Where the streets have no cars… | Suzanne Maas

SUZANNE MAAS – Climate Campaign Coordinator at Friends of the Earth Malta, and a researcher specialising in Sustainable Mobility – argues that, contrary to the Transport Minister’s recent claim, ‘there is plenty that can be done’ to accommodate more bicycles on Malta’s roads

Suzannne Maas. Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday
Suzannne Maas. Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday

In an article last week, you contested Transport Minister Aaron Farrugia’s argument that bicycles had to ‘give way’, so to speak, to cars. Meanwhile, there is a lot of independent scientific research that supports your main arguments: especially, that our over-reliance on cars is posing serious threat to our health, and environment.  Why, then, do you think the government is so determined to disregard all that data, in pursuit of what you describe as a ‘car-oriented infrastructure’?

Well, I think it’s very simple, really. You do understand, however, that I am not Maltese; I’m from the Netherlands, originally… even though, in a few weeks’ time, I will have been here for 10 years. So I feel that I’ve lived in this country long enough, to learn to understand it at least a little.

What you see very strongly here – which is nothing new to you, of course – is the way the political system works. It is very focused on gaining immediate political mileage; on achieving short-term results, based on the tangible effects of government’s policies.

So what the previous Transport Minister has done – and what the current Transport Minister is apparently continuing to do – is just give the people the very simple things they think they want: more space for cars; more space for parking… even though, as you say, all the scientific evidence, as well as common sense, shows us that we cannot continue like this.

This is really not a debatable point. Building more roads only leads to more traffic; and this has been observed everywhere in the world, including – or should I say, especially – in Malta. So it is not a rational policy decision, that the government is taking. It is a political choice, to try to give their voters what they [the government] think they want… even if I, personally, believe that it’s not what they really want, at all.

Are you sure about that, though? It is also a fact the former Transport Minister – unpopular though he may have been, among some people – enjoyed some the highest popularity ratings ever. Wouldn’t you say, then, that most people really DO want on all those things the government is providing? ‘More space for cars, and more space for parking’?

Perhaps. But then, if you ask those same people whether they want a healthier environment: for themselves, and for their children, for their elderly parents… I think they will say ‘yes’. Would they like to be able to go for a walk, without tripping up on a broken pavement? Or having to wait two minutes, in the burning sun, just to be able to cross the road? Or to enjoy in a walk in their own neighbourhood… rather than having to get into their car, and drive to Ta’ Qali, or to a promenade somewhere else?

I think most people would say ‘yes’ to all of that. They would like that: after all, they enjoy it, when they travel abroad. But what really saddens me the most, is that on some level… not everyone, of course; but some people seem to think that ‘we cannot have that, here’.

You see this also in the Minister’s statement: he said that, ‘Oh! because the infrastructure is what it is… the size of the country is what size it is…’

But that’s all irrelevant, really. These are all political choices that can be made. If the infrastructure ‘is what it is’… it can be changed. You can look at other countries, and see some truly inspiring examples of cities that have removed fly-overs, and arterial roads, from their city-centres. In Utrecht, for example, they removed a five-lane thoroughfare, to bring back a canal…

These are all reversals of decisions made 20, 30 years ago – when those countries were also completely ‘car-focused’, at the time. But eventually, they realised that… “With hindsight, those were not the best decisions we ever made; so we’re going to change now, to a system that we believe needs for work for today.”

That may well be true for infrastructural projects like roads and fly-overs… but the Transport Minister would surely retort: “What about the size of the country?” That certainly ‘is what it is’; and it can hardly be ‘changed’, can it?

Sorry, but that’s a ridiculous argument! Being a small country should actually make it easier, not harder, to change the infrastructure. For one thing, the distances are so short. Transport Malta’s own masterplan showed that the average commuting distancing here is only 5.5 km. That is actually ideal for cycling… but not very efficient, for a car.

So it really should be the other way round. Yet they still use our ‘small size’ as an excuse not to dedicate any space to alternative modes of transport: ignoring the fact that all sustainable modes of transport – from walking, to cycling, to scooting (or whatever other micro-mobility modes are coming up now), to public transport… all of them are 10, 50, 100 times more efficient, at moving people, than the car.

At the end of the day, however, these are just excuses to avoid having to change the system. One thing to bear in mind, when it comes to transport, is that that - for the past 30, 30 years - everyone has been pushed into a system whereby the car was almost the only choice.

Already in the Structure Plan of 1992, they had identified ‘over-reliance on cars’ as a serious issue. There were different predictions, about how the coming 10-20 years would develop; and how severe the problem would become…

Well, we now know that it became more ‘severe’ that their worst-case scenario. Because even though the problem was identified, all the way back in 1992 – and government realised that it needed a plan, in case the population grew (which it did); and if the need for mobility increased (which also happened) – not enough was done about it.   

Of course, you can’t say that ‘nothing happened’ at all. There were some improvements: the bus system has been overhauled, and modernised; we have seen new modes of mobility being introduced – like the harbour ferries, for instance. And in the last five-to-ten years, we have also seen the rise of ‘shared mobility modes’: shared bikes, shared rides, shared scooters…

But at the heart of it all: have we really seen any massive investment, in ways to promote that shift away from private cars, and towards public transport? Or active transport, like walking or cycling? No, not really. Instead, we have seen massive investment in the creation of new road networks, for cars.

