[WATCH] Eyes on the road: behind the 27 cameras monitoring Malta’s traffic problem

Some 27 cameras across Malta monitor traffic across the island, allowing a control centre at Transport Malta to react quicker to congestion problems

All hands on deck! Traffic controllers montitor traffic patterns at peak times throughout the day
All hands on deck! Traffic controllers montitor traffic patterns at peak times throughout the day
Eyes on the road: behind the 27 cameras monitoring Malta’s traffic problem

Traffic in Malta is being monitored through a system of cameras around, managed from a control centre at Transport Malta’s headquarters at the A3 Towers in Paola.

MaltaToday visited the centre on a Wednesday, arriving amid the 6.30am rush hour start, as private and commercial vehicles hit the roads, to observe the technology being used. On entering the room, we saw an array of screens displaying live video of Malta’s major roads, as traffic controllers scanned all the goings on. Frank Axiaq, head of the control centre, explained that Transport Malta runs a system of 27 high-definition video cameras covering four main areas of Malta. The free SkylineWebcams system is also used to help cover areas not filmed by the 27 cameras.

“This is a new system – our controllers are getting accustomed to it – to monitor traffic in the ‘hottest’ areas,” Axiaq told us, adding that roads gradually come to life around 6am.

“The traffic pattern acts like a wave,” Antoine Vella,  supervisor in charge, elaborated, “it starts at around 6.30am in Marsa and then builds around Qormi.”

He explained that the amount of traffic and the time and where it starts corresponds to economic sectors’ working times.

“Industrial estate areas, such as Marsa, or Bulebel in Zejtun, are the first to see traffic,” he said, since people working in those sectors start relatively early.

As the morning progresses, school, office job and retail outlet traffic starts, the traffic wave shifting to Valletta, Kappara, Sliema and St Julian’s and peaking around 8.15am.

“Traffic conditions can change drastically – a batch of cars can appear suddenly on a road which was quiet some moments ago. This is usually the result of cars coming from different streets and congregating simultaneously,” Axiaq said.   

We observed how traffic, which had started to gather in the Marsa and Qormi region around 6.30am, began increasing by 7.30am in the Regional Road and Kappara areas, as commuters from Sliema, St Julian’s and surrounding areas left their homes.

We saw the ripple effect a truck blocking the road at Ta’ Kandja had on traffic build-up at Qormi roundabout.

“Whenever our cameras pick up a problem, we solve it promptly, either by calling the police or by using our field officers,” Axiaq said.

Certain roads are always problematic, including those around Kappara, Triq Aldo Moro and Vjal Sir Paul Boffa.

Axiaq highlighted how, during the first week of school after summer, they pick up vastly increased traffic flows.

Once students and the minibus system settle, the situation improves, he said.

“Now that it is Christmas, we are seeing activity on roads which would usually be quiet in the evening,” Vella said.

“In certain cases it is hard to predict traffic based on a pattern. Sometimes we cannot understand why some roads are clear, or jammed, when they normally aren’t.”

Like a number of commuters, we had noticed that roads are sometimes less congested on Fridays. Axiaq said he was not quite sure why, but one proposed reason was that people tended to take leave days towards the end of the week, reducing cars on the road.

Black Friday traffic was almost certainly a result of this, Vella said, with morning traffic having been light, but exploding later as many experienced unusually long delays and never-ending lines of cars.

Transport Malta now operates a system of traffic updates during peak hours on its website. This system displays information on Malta’s busiest streets, specifying whether traffic is flowing or if there are degrees of congestion. Roads statuses are updated every five minutes, the moment controllers notice any changes on camera.

Reducing congestion

 “One thing which I think has to be done is to expand the road network and create new routes connecting Maltese localities, starting from the outskirts,” Axiaq said.

“Right now there are various narrow one-lane back roads, in poor condition and not suitable for heavy use. In the future we need a network enlargement.”

Some key areas of Malta could only be reached using a single road, Axiaq said, the typical example being Triq Aldo Moro.

Creating alternative routes to alleviate the burden placed on these roads might be necessary, he said.

“Another key issue is obeying traffic rules – their non-adherence causes a considerable part of the traffic problem,” Axiaq said.

At the centre we had a birds’ eye view of the sort of issues caused by drivers who decided to do as they pleased.

The Skate Park Roundabout was a case in point, as people unlawfully parked at the side of the road, proceeding to walk their children to a nearby school and creating an obstacle for all other cars.

Several pedestrians also crossed the roads around the roundabout, despite there being an underground subway.

The box junction rule was also widely ignored – vehicles are not allowed to enter a box junction unless the exit is free, but many drivers seem oblivious to this, leading to gridlock, as we could see on the cameras.

Axiaq noted that since the December introduction of penalty points, officers observed fewer contraventions, especially in bus lanes use.

Variable Message Signs (VMSs) have increased in number, with digital boards around key roads giving traffic information.

Transport Malta also monitors any breakdowns appearing on their screens, operating a free towing service on 8007 3399 to move cars out of the way and minimise congestion. We saw this in action, when a field officer,
noticing a breakdown, dispatched a tow-truck to tackle the problem rapidly.

We also noticed how a fender bender collision in Triq Sa Maison, Floriana, caused a traffic jam, until police asked for the cars to be moved.

“Drivers have to learn to use the front-to-rear collision form when possible, instead of waiting for a warden,” Axiaq emphasised.

The way forward for the control centre

“Our biggest handicap is not having enough cameras, but we plan to get more and have eyes on a larger portion of the island,” Axiaq said. There is also an effort to increase the purposes for which the centre can be utilised.

Among the possibilities are plans to have representatives from the police, the Civil Protection Department, and Emergency Services (112) based at the centre.

The centre also has the potential to assist in the planning of mass events.

“Various stakeholders involved in this year’s President’s Fun Run came to the control centre to use our technology to plan the routes participants would take,” Axiaq said.

With more cameras and greater responsibilities envisaged, the control centre is set to have a larger role in improving the traffic situation.

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