Hankering after better transport

In a rather unusual turn of events, it had to be Hollywood superstar Tom Hanks to expose Malta’s increasingly exasperating traffic situation.

Cartoon for MaltaToday on Sunday by Mark Camilleri.
Cartoon for MaltaToday on Sunday by Mark Camilleri.

As the dust finally settles from Wednesday's explosive (but ultimately pointless) shenanigans in Parliament, the picture that emerges is one of a government that has been in 'suspended animation' for so long that even problems of the most ordinary, everyday nature have been allowed to accumulate to unreasonable proportions.

In a rather unusual turn of events, it had to be Hollywood superstar Tom Hanks to graphically expose one of the more irritating of these daily complaints: Malta's increasingly exasperating traffic situation.

Hanks, who is currently in Malta to star in a locally shot film about Somali piracy, this week entertained his four million-plus Twitter followers with updates of what he described as his 'early morning commute' through the dense traffic of typical Maltese  rush hour. "Maybe I should get a bike," the popular American actor mused... and in the accompanying video he is heard actually bursting into a chant of relief the moment the traffic begins to clear.

Naturally all this is to be taken with a healthy dose of good humour (which is after all a hallmark of Hank's entire career). But for local motorists who face similar scenarios every day, the situation may not be quite so amusing.

In fact it would not be an exaggeration to claim that - while an energized Franco Debono last Wednesday rambled endlessly about shortcomings in Malta's judicial system, and the 'democratic deficit' of a nation run by oligarchs - traffic congestion remains arguably a much better illustration of Malta's current political malaise. If nothing else, it epitomizes how the present government - admittedly through circumstances outside its immediate control - has proved incapable of solving even relatively simple problems, because it has been too distracted by its own internal rumblings.

For instance: few people seem to remember that 'reducing Malta's traffic' was, in fact, one of the declared aims of last year's public transport reform. As we approach the first anniversary of its launch last July, the time has perhaps come to judge the Arriva service by more than just the teething problems that characterized its first few months.

After almost a year, we should by now have a proper basis upon which to compare the service before and after it was taken over by Arriva. We will leave our readers judge this matter for themselves - clearly, not every commuter's experience will be the same, and in any case some parts of the island are better serviced than others.

It will also be remembered that, given the political capital invested in the project by both sides, 'unbiased opinions' on this issue are indeed few and far between.

But going only on its declared intention to alleviate Malta's traffic problems, one fails to see how it can be described as a success. The original idea (lest we forget) was to improve the service to such a degree as to encourage more and more people to cut the 'umbilical cord' (so to speak) that attaches them to their private vehicles; and instead to avail of what was meant to be a faster, cleaner and more efficient public transport system.

On this level alone, expectations have not so far been met. Transport Minister Austin Gatt will no doubt point towards formal statistics that suggest an uptake in use of public transport... but ask any motorist (or pedestrian) to comment at street level, and most will no doubt argue that the new transport system itself has actually contributed to traffic problems in a very tangible and direct way.

Aspects such as the sheer size of the new vehicles, as well as routes which direct unwieldy buses through narrow, two-way roads or around hairpin bends, have in practice created more problems than they have so far solved.

But there is another issue that is far more central to the much larger traffic problem as a whole than any individual problem concerning the bus service itself: and that is the apparent inaction forced upon government by months of political uncertainty.

One example should suffice, though there are many others. Late last year, we were told that the Prime Minister would be heading a 'task-force' to address, with immediate effect, the basic issues that were slowing down improvements to the bus service. The first action this force actually took was to task the Police and Armed Forces with 'coming up with a solution' within a deadline of three weeks.

One of the resulting proposals was to give automatic precedence to buses in the early morning rush hour.... though what happened to this proposal in the meantime is anybody's guess.

Truth be told, from December 2011 onwards government simply had other, more pressing problems of its own to deal with - problems which resulted in a scarcely-credible five-month parliamentary paralysis, in which all other issues were simply put on hold. With the farcical outcome of Wednesday's vote, Gonzi's administration has reclaimed its parliamentary majority, and with it the time it needs to survive until the end of its current term.

If this claim is true, then there is no more excuse to procrastinate any further. One sincerely hopes that government will finally address the problems it has swept under the carpet for eight whole months.

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Luke Camilleri
Maybe Mr. Hanks can put twitter a bit on our pot-holes maybe these get a bit of a filling .....unless he has the perception that we are digging for oil!