Long and winding road

Perhaps we shall have to wait for political parties to look at governance beyond winning elections before we can reduce our national dependence on cars

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

Traffic has been one of the major concerns since Labour won the 2013 election. Understandably, all parties are giving priority to traffic and are putting forward a number of proposals which they claim will ease the traffic problem. Although the two major parties are proposing valid measures, no mainstream politician will acknowledge that the heart of the problem lies in the excessive number of cars on our roads.

On Wednesday the National Statistics Office said that the stock of licensed motor vehicles at the end of March stood at 361,552, up by 0.7% over the previous quarter.

In the first three months of the year, the stock of licensed vehicles increased at an average of 29 per day. To put things into perspective, the population of Malta stands at 430,000 and on average six children are born per day.  

Malta is arguably the only country in Europe to rely almost exclusively on one mode of transport for its day-to-day commuting needs – private cars. 

Private vehicle use has increased at an alarming rate, leading to an increase in road congestion and pollution.

Yesterday Prime Minister Joseph Muscat admitted that public transport can never be efficient unless Malta’s infrastructure is improved. 

But better roads and greater availability of parking will arguably entice more motorists on the road at the expense of public transport.

Improving the public transport system is imperative but 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.

Tellingly, Muscat said that he is against measures that “punish” users from making use of their own cars, and instead wants to incentivise the use of public transport. He plans to do this by offering free transport to children, students and the elderly. 

In 2014, every Maltese inhabitant made an average of 107 bus journeys a year while the EU average stood at 131. 

The majority of other EU countries, however, offer other forms of public transport such as suburban rail, underground trains and trams.

It seems that the two major parties have converged on long-term plans to establish a railway line – be it an underground system or a monorail – as part of a far-reaching traffic reform.

The PN has also come up with a set of proposals to solve the problem of traffic congestion on Malta’s roads and move away from the dependence on cars.

This includes a metro system expected to cost at least €2.3 billion and which would be delivered over a period of 20 years.

But we need short- and medium- term plans and this must include incentives to decrease the number of cars on the road. But this demands parties doing the unthinkable as 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. 

Moreover, there must be a wholesale change in the way we look at our towns and villages. Pedestrian’s rights are to be safeguarded and more pedestrian zones should be created, especially in commercial areas and in our village and town centres. Roads do not belong to drivers but they belong to everyone, including children, the elderly, persons with disability, cyclists and runners.

Urban planning ought to ensure that new residential projects do not add further to road congestion and do not necessitate building 

new roads which make further incursions into our remaining countryside.

But before talking about such solutions 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 look at governance beyond winning elections and reduce their own dependence on clientelism and patronage (and private financers), before we can reduce our national dependence on cars.