Traffic needs a radical rethink

Despite all this attention and the announcement of several new measures, it remains unclear how the proposals in this year’s Budget will help improve the traffic flow on Malta’s roads

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

Apart from an auditing exercise and an annual distribution of public funds, the Budget also serves as an indicator of government policy priorities. This year, ‘traffic’ rose to occupy an entire section of Finance Minister Edward Scicluna’s lengthy Budget speech: attesting to the sheer complexity of an infrastructural problem which has clearly stumped both administrations in recent years.

And yet, despite all this attention and the announcement of several new measures, it remains unclear how the proposals in this year’s Budget will help improve the traffic flow on Malta’s roads. At a glance, Scicluna appears to be taking a multi-pronged approach: targeting certain specific contributing factors, such as parents of schoolchildren who opt out of using school transport… while at the same proposing measures which may arguably incentivise private vehicle use even more.

For instance, Scicluna announced that government has increased its expenditure on the road network by €3 million to €13 million for 2016. Next year’s funds are to be utilised for a re-design of the notorious Kappara juncture.

Few would deny that Malta’s roads do need precisely such investment; but if the intention is to reduce traffic, this investment on its own is clearly insufficient. Better roads and greater availability of parking will arguably entice more motorists on the road at the expense of public transport. And while this is certainly not an argument to leave roads in their present, often dilapidated state… it illustrates that this measure, even if necessary, does not in itself address the issue of traffic congestion.

Likewise, the announcement of incentives to buyers of newer, ‘greener’ cars is by no means unwelcome in itself. The problem is that this measure is useful to address the pollution caused by traffic congestion. But it takes us no closer to solving the congestion itself.

Perhaps the best example of this approach was the government’s decision to resuscitate an older proposal for a tunnel link between Malta and Gozo. Again, one can appreciate the need (especially from the perspective of Gozitans who work or study in Malta) for this link to be improved. This is an end that should be pursued in its own right, irrespective of traffic problems elsewhere. 

But once again, this proposal does not take into consideration the implications for a traffic problem that is certainly not caused by the Gozo-Malta link. There is no reason to suppose that a direct road link between the islands (below or above sea-level) would have any impact at all on the flow of traffic. If anything, it is perfectly possible that Gozo’s relatively uncongested roads would suffer heavier traffic as a result, without any improvement in Malta.

On a separate note, one must also question why the government is even contemplating this measure, when the necessary geological studies to determine feasibility have not yet been conducted. Surely it would make more sense to await all technical reports before deciding that a tunnel is ‘economically viable’.

Ultimately, though, what was absent from this year’s Budget speech was any clear vision or strategy to tackle the traffic phenomenon in its totality. Instead, we got a series of proposals which represent a piece-meal approach that retroactively responds to problems as they arise. 

One does not need to look far for a possible reason. The Finance Minister himself admitted the key to any long-term strategy is public transport: and that despite ‘improvements’ (according to Scicluna), the service still leaves much to be desired.

The Budget therefore identified the need for a more punctual and efficient service… even if the methods to achieve this were not specified, beyond ‘insisting with the [private] operator’.

It remains debatable whether this would be enough to alleviate the problem. Certainly, an improved bus service would help enormously to improve the traffic situation – if this can be achieved in practice. But as the traffic problem intensifies, it is becoming clear that we need to broaden our understanding of the term ‘public transport’ beyond buses alone. 

No matter how punctual or efficient, buses are, by definition, net contributors to road congestion. The time has come to start considering alternative transport technologies, to be used alongside the present bus service, which provide genuine alternative to vehicles on the road.

Government has in part addressed this need by proposing improvements to sea-links in the North Harbour area. Also, a policy on heavy vehicles and horse-drawn carriages is in the pipeline. But this is by no means enough.

At this point, a contradiction swims into view. Government seems willing to consider investing hundreds of millions into a tunnel-link between Malta and Gozo – despite the fact that this will not necessarily have any impact at all on the problem – while ostensibly ignoring other, arguably cheaper technological solutions.

On at least two separate occasions, private investors have proposed establishing a railway line – be it an underground system or a monorail – as part of a far-reaching traffic reform. As with the tunnel idea, one would naturally have to await the conclusions of the relevant reports. Nonetheless, this is precisely the sort of outside-the-box thinking we should be resorting to, it we are to come up with a practical solution to Malta’s traffic woes.

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