Newsflash: people don’t walk because it’s too bloody dangerous

'To walk' any distance in this country, in any direction, is tantamount to dicing with death on a daily basis

I have long suspected that the ‘National Office of Statistics’ exists for no other reason than to make people like me feel like aliens in our own country. Just look at the sort of stats that keep flowing out of it these days: that the Maltese are the most overweight people in the world... the most car-crazy nation on earth... the European population that is most averse to walking...

OK, OK, I get the hint. To feel properly ‘Maltese’, you have to: a) weigh at least 16 stone; b) be in love with your automobile; and c) use your personal car (and no other means of transportation: least of all your own two feet) to get to any destination... even if it’s just to the convenience store down the road.

Oh, and no ‘car-pooling’, either. That’s cheating. You have to drive your own automobile, without any passengers on board... otherwise, how else can we be sure that the sheer number of cars on the road, at any given moment, will be around four to six times higher than it actually needs to be?

THAT is how you assert your considerable weight as a fully-fledged, true-blooded Maltese patriot. In other words, you have to be pretty much the opposite of the ‘people like me’ category I alluded to earlier.

People who would only use a car if: a) they actually possessed a functional specimen, and b) it was absolutely (but ABSOLUTELY) necessary... well, we’re misfits in this country. Weirdos. Freaks. And hardly a day goes by without a whole new set of statistics to rub our noses in it.

Like this one, for instance: “One sixth of people who go to university by car, live within 2km of the institution’.  Alright, this time it wasn’t the NSO... but the KSU (students’ council) that took it upon itself to remind me of my perennial status as an outcast. But who cares about the acronym? There is clearly a conspiracy afoot here. This one was very evidently engineered to refer directly to yours truly. I mean: how did they even know I happen to live within a radius of less than 2km from the University, anyway?  And that, on those occasions when I do need to visit that place.... I just walk up the hill, and get there in just under 25 minutes (overtaking any number of cars stuck in standstill traffic along the way)?

In any case: enough is enough. I just thought I’d let all these statisticians know that the message has well and truly been received. I’ve already hired a personal nutrition consultant, who will aid me in my quest to put on at least seven stone by the start of summer. And no more walking, either. Let’s face it, all this exercise can’t be too good for you. And besides: there must be a reason why more than 90% of an entire population chooses to drive everywhere, instead of walking. Like what they say about lemmings: 100,000 of them can’t all be wrong... can they?

Looking back, I suppose the only good thing about my period of self-imposed freakery is that I can now see both sides of the equation. Those ‘one-sixth of car-owning university students who live 2km from university’, for instance. I know exactly why they choose to drive, instead of employing the oldest known form of transportation known to man. It’s not because they’re lazy, or pampered, or addicted to the fumes of traffic, or anything like that. Oh no. It’s because they’re smart (as you’d expect, being university students and all...).

Either instinctively, or (like myself) from personal experience... they know perfectly well that ‘to walk’ any distance in this country, in any direction, is tantamount to dicing with death on a daily basis. And they know this, because they look around and see with their own eyes how every square inch of this country was designed specifically to encourage vehicle-use to maximum levels, and discourage walking altogether.

Allow me to illustrate by homing in on the ‘2km radius’ around university... (even though the same observations would apply pretty much anywhere else on the entire island). To get to university from where I live, for instance, you have to cross Rue D’Argens... at least twice a day.

They could live literally a stone's throw from university... if it's on the other side of either of those two killer roads, the safest way to get there remains... driving

Now: those NSO statistics I mentioned earlier? They also include traffic fatality stats. Unfortunately, there is no breakdown which specifies the precise roads where these occur... but there is a (very vague) indication of how many involve pedestrians being run over. You do, however, have to work out most of the math for yourself: to give you an idea, in the third quarter of 2011, 15 out of the 23 people killed or grievously injured in traffic accidents were ‘pedestrians’. Compare this to other quarters of other years, and you will find that ‘pedestrians’ account for a broad majority (up to 60%) of all traffic accident victims.

Bearing in mind that the cars involved may contain more than one person (some drivers cheat, remember?) this creates a fairly high statistical probability that people who choose to walk, in this country, will sooner or later be killed by people who choose to drive.

Apply that to crossing a busy, chaotic road like Rue D’Argens – multiple times a day – and you will find that it is statistically more dangerous than crossing the Sahara desert, or swimming across a river teeming with hungry crocodiles. You’d have to be pretty daft to even think about it, in fact.

Then there’s the small matter of not actually having any surface to physically walk upon. They’re called ‘pavements’ in other parts of the world (i.e. where urban environments are actually planned to cater for those other things called ‘pedestrians’). In Malta, however, they’re not called anything... for the simple reason that they don’t actually exist.

One other area within the same radius is San Gwann, which is connected to Sliema/St Julian’s via the (very helpfully) named ‘Birkirkara Road’. Leaving aside the minor detail that pedestrians trying to reach Birkirkara that way, will find themselves halfway to Naxxar before realising their mistake... when’s the last time you tried walking along that road? (Oh wait: you’re alive, aren’t you? So, I’m guessing ‘never’...)

Try it, and you will find that on one side of that road, there is no pavement at all... just a row of parked cars which force you to walk in the middle of a busy, four-lane thoroughfare. This in turn compels you to cross to the other side – with all the corresponding statistical probability of DEATH that entails – only to discover that what you mistook for a ‘pavement’ is actually just a narrow strip of concrete that spans less than a foot... overhung by a rubble wall densely overgrown with weeds.

Unless you are able to walk with your body at a 45 degree angle to the ground... a feat only ever achieved by the likes of Buster Keaton... you’ll only end up in the middle of the road again. So your chances of actually reaching your destination in one piece will automatically diminish with every single step you take...

And please note: we are still quite far away from university. There’s still the Regional Road to take into account. Or – even worse – the Birkirkara Bypass, depending on the direction of your approach. At least, there’s a pedestrian subway (complete with skatepark) in the former case. But there is not a bridge, not a tunnel, not even a bloody zebra crossing at any point along the latter ‘bypass’, for a distance of well over 2km. And obviously, no ‘pavement’ that any ordinary human being can conceivably walk along, either.

So how on earth can a university student (or anyone else, for that matter) actually bypass that bypass, except by using a car? In all honesty, they could live literally a stone’s throw from university... if it’s on the other side of either of those two killer roads, the safest way to get there remains... driving, like all those sensible university students do every day.

This leaves us with a couple of options that I can see offhand. We can either leave everything as it is, and carry on pretending to be ‘shocked’ when national statistics continually paint us out to be the fattest and laziest slobs in Europe... or we can try redesigning our urban environment a little, so that ‘walking’ eventually becomes a less immediately life-threatening activity than it is today.

The one thing we can’t realistically do, however, is expect people to gratuitously risk their own lives on a daily basis, just to get where they want to go. And you don’t need a university degree to understand why, either...