Can social media launch the revolution against our national dependence on cars?

Traffic remains an ongoing source of anxiety for the Maltese. But social media can serve as a potential catalyst for a crucial perspective shift on this issue

Although recent events have plunged the island into a higher state of tension than it has perhaps experienced in a long while – indeed, it feels as though we’re all just about starting to process the events of ‘Black Monday 2017’ – the sad reality is that such collective anxieties are often exacerbated by other factors, and can never be taken in isolation.

Because although certain events can have the power to dominate our attention and cast a shadow over our proceedings, the day-to-day rudiments of our lives still have to be seen to, even after a tragedy of such resonant and disturbing implications. 

A period of collective mourning, or at least meditation, where everyone would get a chance to process something as horrid as the car bomb murder of a journalist, feels like a common sense proposal from the point of view of emotional wellbeing. A society that allows all of its operations to cease for a while after such an event, that allows for its citizenry to take a breather and calm their nerves before resuming their grind, might be a society worth aspiring for. 

However, the mechanisms of liberal capitalism under whose yoke we can all roughly be said to labour – in lower, higher or middle rungs – would never view such a collective waiting period as a viable proposition. The machine must carry on regardless, and we can only pay lip service to wellbeing up to a certain point. 

To wit, despite the horrors that surround us, if we are to remain clothed and fed we must wake up each morning and face our respective commutes to work. The trouble is that this very commute and all that it implies is what’s behind a less shocking but equally consistent source of tension on the island. 

Traffic may be inevitable in a small island such as Malta. But the increased congestion of our roads, coupled with a public transport system that does not appear to be capable of shaking off its reputation as lacklustre and poorly organised, only exacerbates a problem that may have deep-seated implications. 

However, a glimmer of hope for increased awareness – and, perhaps, some day, actual action – appears to be emerging in the form of socially conscious groups keen to twist the established “cars above everything” narrative out of true. Sparking off, as most such things do nowadays, on social media, various groups have begun to explore, and advocate for viable alternatives to, using a private vehicle to get from Point A to B in Malta. 

Perhaps people are finally becoming mobilised on this issue because the science is also keen to hold up warning signs. Just this April, the President’s Foundation for Wellbeing in Society held its second national conference on health and wellbeing, where both the evidence presented and the discussion that ensued pointed to the fact that our surrounding environment, and how we treat it, plays a major part in both our physical health and our psychological wellbeing. And the upshot of excessive car use has a big part to play in all of that. 

Speaking during the conference’s opening address on 5 April, President Marie Louise Coleiro-Preca said that, “The loss of green spaces because of construction, over-development, and traffic, implies that we must do more to ensure that the long-term health and sustainable wellbeing of the individual, the family, and the community are kept at the heart of our national agenda.” 

While civil society tends to – understandably – focus on the part over-development plays in the loss of green spaces, it’s worth remembering that traffic plays a big part in that mess too. 

Once again, however, we are compelled to recognise how all of these elements are interwoven together; separate pieces of a sooty, toxic puzzle that chokes our society. 

Greta Muscat Azzopardi
Greta Muscat Azzopardi
Raffaella Zammit
Raffaella Zammit

In fact, a large bulk of the advocacy groups I mentioned above have put their efforts into promoting walking and cycling as alternatives to driving – but both necessitate an agreeable environment in which to flourish if enough people are to take them up. 

“We believe that the main shift that needs to occur is for people to think more in terms of relationships, rather than the necessities of their own little bubbles,” a spokesperson for the President’s Foundation for Wellbeing in Society tells me. “Encouraging people to use the bike will not have much of an effect if the roads are not adequate; same goes for pollution when it comes to walking...”