And while they might claim that these new projects include a little bus-lane here, or a tiny cycling lane there… sorry, but this is all still just ‘car-oriented infrastructure’. Because in reality, what we’re doing is taking cyclists and pedestrians out of the way of cars… to ‘improve the traffic flow’.  Which is a completely out-dated policy…

But anyway: all that has been done, over the past few decades, was to push us all into our cars. We have always been told that: “this is the way you should travel… to go to work, to go to University; to take your kids to school… even to do your shopping”. Supermarkets have, in fact, grown bigger; and they have moved outside the urban centres… where before, people were perhaps shopping at the local grocer, mainly on foot.

Thankfully, many of these local groceries do still exist; but a lot of people have now shifted to the bigger supermarkets, out of town. So of course, they’re going to use their cars…

This brings me to a small irony in all this. Farrugia also claimed that his priority was to ‘make the roads safer’. At the same time, NSO statistics have just revealed that traffic accidents have increased by almost one-fifth, since last year. You yourself wrote that “road safety is the main barrier for people cycling”. So do you see a correlation between Malta’s official traffic-management policy, and the rising rate of accidents?

Let me start with this: the increase in traffic accidents is across the board. It’s not just ‘cars with bicycles’; it’s ‘cars with pedestrians’; ‘cars with other cars’; ‘cars with buildings’; and sometimes, ‘cars with all sorts of things you wouldn’t even imagine’!

But what’s all behind this? First of all, I would say that – while it was important to improve the road surfaces, from what they used to be like 10 years ago – creating ‘smoother’, ‘wider’, and ‘straighter’ roads may make them more pleasant to drive on: but it also means that you can drive much faster.

All these measures have, of course, been sold to us as part of the ‘improving the traffic flow’ narrative. But what it does to an individual, is encourage you to speed.

Now: unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be very much local research into this subject. We don’t have any statistics, so I’m basing myself more on my own observations, and experience. But it is supported by the wider literature: wider, smoother and straighter roads, encourage higher speeds.

We’ve seen a lot of that, here; and we’ve also seen a lot of investment in removing ‘obstacles’ that used to slow traffic down. This has created ‘speeding alleys’, even in town and village centres. At the same time, these are all spaces where other modes of transport also have to co-exist: because sometimes, there is simply no other road to take.

Speaking as a cyclist, now – though it obviously applies to other modes of mobility - there is no dedicated infrastructure for bicycles; and there is no ‘cycling culture’ either. Drivers are not always aware of how they should behave around cyclists. They might not give enough space, while overtaking; or they might overtake too fast. And they don’t always look at their side-mirror, before opening the car-door into a cyclist’s path: which results in ‘dooring’, one of the biggest risks cyclists face.

These are all things that make cyclists – or people who might want to cycle –say: “I would consider it; but I’d rather not, because I fear for my life.’

At the same time, however, this ‘coexistence’ between cars and bikes (in the broader sense) may be problematic for other reasons. The recent proliferation of e-scooters, for example, is giving rise to a lot of frustration: partly because it is unclear whether these contraptions should be following the same Highway Code as everybody else; and partly because they may also hinder mobility on pavements, etc. Isn’t there some truth to these complaints?

I would say it certainly is an important issue, that needs to be addressed. But once again: what the problems you describe actually boil down to is that… we haven’t planned for this new mode of transport. And we’re still not planning for it now: even though it has been present in Malta – and growing in popularity – for the past five years, or so.

If it were up to me, I would say this is a great opportunity to offer a mode of transport which is actually ideal for the country’s short distances. Remember: half of our daily trips are less than five km; they could easily be done on an e-bike, or a e-scooter, or something similar.

But we do need to make the necessary provisions for it. We need to ask ourselves: where do we want people to ride their scooters? And I would also agree with you, in that: if we have a one-way system, then yes, they should follow it, too… as currently applies to bicycles as well.

Having said this, there are arguments for a ‘contra-flow’ system as well: i.e., allowing cyclists and scooters ‘two-way’ passage, on streets that are ‘one-way’ for cars. This is very common, in other countries; but in Malta, it would be a new approach. So we would need a public awareness campaign; and also traffic signs, to make it clear to motorists that they might encounter cyclists coming from the opposite direction.

We might even need to create the necessary space to accommodate the new system, in certain places. And that might involve removing a lane of parking, for instance. Or even to reduce the number of lanes for motorised traffic: in some areas, there is no need for multi-lane carriageways. And if you reduce them to one-lane roads, for traffic… in the same width of road, you could also accommodate not just a cycling lane; but also a bus-lane, wider pavements for pedestrians.

It all boils down to planning, though. E-scooters – along with other cleaner, and more efficient, modes of transport – could be a great opportunity, for Malta.

But not in the way the situation is being handled now. There may be some legislation, on paper; but there is no real enforcement… so people ride their scooters wherever they want - sometimes on the pavement, sometimes on the road – and they leave them wherever they want, too…

So yes, obviously people will get upset about it. Because on pavements that are already in bad shape… often very narrow, and already cluttered with all sorts of other obstacles… they now have something else to contend with.

And I agree: that’s not the way things should be done. It is only causing further dangers, in an already dangerous road environment. But I don’t think the conclusion should be, ‘we should not have e-scooters, at all’.

I think the conclusion should be: we need to evaluate what we really want, on our streets…