Tram or metro? No, the dedicated bus-lane...

Rather than focusing on making buses free for all, efforts to promote uptake of public transport should focus on improving reliability of the service. So speed, and efficiency are key, expert Suzanne Maas says

Mass transport systems like underground ‘metro’ systems, trams or rapid bus transits may be the backbone of a long-term solution for Malta’s search for a successful mass mobility system.

But one factor unites all these proposals for a mass public transport system: the challenge of private transport and the traffic that slows down any efficient public transport.

Dr Suzanne Maas, an expert on sustainable mobility and Friends of the Earth Malta’s climate coordinator says there is no time to waste before any new transportation project: Malta’s immediate needs are dedicated bus lanes.

“Instead of politicizing the choice for mass-transport solutions by framing it as a choice between a metro or a tram, we need an open, serious and informed decision-making process on which sustainable mobility modes can deliver the quickest road away from fossil-fuel based private car transport, towards clean and efficient mobility solutions,” Maas told MaltaToday.

She was referring to Labour’s proposal for a €6 billion underground metro system, and the Nationalist Party’s alternative for a €3 billion trackless tram, both proposals the hallmark of the two parties’ transport manifestos. But while Labour’s project would entail decades of underground construction, the PN’s proposal requires a haircut on recently expanded motorways for a high-speed tram lane.

Suzanne Maas. Photo: Mandy Briffa
Suzanne Maas. Photo: Mandy Briffa

Maas however says such politicised proposals, with voters inevitably placing party allegiance over proper evaluation of such transport systems, ignore the need for an efficient and effective solutions in the short-term.

“To do this Malta needs to re-allocate space for dedicated bus lanes,” Maas says.

“Buses on a dedicated lane can transport up to 100 times as many people as the same lane used by private cars.

“This also needs to be combined with investment in multi-modal mobility, by creating seamless connections with ferries, and safe bicycle and walking infrastructure, to start, continue or complete a journey.”

Arguably, any mass-transport solution – bus rapid transit, trams, metros, or even a combination of all – can eventually “form the backbone of the future mobility system in Malta”.

But such choices require long-term studies. “In light of the dire situation on the Maltese roads, in terms of congestion, pollution and road safety issues, we believe it is of utmost importance to study and plan long-term for sustainable mobility for the Maltese Islands.”

And Malta cannot afford to be side-tracked with promises for solutions far in the future. “We have no time to lose. The road-widening projects of the past few years have gobbled up precious agricultural land and public space, but have not managed to resolve the traffic issue.

“Recent events show us that a single disruption to the road network – an accident or road closure – almost grinds the entire country to a halt, with serious impacts on people’s mental well-being and the country’s economy.”

Land transport in Malta remains one of the major sources of carbon emissions in Malta – around 40% of national CO2 emissions – which makes decarbonisation in the transport sector extremely urgent.

Rather than focusing on making public transport free for all, Maas says, efforts to promote uptake of public transport should focus on improving the reliability of the service.

So speed, and efficiency of bus transport is the key – not cost. “This is the real barrier to shift to public transport.”