Nevertheless, one has to start from somewhere, and Facebook groups such as ‘Pass Pass’ and the Bicycle Advocacy Group appear to have kicked off a much-needed discussion on what can be done. Acknowledging that “Bicycle Advocacy Group is doing a sterling work building up a community and providing tips as well as pushing for policy changes”, Raffaella Zammit then tells me about how the economist Marie Briguglio and herself have tried to do their bit with ‘Pass Pass’ – Malta’s first Facebook group dedicated to Pedestrian Rights. 

“I had been mulling over this for a while, especially after realising the disastrous state of our pavements. I had always noticed that we do not see a lot of wheelchair users on our streets, and in general, they are unfortunately relegated to using the road rather than pavements due to reduced accessibility. This became a reality when a family member started using the wheelchair,” Zammit says, emphasising that, “Ultimately, we need to normalise walking, cycling, public transportation”.

This, however, will require us to “rewire our mindset”, according to Zammit. “We are a car-dependent nation. Our policies centre around the car, which is basically translated to how are we going to get cars from point A to point B as fast as possible and where to place them when not in use. On a small island nation where space is at a premium surely finding space for over 300,000 cars should not be a priority, but urban green spaces or shared open spaces for different community activities,” Zammit adds, echoing some of the concerns expressed during the President’s Foundation for Wellbeing in Society’s national conference. 

While civil society tends to focus on the part over-development plays in the loss of green spaces, it’s worth remembering that traffic plays a big part in that mess too

What Zammit proposes is a paradigm shift that promotes a “pedestrian-centric mindset, with the least polluting method of transport having primary focus”. 

She elaborates: “So for pedestrians provide proper, wide, level, accessible, well lit, green pavements. Provide safe passageways from one town to the next town. For cyclists provide safe and complete cycling paths. For bus users make sure they have priority over car users. This means that specific streets and roads need to be identified and priority lanes for buses, minivans, bicycles, and carpooling need to be provided. This will free up the roads from unnecessary traffic.”

Lucid suggestions, certainly, and Facebook groups like Pass Pass have proven that Zammit is thankfully not a lone voice in the wilderness. The groups provide something of a much-needed contact point between all ‘injured parties’ of this sorry traffic mess, refreshingly coagulating what would have been our solitary bouts of complaining. (Zammit is quick to point out that, in all of this, “Concerns by car users also need to be heard and addressed in order to implement a successful transport strategy”).  

But the ‘modal shift’ that Zammit hopes for may also be finding expression in more creative outlets. Zoning in on the tragicomic absurdity that underlies the traffic situation here, with a particular focus on the frustrating dynamics of parking, Greta Muscat Azzopardi tells me how the initiative ‘Parking Space Events’ – which she kickstarted along with Letta Shtohryn and Johannes Buch – aims to address not just the traffic situation as a whole, but also what amounts to an excessive idolisation of the car itself. 

The modest events – effectively urban picnics with aspirations towards performance art – come about after the group acquires a No Parking permit from the Valletta local council and occupies a parking space for an hour or two... so far, the events have ranged from public talks and yes, picnics where the public was invited to partake in drinks and nibbles with the Parking Space Events crew.

“The initiative is not directly linked to our transport crisis but plays with one of its biggest causes: the way we structure so much of our public space around the ‘needs’ of the private car and the perceived comfort it brings us,” Muscat Azzopardi says.

“As a nation we often picnic in parking spaces, right next to our car, wanting to be as close as possible to it and not have to carry belongings more than half a metre,” she adds, picking three key questions that underlie the group’s project: “How can we make better use of public space? How can we re-imagine its use? What best serves our lives as people living here?”

They’re certainly questions worth asking, especially since we can all pretty much agree that things just going on like they used to won’t cut it anymore. And Raffaella Zammit offers up some compelling reasons as to why this is so. 

“If we keep at this status quo the result is more of the same, there’s no magical cure – more frustration everyday, more air pollution, more respiratory problems, more pressure on moving out from urban cores to greener spaces, which only transfers the problem to a different space, more noise pollution, less community, less interest in our local geography, in our cultural heritage and in our environment. The traffic problem is only a symptom.”