Free buses, less cars? A long road ahead for Malta’s traffic-clogged roads

Free buses means €546 back in people’s pockets for daily commuters. But will it make motorists leave their car at home? We asked the mobility experts

With free public transport by October 2022, Malta becomes the second country in the EU after Luxembourg to introduce the measure for residents. The spend on the Tallinja bus pass now increases from €3.9 million to €8.6 million in 2022, suggesting that by 2023, the measure could cost €20 million.

The socially progressive measure makes mobility more affordable for low-income earners, as well as rewarding them for their low carbon footprint. But how far will universal free transport change the behaviour of those who shun public transport?

“For most people it is not the cost that is the barrier to take public transport today... local and international research shows that making public transport free is not the right strategy to entice those who currently drive a private car to start using public transport,” says Suzanne Maas, an expert in sustainable mobility and project manager of the EIT Urban Mobility Hub at MCAST’s Applied Research and Innovation Centre.

“There is even a risk that making a service free could affect the level of service, as the system may become abused or expectations are lowered,” Maas says ,who thinks the shift from private cars nees both ‘carrots’ – incentives for sustainable mobility – and ‘sticks’ – disincentives for private car use.

“Such a policy package should include a combination of measures that restrict car use, such as the removal of free on-street parking, the introduction of paid parking, low emission zones and car free zones, coupled with investment in safer and more comfortable walking and cycling infrastructure, seeing as half of today’s trips are less than 5km.”

These need to be coupled with what is really needed to promote more efficient and effective public transport namely: “the creation of dedicated bus lanes, a Bus Rapid Transit network on main corridors, plus further investment in multi-modal mobility, through connection with ferries, electric bicycles and scooters, to start, continue or complete a journey.”

Michelle Attard Tonna, deputy dean of the Faculty of Education and President of bicycle advocacy group Rota, welcomed the measure as one of the “most ambitious, and well received” of this year’s Budget measures. But she points out the contradiction in the approach to mobility issues: road-widening created more space for private cars, encouraging more private transport when certain trips can be made by bus, on foot or by bicycle.

“Is this an admission of failure? Why have we invested so many millions, and taken so much precious space and agricultural land, if we are now saying that we need more people to use the bus?”

Attard Tonna says free buses also need to be accompanied by other measures – indeed making all public transport free. “There are ferries travelling between the Three Cities and Valletta, Sliema and Valletta, and Valletta to Gozo. Subsidise those as well. It will still work out cheaper, as a country, than if people had to use their private vehicle.”

Moreover buses must be punctual, more regular, and with feasible routes.

“In some localities, buses are once every hour, and stop at 8pm. Do we want young people to use buses and make this modal shift? If yes, then buses must operate within a much longer timeframe”.

But crucially, Malta cannot let buses get stuck in traffic. “Who will give up the independence and flexibility a car will give him if the bus journey will take the same amount of time?”

And for this to happen, more space must be allocated in the street for buses, bikes, pedestrians... and politicians should be leading by example. “Public transport should not be there just for people who cannot drive, or for migrants who do not yet own a car. We need to see politicians using them – not the random, photo op experience but daily – since they have so much influence in our country.”

She even publicly invites Infrastructure Minister Ian Borg to start using a bus, to increase his awareness of “the day-to-day hardships bus users face, including inadequate or non-existent bus shelters; buses which dont turn up, and waiting for a bus with cars squeezing past you because many places do not even have a bus bay,” hoping this shows him where the issues lie and make him keener to address them.   

Prof. Luciano Mule Stagno, from the Institute of Sustainable Development, also thinks free buses will be good for lower-income earners who already make use of public transport.

But again, traffic and frequency pose the biggest challenge to reliability. “Hopefully if more people start using the service the frequency will increase on many routes and the reliability could be increased by adding more dedicated bus lanes.”

“At best it might convince some young people to delay buying a new car,” says urban planner Dr John Ebejer.

“But it is unlikely to convince any car user to switch to public transport on a regular basis.

“The problem of the current bus service isn’t price – it is reliability.

“There needs to be radical improvements... greater frequency, more routes and improved bus stops, as well as stricter enforcement on the operator whenever trips are missed and commuters are left stranded.”