Why not just rename it the ‘Ministry for Encouraging and Promoting Vehicle Use’?

Ian Borg has so far concentrated only on the ‘infrastructure’ side of his portfolio: and even then, only on infrastructural projects that just happen to facilitate one particular mode of transport, at the expense of all others

Roads minister Ian Borg
Roads minister Ian Borg

Interviewed by Reno Bugeja a couple of weeks ago, Transport and Infrastructure Minister Ian Borg – wait, let me make that introduction again: TRANSPORT (and Infrastructure) Minister Ian Borg - made a few rather intriguing claims.

For instance: at one point he was asked whether his own enthusiasm for fly-overs – and not just fly-overs, mind you: under-passes, over-passes, tunnels, car-parks, petrol stations… in a word, anything remotely connected to the automobile – may in itself ‘encourage and promote more vehicular-use’

Hmmm. I would have thought that’s the equivalent of: “Does swimming with open wounds in the Amazon ‘encourage and promote’ more piranha attacks?” (But then again, I’m not exactly Transport and Infrastructure Minister… so what the hell would I know?)

In any case, this was Ian Borg’s reply: “Nobody has ever told me that they ‘bought a car because I implemented the Central Link project’. Let’s put things into their proper perspective. People buy cars because there isn’t an alternative. When people do have an alternative, they will consider it...”

There’s a little more, which I’ll come to later; but that’s the part that really caught my attention.

Because I was under this vague impression that it was actually the Transport Ministry’s own job to come up with ‘alternative systems of transportation’. (That, after all, is one of the reasons it is called the ‘TRANSPORT and… oh well, you know the rest.)

And yet, there the transport minister was: candidly – proudly, even – admitting that, if people have been left with no realistic alternative but to use their cars at every conceivable opportunity… it is precisely because he himself hasn’t attended to a vital part of his own job: you know, the part that involves improving, and expanding, the existing public TRANSPORT network...

Well: he’s right, you know. Ian Borg has so far concentrated only on the ‘infrastructure’ side of his portfolio: and even then, only on infrastructural projects that just happen to facilitate one particular mode of transport, at the expense of all others.

And by ‘all others’, I don’t just mean all the usual ‘alternative’ suspects: stuff like ferries, trams, monorails, underground railways, teleportation devices and interstellar worm-holes… No, Minister Borg’s plans seem to always overlook that there are other, much simpler ways of getting from ‘A’ to ‘B’. Like ‘walking’ and ‘cycling’, for instance (not, mind you, that I myself would know very much about the latter: but still, I am told that it does exist…)

Or at least, it would: if all these fly-overs and road-widening projects we keep embarking on, were planned to actually accommodate the occasional pedestrian and cyclist here and there, too.

But just take a look at the plans presented by the same ministry last week, for a fly-over at Msida: where ‘pedestrians’ were so obviously relegated to an afterthought, that it almost looks as though there was a mad scramble to ‘pencil them in’ at the very last minute.

I can almost see it happening, too, in some office deep inside the bowels of the Transport Ministry: that awkward moment, when some random office underling innocently pipes up…

‘Nice flyover plans, but… erm… how do people actually cross the road?’

Ouch. Hadn’t thought of that, had we? But never mind… we’ll just squeeze in a two-storey pedestrian bridge there, on one side of the Msida roundabout ((but, bizarrely, not on the other…) and as for the rest, we’ll just insert a narrow lane between parked cars, over here; and… yeah, maybe we’ll add a zebra crossing right over… here: you know, just to maximise the sheer amount of zig-zagging people will now have to do, to get from side from Msida to the other…

And of course, none of this will encourage people to use their cars. On the contrary: it may even help us battle our national scourge of obesity… just think of all those kilos that would be lost, merely by ‘crossing the road’ every other day (in other words, the equivalent of negotiating an obstacle course designed to train US Navy SEALS…)

But still, pedestrians did at least get remembered in the end. The same can hardly be said for cyclists, though, can it?

