Saying ‘we’re sorry for the inconvenience’, just won’t cut it

Despite flyovers, wider roads, millions of euros and countless promises of how much our commuting time will be reduced, traffic is a topic we keep coming back to time and again – repeatedly, tiresomely, to infinity and beyond

Has everyone fully recovered yet from Wednesday’s nightmare traffic? 

I don’t blame you if you haven’t and it’s very likely that you are waking up in a cold sweat every day at the thought of facing Malta’s constantly jammed roads day in, day out. Even though traffic is a daily occurrence, the tailbacks on Wednesday morning were on a different level entirely and are reminiscent of some of the worst episodes I can remember. 

Such as the time a truck hit the pedestrian bridge on Aldo Moro Road in 2010, causing nationwide chaos, students to miss their exams and travellers to miss their flights. Or, more recently in November of last year, when organisers had the bright idea of holding the Sigma iGaming conference, hosting some 25,000 delegates, at a former shipyard in Marsa, again on Aldo Moro Road, from which hundreds of commuters pass. 

Despite flyovers, wider roads, millions of euros and countless promises of how much our commuting time will be reduced (we never did learn how they had come up with those statistics splashed with such misplaced confidence on various billboards) this is a topic we keep coming back to time and again – repeatedly, tiresomely, to infinity and beyond. Let’s face it, in a country this size, the minute one main arterial road is out of action, you’ve had it. 

When the traffic is due to an accident there is nothing one can do, but when it’s due to sheer bad planning, then someone should, in theory, shoulder the responsibility. But no one ever does, do they? 

On Wednesday, we had not one, but two, main thoroughfares which were affected. In Regional Road, roadworks which were meant to have been finished at night dragged on until the morning because the concrete had not dried sufficiently to allow cars to pass. I know I know, you cannot make this stuff up. The gags and memes about slow drying concrete kept people from losing their minds as they resorted to bitter black humour to alleviate their rising blood pressure. 

Meanwhile, at the same time, on the other side of the island, part of Corradino Hill was closed for the Muslim celebration of Eid al Fitr at the mosque. It was like someone had thrown down the gauntlet and posed the ultimate challenge: I bet you can’t bring the county to a halt with one fell swoop. To which Infrastructure Malta replied: Hold my beer. 

The authorities issued the now predictable, “we apologise for any inconvenience” but at this rate they might as well have that trite phrase running on a loop and being blared from every street corner every time we get into our cars. The ongoing roadworks of the whole country are just one big major, inconvenience which have not ceased for years now. We’re sorry too; sorry that we ever believed that any minister could actually implement a sensible, well-managed plan to get our crucial road network up and running within a realistic timeline without turning us into gibbering idiots because of the stress. 

Sometimes I think we need to explain things slowly and carefully as one would to a toddler who refuses to understand that putting your hand over a flame will lead to a nasty burn. 

So, listen very carefully, I will say this only once. If you close off various major roads at the same time (for whatever reason), the traffic is going to have to spill over somewhere, usually to the adjoining secondary roads which means that apart from queues of cars on every single bypass, you will have drivers trying to find shortcuts through side streets and still ending up in some kind of traffic jam somewhere else. There is only so much space on Malta; and there are only so many routes which one can take to get from Point A to Point B. 

It’s not rocket science: Short of everyone simply staying home, the authorities need to stop closing various roads off simultaneously (is there anyone actually co-ordinating which roads are closed at any given day and time?).  But while traffic management is in the current disarray that it is and those in charge seem utterly clueless, our best bet is to fend for ourselves and find alternative ways to get around. 

With ironic timing, in an attempt to show that cycling can be one such option, on the very day that all of Malta was at a standstill, a group of students just happened to try out the ‘bicycle bus initiative’. Around 20 students cycled from Mosta to University to show that yes, it is possible to get there even faster. The event was organised by the Media and Knowledge Sciences Association and led by Steve Zammit Lupi, an independent Żebbuġ councillor and a member of cycling NGO Rota. 

As drivers sat in their cars fuming, with the clock ticking, knowing they would be late for work and all their appointments were frittering away, the students arrived at their destination in 40 minutes. 

Despite this successful event, it is a fact that most people are reluctant to cycle because our road infrastructure is still not bike friendly. Bicycle lanes start and then stop abruptly making one wonder what the cyclist is supposed to do next… carry the bike perhaps? Safety is a major concern among many of those who tried out the bicycle bus, but it is a Catch 22: ideally, the more people cycle, the more drivers will be cautious when they see cyclists on the roads. 

Unfortunately, it was not all good news. One candidate for the Swieqi local council election, Jordan Galea Pace, who wanted to beat Wednesday’s traffic by using his bike, ended up in hospital. His bike ride saved him 25 minutes of traffic, but as he later told reporters, “As I was cycling, I felt cars driving too close, so I decided to get on the pavement." As he tried to mount the pavement, Galea Pace fell off his bicycle and broke both his arms. 

Such incidents will make anyone balk at the thought of cycling, and unless the whole infrastructure is geared towards making it safe, we will keep seeing more traffic, keep breathing in more fumes, and keep seeing more photos on Facebook of an endless stream of swearing drivers sitting in their cars, trying to get to their destination. 

Cycling is not the only option of course. According to KSU Vice President for Internal Affairs Zachea Scicluna there are round 600 parking spaces for a student population of over 10,000. 

What I have never been able to understand is why, with those kind of numbers, car-pooling schemes have never really taken off. I still find it difficult to believe that out of 10k, you don’t find 2 or 3 other people (or even one other person) who lives in your town or village to share a ride with, thus cutting down the number of cars heading toward Tal-Qroqq. 

I can already hear the inevitable complaints of “but lectures are not at the same time, I will be stuck there if I want to leave”, etc. etc.  But seriously? Is waiting around Uni for your ride preferable to sitting in never-ending traffic which makes you want to slit your wrists? 

In 2016, Bumalift launched a carpooling app which seemed to have gained a following among students - the KSU got on board with the app, allowing those who share a ride to have preferred parking. I could not ascertain whether it is still in operation or whether it just dwindled away due to declining interest… my hunch is the latter. 

There are so many other options, such as shuttle buses to and from University from areas where there are the largest number of students. The same thing could be applied to civil servants who work in Valletta. 

I am repeating myself as I have suggested all these before, and I am always met with the same indignant protests and counter-arguments. The bottom line is that we have such an ingrained private car culture that I really do not know what it will take to wrench us away from it. 

Meanwhile we await the next major traffic jam when FB will be replete with people spitting with rage, and no one really doing anything about it.