel a two-tonne vehicle forward...

"The time lost in traffic jams translates into lower productivity, lower competitiveness, and -in a nutshell - more money flushed down the drain"
No, this is a national issue, and as such it requires a national response: one that, quite frankly, has eluded my own mind for as long as I’ve been thinking about it. I’ve had plenty of time to do that recently: on long walks, in unmoving traffic, on the bus, etc. And to be brutally honest, I’m no nearer to a solution than any of those drunks who designed our traffic system in the first place.

Nonetheless: these, in no particular order, are the thoughts that came to mind:

1) [while crossing the footbridge above Marsa’s December 13th avenue] Wouldn’t it be great if this road were actually a river, plied constantly by ferry-boats carrying huge numbers of passengers? If only we could somehow dig a canal connecting the innermost part of the Grand Harbour to (for instance) St Paul’s Bay, via a huge arc that would take you all the way round the airport, and back up through the valleys beneath Mdina, stopping at every town along the way... Sure, we’d have to demolish around half of Malta’s built environment to achieve that in practice, I know. But then, you look at half Malta’s built environment, and think... yeah, great, two birds with one stone. What are we waiting for? Anyway, it was just an idea...

2) [While watching Fellini’s ‘Roma’ recently] Underground railways. Yes, yes, I know everyone else hit on that idea long before I came up with it. But just imagine, during the massive tunnelling operations that would have to take place to build a underground railway system in Malta... the boring device accidentally penetrates an undiscovered subterranean architectural treasure... the lost temple of Juno, perhaps.... or even a second hypogeum. (After all, the first one was accidentally discovered while digging a well). Or the secret catacombs that have been lost to history for centuries: where St Paul left that letter he once wrote us, but then forgot to ever post. And what if it turns out we accidentally stumble upon the lost city of Atlantis?  What if...

3) [while putting the above two together]. What if we put the above two together, and get... UNDERGROUND FERRIES! Ha! Didn’t see that one coming, did you? Yes, indeed. A public transport service that is both subterranean and submarine: the first of its kind anywhere in the world. Same concept as the London Underground, only we tunnel deeper – below sea level – and use submarines instead of tubes...

Wait, that’s it! We’ll call it... the ‘Sube’! Which you can catch at the ‘Sube-Station’! Which leads to an entire network of criss-crossing tunnels, all flooded with seawater, where custom-built submergible ferries can transport any number of passengers to any part of the island, 24 hours a day. All you’d have to do is put on an aqualung and some basic diving gear, step into a vertical elevator that plunges you some 700 metres below ground-level, board the Sube at one of the several ultra-futuristic underwater platforms that would have to be built, at untold expense to the national exchequer... which reminds me: just think of the contracts, folks! Engineering, surveying, excavation, construction, ship-building, maintenance, electronic ticketing, machines that go ‘beep’... enough to go around for absolutely everybody!

... and then, once you get to your destination, you simply spend eight hours in a decompression tank before being allowed to resurface. And hey presto! You’re there, without having contributed to any surface traffic problem at all...

Ye-e-es, there may be a few minor teething problems. I’ve already mentioned decompression delays... but people would also have to pass a dive medical just to use the national public transport system. Anyone with chronic sinusitis, or who suffers from any number of issues in the ENT department, would no doubt feel discriminated against, and probably start up some kind of civil society pressure group or other.  But still... eight hours is nothing next to what we’re experiencing right now. And for those who can’t use the service for their own, private health reasons... there’s still the bus, you know. Stop being so... selfish.

In any case: I’m not hearing anyone else coming up with any particular ingenious ideas right now.  So I guess my own, outrageously unbridled (and unbudgeted) fantasies will have to make do instead. And it’s the beginning of a whole new year, too.

So why haven’t we started already? Let’s get cracking on the world’s first underground/underwater Subeway, shall we? I think I have a shovel in a closet somewhere...

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