Alternative transport is not just desirable, but necessary | Konrad Xuereb

Architect Konrad Xuereb, of KonceptX Ltd, argues that a shift towards mass transit systems is just as inevitable as the drive towards renewable energy, caused by climate change

Konrad Xuereb
Konrad Xuereb

This week, you were reported as saying that ‘the more you widen roads, the more you induce demand’. Yet our national approach to the traffic problem seems to be geared in the opposite direction. Projects like the Central Link – and now the Msida flyover – seem intent on accommodating the growing number of cars as much as possible. At this rate, how long do you think it will take to reach a ‘point of no return’?

It is very difficult to predict too far into the future. But what I can say – based on what I see locally, and also abroad – is that we’ve already reached a stage where we cannot afford to widen roads any further. Recent statistics show that there are already over 400,000 registered cars, in a population of half a million. Compared to other countries, on a pro-rata basis, that works out nearly double the average overseas. But in other countries – unlike here - there are alternative modes of transport.

So if we do not shift our strategy – urgently, in my opinion – to have a plan: so that, at least, in 10 years’ time there will be alternative modes of transport in place… unless we do that, I feel we will be spiralling aimlessly towards an untenable situation.

In a sense, the situation is already unsustainable as it is. Because apart from increasing the demand for vehicular transport, road-widening projects also simply shift the problem further down the road. You end up travelling faster for a short stretch… only to end up caught in a bigger traffic jam later on.

This is why we have to be careful here. I have no doubt that it is not the authorities’ intention to arrive at that situation; but if we don’t pre-empt it today, there will be no alternative tomorrow. This is, in fact, what happened in the UK in the 1960s. Take Birmingham, Manchester, parts of London… and other parts of Europe, such as Germany, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, etc. Fifty years ago, those places likewise invested in road-widening, fly-overs and so on… but today – because they diverted course, and invested in alternative modes of transport including mass transit systems over the past five decades – they are reversing that policy. They are in fact nowadays removing the fly-overs that were built in the 1970s and 1980s.

But this was only made possible, thanks to the introduction of alternative modes of transport. It is, in fact, a fundamental principle of urban planning…

Before turning to your own proposal for a metro system: there are other ‘modes of transport’ to consider, including simple activities such as walking and cycling. Yet when it comes to planning new roads – not just today: this is equally true for past projects such as the Birkirkara Bypass, the Regional Road, etc. – we are often left without pavements to walk on, or lanes for cyclists. Wouldn’t these features also help to provide an alternative to vehicular transport?

It’s an important point you’re raising. Because by their very nature, these roads – especially the four-lane carriageways – create a psychological barrier to pedestrians, and even cyclists. Even if there is a dedicated bicycle lane, it is difficult to feel comfortable cycling alongside heavy traffic.

This is another reason why a mass transit system has become necessary: once you create an alternative, and significantly reduce the volume of traffic, you can then revisit the existing road system… for instance, create a two-lane system instead, while giving the rest up for cyclists and pedestrians. This would enable us to reclaim open spaces, in the form of pedestrianization.

There are also other angles to the same issue. Apart from the loss of open space – and, even more irreplaceably, agricultural land – fly-overs also create physical barrier between different parts of towns and villages. These projects are literally carving up the social fabric of our towns.

Besides: sooner or later, you will have to leave the network of arterial roads to reach your destination. What are we going to do next? Are we going to cut through towns and villages? Build more roads through Zebbug, or the Qormi centre? If so, that would undermine the social cohesion of those communities.

But there is another important aspect of a system such as the one I am proposing. A metro, or mass-transit in general, is not a standalone form of transport. It is, by its nature, ‘multi-modal’.  The intention is not to replace buses, or other modes; on the contrary, a metro is complementary to other transport systems… including, for instance, cycling; ferries; pedestrian bridges, etc.

One simple analogy is that of a tree: the metro forms the ‘trunk’ of the system… but there are also the ‘branches’: shuttle buses, linking the metro stations to other towns and villages that are not along the underground route. So in Paola, for example, there would have to be regular shuttle buses to the Three Cities. Likewise in Mosta: with shuttle links to Rabat, Dingli, and so on, every five minutes.

The metro and buses will be complemented by cycling and walking. In other countries like London and Paris, there are schemes to rent bicycles on a temporary basis.

This is, in fact, the beauty of this system: it is designed to incorporate different modes of transport, mapped out to facilitate mobility from the most densely populated parts of the country, to the least linked areas.

Nonetheless, your proposal also involves an extended underground tunnel system, eventually linking Birzebbugia, in the south of Malta, to Marsalforn in the north of Gozo. There is already a plan for a tunnel link between the islands – admittedly for cars, not for a metro – but why should the environmental objections to that project, not also apply to the proposed underground railway?

