Maltese politics is stuck in traffic, too

There are indications that the traffic congestion currently afflicting Malta’s roads is causing more problems than mere frustration and the occasional bout of road rage.

At this point, it would be facile to state that traffic has become a major cause for concern in Malta. But while there are numerous surveys indicating that this issue has indeed risen to the top of the nation’s concerns, the problem in itself goes beyond the logistical headache all motorists experience every day.

In truth, Malta’s burgeoning traffic situation is itself the result of an underlying problem that is probably much harder to solve. It is the result of a collective lack of foresight and planning, compounded by an apparently inherent political inability to approach issues from a practical perspective.

As such, our failure to provide for an entirely foreseeable predicament casts a spotlight on a deeper malaise that can be discerned across the full spectrum of Malta’s infrastructural concerns: from energy, to water, to garbage disposal, to urban and rural planning. It is symptomatic of a national tendency to allow problems to accumulate until they reach crisis proportions: necessitating the adoption of crisis management methods which hardly ever work. 

But let us take a closer look at the more immediate problem. There are indications that the traffic congestion currently afflicting Malta’s roads is causing more problems than mere frustration and the occasional bout of road rage. Traffic is also hurting Malta’s economy.

A study by the University of Malta’s Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development found that, all things remaining equal, Malta will experience a total of €89 million in costs related to traffic accidents, €15.3 million in air pollution costs, €51.2 million in climate change costs, €10.4 million in noise costs, and a massive €151 million in costs resulting purely from traffic congestion.

This latter detail includes loss of nationwide productivity owing to time wasted in commuting. A separate study by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre has found that in Malta, the average number of seconds of delay per km is estimated at 16.93 seconds: i.e, three times higher than the European average of 5.74 seconds (recorded in 2012).

The cost to national productivity can likewise be estimated at roughly three times the European average. In a competitive market, these are not statistics a country can afford to ignore indefinitely. 

The upshot is that traffic in Malta is already costing the country €274 million a year. And by 2020, this cost will reach a staggering €317 million, unless some form of action is taken to address the issue. 

Even without the monetary consideration, the situation is in any case unsustainable. Malta has already reached gridlock, and we know – because of various infrastructural and development projects which have already been given the green light – that the situation can only deteriorate in future.

Sadly, there are no easy, clear-cut solutions: such is always the case when predictable problems are not nipped in the bud. But one thing is immediately clear. Apart from addressing existing causes of traffic congestion, we must also start taking a more holistic look at infrastructural development and planning in general.

On paper, solutions to the immediate problem of traffic congestion do not seem altogether out of reach. Better traffic management, an improved public transport system, and incentives to decrease the number of cars on the road have all been suggested as possible measures.

But experience shows how difficult it has been to implement such proposals in practice (in particular, concerning public transport). This in turn points towards a broader dimension to the problem: all such solutions entail a high political cost for the party in government.

‘Incentives to reduce cars’ generally include increases in road licence fees and other forms of indirect taxation; an unpopular measure that political parties tend to avoid for obvious reasons. 

And past public transport reform attempts underscored the endemic difficulties governments face when confronting powerful lobby groups. All too often, the incumbent government will be bound by pre-electoral promises that (unless broken) make any root-and-branch reform impossible to achieve in practice. 

As for the more long-term solutions, these are often expensive and depend on large-scale investments. Earlier, innovative ideas such as a monorail or underground railway system have always had to be shelved as unaffordable. But given the extent of the problem, perhaps it is time we revisited our priorities when it comes to allocating investment. 

If private investors can be found to rescue technically bankrupt national energy companies like Enemalta, surely they can also be found for infrastructural projects that may well save the country millions of euros in future. 

Other considerations may require little or no investment at all. Small European towns such as Groningen in the Netherlands have demonstrated how an intelligent rerouting of motorised traffic, coupled with facilities for cyclists, has all but eliminated car use in city centres. 

Before even talking about such ‘solutions’, however, we shall have to overcome the most crucial problem of all. It is not just Malta’s road network that is congested: the political evolutionary step required to solve these problems is also clearly stuck in a traffic jam.

Perhaps we shall have to wait for political parties to reduce their own dependence on clientelism and patronage, before we can reduce our national dependence on cars. 

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