Back to school, back to traffic

Only a truly innovative transport system which takes cars off the road – without replacing them with buses or minivans – can alleviate Malta’s otherwise insoluble traffic problem.

Traditionally, the annual return to school after the summer holidays was dreaded most by the children themselves. Parents, on the other hand, were often understood to be ‘relieved’ at this time of year... with their children back at school, life could more or less go back to ‘normal’.

So much for the stereotypes. In today’s world, the above perception is fast turning on its head. Children are arguably less anxious about the change of environment, given that education itself has evolved from the tedious and disciplinarian approach of bygone eras. On a less welcome note, however, parents are increasingly coming to dread the transition for a host of headaches we now associate with the words ‘back to school’.

Back to school also means back to high traffic congestion at particular peak times in a number of localities – anywhere near a school, in fact – as more and more parents forego school transport in favour of driving their children to school themselves. An already aggravated traffic situation is therefore bracing itself to getting considerably worse in the coming weeks. This in turn confirms that both these problems – traffic in general, and the sudden spike in private vehicle use during school-terms – have eluded any form of long-term solution, despite being prime causes of concern in recent years. We must therefore ask ourselves why we have consistently fallen at the traffic hurdle. Clearly, it was for want of trying.

Traffic was in fact supposed to be a high priority for the present government when drawing up this year’s budget. Finance Minister Edward Scicluna announced that expenditure on the road network increased by €3 million to €13 million for 2016. This includes the ongoing re-design of the notorious Kappara juncture.

This is naturally welcome, but investment in road infrastructure does not actually address the cause of traffic congestion: it only improves the surface on which traffic gets stuck. Likewise, the budgetary announcement of incentives to buyers of newer, ‘greener’ cars is aimed at mitigating the pollution caused by traffic congestion. But it takes us no closer to solving the congestion itself. Green cars take up as much space on the road as their non-green equivalents. These measures actually increase the number of cars on our roads, albeit reducing their pollution.

Ultimately, what is needed is a clearer vision or strategy to tackle the traffic phenomenon in its totality. Surely, the drive behind any such policy would be to reduce the number of vehicles on the road as much as possible; and equally surely, the public transport service must play a vital role in this goal.

To be fair, the service has improved in terms of the quality of the buses, training made available for drivers and staff, and other ancillary aspects. It remains a fact, however, that the uptake of new passengers has fallen short of targets, and that private vehicle use remains the broadly preferred option for many people.

Applied to the school transport dimension, we must also question why so many parents continue to resist school transport in favour of their own cars. Admittedly, the latest statistics are already dated, but a 2014 study revealed that 10.8% of Malta’s 25,184 private school students make use of school transport. Only 14 out of Malta’s 80 church and independent schools offer any form of school transport at all. Of these, only 35% of students are taking up the services.

Given the extent of the problem even without this additional, unnecessary road use by multiple vehicles... it becomes imperative to get to the bottom of this anomaly. Opposition leader Simon Busuttil has suggested extending the existing government subsidy for State school transport – where the intake is higher – to the church/independent school services. The idea is certainly worth a try, and would make more sense than infrastructural improvements alone.

But as the Malta Union of Teachers has long pointed out, the school transport service itself may also have to be redesigned from scratch. “While state schools only service children from their own localities, private schools incorporate students from across the island, meaning that their school bus drivers have to pick up students from widespread areas,” the MUT president told MaltaToday in 2014.

“Therefore, a student from Wied il-Ghajn who attends San Anton School could have to spend up to two hours on the school bus as it picks up students from the district, as well as in Cottonera, and drives to Mgarr. This means that the child will have to wake up as early as 4am, and it is simply far more convenient for his parents to drive him to school.”

Part of a solution may therefore depend on private schools addressing this internal structural anomaly – with or without government subsidies.

Ultimately however, what this problem also illustrates beyond any doubt is that Malta has to look beyond an exclusively road-based network of private and public transportation systems, and start working towards proper mass-transit systems – for instance, underground or overhead railways – with a view to addressing the issue at source.

Only a truly innovative transport system which takes cars off the road – without replacing them with buses or minivans – can alleviate Malta’s otherwise insoluble traffic problem.

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