About as much thought has been given to them, as for ‘teleportation devices’ and ‘interstellar worm-holes’. It is almost as though ‘bicycles’ were themselves something out of science fiction…

Vehicular traffic, on the other hand? Let’s see now: not only are existing pavements being sacrificed for the creation (or widening) of roads; but what little space still remains to be enjoyed by the general public today – namely, the ‘bocci club, gazebo, kiosk and recreational area’ next to the GWU memorial – will all be demolished to make way for… yes, you guessed it: car-parks (just in case we didn’t all already get the overall message: that ‘planning for cars’, in government circles,  is a higher priority than ‘planning for people’…)

And again: none of this will in any way ‘encourage and promote’ more vehicular use. Not at all. Somehow, a project that was conceived and designed uniquely for the benefit of cars – by people who seem to only ever have ‘internal combustion engines’ on their minds - will miraculously discourage us from actually using them…

Which brings me back to that interview. Another small problem with the minister’s reply is that… well, it doesn’t really answer the question, does it? Especially given that it was actually about ‘vehicular use’; and NOT vehicle ownership.

To put that another way: Ian Borg may well have a point, that ‘no one has ever bought a car’ specifically because of any one particular road project. But how many people would use their cars more often, if that project made it is easier to do so than, say, walking, cycling, or taking the bus (or any of the other alternative public transport systems, that we will probably never have anyway)?

Besides: when it comes to the traffic problem (as opposed to its twin sybling, parking) the appropriate statistic to discuss is the number of cars on the road at any given time… and not the number of cars in total.

And that’s probably just as well; because this very morning the NSO released its latest stats regarding vehicle ownership in Malta, and…

… Oops, I may have spoken too soon.  Maybe some of those road projects have indeed inspired people to go on a car-purchasing spree: for it seems that, by the third quarter of 2020 (i.e., after the inauguration of the Central Link project), the number of licensed vehicles in Malta was up by 5,173 over the previous quarter… working out at a net average of 56 cars per day.

The upshot is that we now almost literally have as many cars as people in this country: 400,586, out of a population of around 500,000.

And this, at a time when we also are supposed to be committed to reducing our carbon emissions by 2050 (something we can only ever realistically achieve by discouraging – not promoting - the use of cars as a primary mode of transportation).

What I find odder still, however, is that Ian Borg himself seems to acknowledge as much in the same interview (indeed, in answer to the same question):

“Last Sunday, the newspaper Illum published a survey which revealed that ‘concern with traffic’ is at the lowest level since 2017.  Does this mean we’ve solved the problem? No, because the problem now becomes whether we use the time that we have gained through these projects, to implement longer-term solutions, and to introduce a long-term culture change…”

To be fair, he didn’t quite specify what ‘longer-term solutions’ he had in mind… but surely even Ian Borg knows that it cannot possibly involve an endless series of road-widening roads, to accommodate the ever-increasing number of cars on the road.

This, incidentally, is also reflected in those surveys about national concerns. There can be no denying that projects like Central Link have indeed eased traffic congestion, since their completion… and in the short-term, the same will almost certainly be true for the Msida flyover as well.

But the same can also be said for all Malta’s other road-building projects in the past, all the way back to the 1960s: the Regional Road, the Birkirkara Bypass, the Santa Venera tunnels and fly-overs, and many more… these, too, all catered handsomely for the volume of traffic in their own day.

None of them, however, could continue coping with that volume for too long, in the end: not when it is expanding at an incremental rate (currently by around 50 new cars a day, and rising) to the extent that… oh look. We are now building more fly-overs – and more, and MORE - to address precisely the same old problem...

But as the Chamber of Architects president recently put it, in his own reaction to the Msida plans: ‘They [the authorities] see this as a road engineering problem, so their solutions are road engineering ones. But this is an urban planning problem, and the solutions to be found are there.”

And urban planning involves more than just ‘roadworks’. It also involves that teenie-weenie part of Ian Borg’s portfolio that he seems to have forgotten all about… transport…