There are marked differences, though: including that the car tunnel will feature long access ramps leading to the tunnel from Pwales and Nadur, through the superficial soils. This will cause irreversible damage to the environment and fertile agricultural land… which may also contain as-yet undiscovered archaeological remains.

The metro, on the other hand, would be located at roughly the same depth throughout - deep enough not to disturb any potential archaeological remains - with no need of any ramps: even though it would still need to be subject to detailed environmental, geotechnical and archaeological surveys, before the exact metro route and station locations can be confirmed.

Moreover, the car tunnel is simply not viable, in my opinion. Nobody has yet mentioned what the toll would amount to, for instance. But if you look at the Frejus tunnel, linking France to Italy - which is roughly the same length (14km) as the Malta-Gozo route; and relatively easier to build, too, as it involved a straight, ground-level tunnel under the Alps – the toll is €46.60 (€58.20 return) per car; and considerably higher for lorries and container trucks.

Coming back to the Malta-Gozo car tunnel: it is estimated by the authorities that around 6,500 cars will use it every day – that is nearly 2.37 million vehicle trips per annum – and on those figures, the cost per vehicle to use the car tunnel on a 100-year return period is likely to be approximately €30 per return trip, if not more…

Subject to detailed environmental studies, the approximately 4 million m3 of inert waste from our metro proposal could be used for land reclamation to form a nature reserve. This could be complemented by an offshore wind farm and/or an offshore solar farm with the renewable energy created connected to the grid, thus offsetting the energy demands of the metro system and complementing the sustainability credentials of the whole project.

Speaking of costs: you have estimated that the metro system would be viable – if not profitable, eventually – at the cost of a mere €2 per ticket. Given that, by your own estimates, the metro will be much more expensive to build than the car-tunnel… how did you arrive at that figure?

Let’s start with the cost of the project itself. The entire metro project, including the anticipated 40 trains, is likely to cost approximately €4 billion… which is, admittedly, considerably more than a car tunnel between Malta and Gozo.

Part of the capital costs of the metro link between Mellieha and Gozo (approximately €675m) could be eligible for EU funds. €1.575 billion would be financed by government bonds with maturity over 20 years. The remaining €1.75b would be paid by the national coffers, amounting to €175m per annum over 10 years, which is not too far off from the amount the country has been spending per annum in road widening schemes in the past few years.

But these costs have to also be weighed against other forms of expenditure involved in our current approach. How much is the government currently spending to treat respiratory illnesses – for example, asthma – caused by vehicular air pollution? Not to mention the loss of productivity, arising from all the time wasted stuck in traffic. Apart from the environmental benefits of a metro system, it could also save the country millions, in the long-term...and that’s not counting the improvement in quality of life, as people would be spared the stress and aggravation of being stuck in traffic so often.

As for the cost of an individual ticket: based on this conservative estimate of around 53 million people using the metro every year - assuming a local population of 500,000, and 2.5 million tourists per annum (i.e. same amount of tourists as 2019) - the target revenue from ticketing would amount to €245m per annum, on a typical fare of €2 per metro trip (and capped at, say, €5 per day for unlimited daily use of the metro).

Revenue from advertisements on trains and stations, and from leasing space in stations for retail, would also generate a further €55m per annum.

And yet, successive governments have never taken this sort of proposal seriously. Previous suggestions for mass-transit systems – including a proposal by industrialist Anglu Xuereb, in the early 2000s – have also been ignored. How do you account for this? Do you think it is the result of lobbying from a powerful extended automotive industry?

I wouldn’t want to speculate on the reasons; but historically, there are parallels with, for instance, the introduction of tramways in the early 20th century. There was strong resistance, at the time, from owners of horse-drawn carriages… who, naturally, stood to lose a lot of business. And it’s understandable, too. You can’t entirely blame people for defending their own private interests; even if they might conflict with the national interest.

But then as now, the change was bound to happen. In a way, it’s like the changes imposed upon the energy sector by climate change. There are powerful interests involved in keeping the oil industry alive; but at the same time, oil-rich countries like Norway are now pledging not to invest any more in fossil fuel industries. There is a huge shift towards renewable sources of energy: and it comes at a cost… sending huge shockwaves throughout the markets.

The shift itself, however, is necessary… and in a sense, inevitable. We all know that, unless our approach to energy changes, the entire planet will suffer. And on a smaller level, the same goes for the local shift towards alternative modes of transport.

That is why, what we are saying is: let’s rethink our strategy. It’s a case of asking the right question; and the question to ask is not, how can we accommodate more cars, to reduce congestion? It is: how can we reduce the number of cars?

Right now, the problem is that there is simply no alternative. Unless their destination is within walking distance, people tend to use their cars for more or less everything: to drop off their children at school; to pick up groceries; to go to University… and you can’t blame them for it, because they don’t really have a choice.

But as soon as there is an alternative – if people are told that: in 10 years’ time, there will be a viable, convenient and safe way to get to your destination without driving… that’s when people will realistically consider making sacrifices.