‘Pencil Development’ should be rubbed out, not rubber-stamped

The government of Malta has not just ‘forgotten’ all about those ‘post-Covid’ promises – not to mention all its other, analgous pledges of ‘green spaces in urban centres’, etc. - but it has unaccountably chosen to deliver the clean opposite, ever since!

At first I thought it was a mistake in the headline. After all, why would the NSO even bother publishing its ‘traffic statistics for 2021’... two whole years later, on March 28, 2023?

It’s kind of baffling, to be honest. Especially when you also consider that – just a couple of weeks earlier, on March 3 – the NSO had already published the corresponding statistics for 2022 (a fact which, on its own, renders the previous information more or less ‘redundant’, from any news-value perspective.)

And besides: as was duly pointed out, by one of the first comments posted beneath... ‘2021’ just happened to be year that followed ‘2020’: you know, when the entire country was in partial lockdown, on account of the (now largely forgotten) Covid-19 pandemic.

Which also means that - to quote the comment in full - “In 2020 the roads were empty. Hardly anyone was driving, remember? Everyone was locked inside, or segregated...”

As such, it is hardly surprising to discover, two years later, that: “traffic casualties in 2021 increased by a whopping 32.9%, over the previous year”; or (even less) that the number of licensed vehicles also “increased at an average rate of 29 vehicles per day, with passenger cars accounting for 75.8% of total licensed motor vehicles.”

For even if that 32.9% figure does, admittedly, represent a rather giant ‘blip on the radar’ [To put it into some kind of perspective: the corresponding increase, between 2021 and 2022, stood at just 5%]... it still remains entirely understandable, given the rather ‘unique’ circumstances of the time.

Ah, but that might also explain why this otherwise ‘out-dated’ information may indeed still be relevant, two years later.

Because let’s face it, folks: those unique circumstances did not just include ‘an abnormally low rate of traffic accidents, on account of the sheer lack of cars on the road to actually crash into (even if you tried really, really hard)’...

No, they also included (or that’s how it felt at the time, at any rate) a sudden, belated realisation – on an almost global level, in fact - that: “Hey, you know what? Maybe this whole ‘Covid-19’ business might actually serve a useful purpose, after all. If nothing else, maybe it will finally open our eyes, at long last, to certain things we have been getting... um... WRONG, all this time...”

Applied specifically to Malta: that might include our entire approach to things like ‘traffic management’; and above all, our national over-reliance on ‘cars’, as a primary mode of transportation... with all the exponentially-increasing health-risks that this undeniably poses, in terms of both traffic accidents, and also (far more seriously) air pollution.

In fact – while we happen to be discussing the events of 2020 anyway – it might be worth remembering a few of those ‘lessons’ that Covid-19 was supposed to have ‘taught us’, only three short years ago.

In June of that year, for example, the Environment and Resources Authority published the results of its “preliminary assessment related to the impact of Covid-19 measures on air quality in Malta”.

Among other things, we were told that: “The analysis shows what important lessons could be learnt from the impact of measures on air quality and the degree to which different pollutants are affected. A significant decrease in the levels of NO2 was noticed, at both traffic and urban background sites, as a result of the decrease in transport activity...”

This information, it seems, was not lost on the National Association of Local Councils, which – at more or less the same time – announced that: “Following the significant decrease in emissions throughout Malta’s temporary lockdown, the Local Council Association – in collaboration with the Transport Ministry, the National Heritage Ministry, and Transport Malta - sought to mimic the environmental, social, and cultural benefits brought on by minimised car usage for a longer period of time...”

The upshot was that no fewer than 42 local councils got together, to launch an initiative known as ‘Slow Streets’: aimed, in a nutshell, at “giving the streets back to the people, rather than cars”;  and to “ensure that mobility within localities is safe, sustainable, healthy and efficient, in addition to providing more public open space that contributes to an elevated quality of life.”

In the words of then-Environment Minister Aaron Farrugia, around a year later: “My Ministry, together with the Department for Local Government and Local Councils, is also committed to implement the Slow Streets initiative in different localities across Malta. [...] This investment will see a number of local streets which will be transformed into pedestrian zones, or streets with lower speed for vehicles, in order to give the opportunity to the community to enjoy the space available within towns and villages.  In this way we are giving additional free and unencumbered open public space to the community, and priority to pedestrians and bicycles so that they can move around easily and safely....”

But, oh well. It was, I suppose, what you might call a ‘beautiful vision’...  for as long as it actually lasted.

So beautiful, in fact, that you could almost call it the ‘Post-Covid Dream’: because - just like the ‘Post-War Dream’ that preceded it – it also ‘arose from the ashes of catastrophe’, to offer us all renewed hope for ‘a better future’ (and specifically, in this case, a better ‘quality of life’.)

And besides: just like pretty much any old ‘dream’, this time... it is also something that we all somehow managed to spectacularly ‘forget’, within literally seconds of ‘awakening’.

Because THAT, I fear, is the true relevance of those otherwise redundant 2021 traffic statistics.

It’s not merely a case that the ‘vision’ itself simply vanished into thin air, the moment those 2020 lockdown restrictions were actually lifted (with the result, of course, that not one of those 42 local councils has so far managed to actually ‘pedestrianise’ even a single, solitary street-corner, in any of their own localities...)

It’s also that the government of Malta has not just ‘forgotten’ all about those ‘post-Covid’ promises – not to mention all its other, analgous pledges of ‘green spaces in urban centres’, etc. - but it has unaccountably chosen to deliver the clean opposite, ever since!

This, for instance, is the same Aaron Farrugia I just quoted a second ago (only this time, wearing the hat of Transport Minister in August 2022):  “Our roads are not highways, therefore, either we accommodate the bicycle in the small space that we have, or we just don’t accommodate it at all. [...] Until today our aim has been to make sure that our roads are safe, to KEEP OUR CARS MOVING AT PACE [my emphasis], and then, when we can accommodate bicycles, we will also do this...”

And here he is again, addressing a conference entitled ‘The Road to Reliable Public Transport’, in February 2022: “The government does not presently have an ‘appetite’ to penalise private car use, to encourage more people to use public transport...”

Got that, folks? In the space of just two years, Minister Aaron Farrugia went from:

“We will transform local streets into pedestrian zones, or streets with lower speed for vehicles, for the safety of pedestrians”... to: “Our aim is to keep our cars moving AT PACE” (in other words, ‘FAST’: presumably, to ‘maximise the danger posed by traffic to pedestrians’; whilst also minimising the amount of street-space actually allocated to the ‘general public, rather than cars’);

And also, from:

“We will prioritise pedestrians and bicycles, so that they can move around easily and safely”... to, “We will carry on prioritising cars, not just over ‘pedestrians and bicycles’; but also, over the same ‘public transport system’ that we ourselves (as government) are supposedly in the process of ‘incentivising’...”

I mean... hardly surprising, is it, that – less than a year after all those ‘pedestrianisation promises’ were made – Malta’s rate of traffic accidents would simply bounce right back to the unacceptably high levels they have always been (and still are, to this day)?

As for the ‘Post Covid Dream’ itself, however; if you do choose to call it that... I feel a word of friendly warning might be in order.

You might end up also having to echo Roger Waters’ anguished cry, from ‘The Gunner’s Dream’ (on the 1980 Pink Floyd album ‘The Final Cut’, if you really must know):

The part where he suddenly belts out: “SHALL WE SHOUT? SHALL WE SCREAM? WHAT HAPPENED TO THE POST-[COVID] DREAM...?”

And I don’t know about you, but... I don’t quite have the lungs for that sort of thing, myself...