Can Malta tackle its traffic problem?

Can Malta tackle its traffic problem?

A central street in the small southern town of Hamrun is closed to cars during the annual chocolate festival on 28 October 2017.

(Daiva Repeckaite)

Village feasts, or festas, are a cherished Maltese tradition, but in the heavily congested main island of the southern European archipelago, the numerous street festivals also offer locals and visitors an additional benefit: the rare opportunity for pedestrians to roam safely on the streets.

Malta is one of the most traffic congested places in Europe. Despite having a population of less than 500,000 people, Malta currently has the second highest number of cars per capita in the European Union – nearly two passenger cars for every three people.

With four out of five people depending on cars for their daily commutes, there is a vicious circle between the low uptake and low priority of sustainable alternatives such as walking, cycling and public transport, and the results are almost entirely negative.

According to a 2015 study conducted by the Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development at the University of Malta traffic congestion costs Malta €118 million a year, with the average commuter spending approximately one hour every week in gridlock (despite the average commute being less than six kilometres). This cost is expected to rise to €317 million by 2020 unless authorities take drastic measures to improve public transport and reduce private car ownership.

“My neighbour uses a walking aid, [but drivers] won’t stop, and she’s there, holding on to this walking aid. It’s sad. There are a lot of old people in Lija [in central Malta] who are completely excluded because they are afraid [to cross the streets],” says Professor Maria Attard, an urban geographer at the University of Malta, a resident of the village of Lija and co-author of the aforementioned report.

Flanked by architects, Professor Attard once tried proposing a new model for Lija, which is being suffocated by heavy traffic as drivers use its narrow streets as shortcuts to the main roads. In her office, she pulls out maps and plans, which suggest barring cars from the town centre and directing them to parking areas outside. She passionately presents a vision where elderly people can safely walk to church and parents can send their children to buy milk without fear of being run over. But despite having the support of her community and her best efforts to convince local authorities, “the project fell on its face. Nothing happened.”

Navigating the car-loving island

In a recent article published by the Maltese Chamber of Commerce, Malta’s former Transport Minister Joe Mizzi shared some pretty startling statistics. “Today, 20 per cent of households have more than three cars. Malta has one of the highest population densities in the world and the size of the island is comparable to a medium-sized city. In view of this, traffic has been increasing by 2.3 per cent per annum since 1990.”

Despite this, in the same article, Mizzi explains that the road network is basically the same today as it was three decades ago. A recent survey by Project Aegle revealed that 83.2 per cent of journeys carried out by respondents were done by car (compared with 74.6 per cent in 2010). In addition, 10.8 per cent of trips were made by bus whilst 1.2 per cent were made by coach or minibus. In almost thirty years, the share of people who walk has decreased by ten times (to 1.2 per cent), and despite the island’s small size, the number of cyclists remains negligible (0.8 per cent).

The official Visit Malta website sings the praises of two-wheeled travel: “Cycling through the Maltese narrow countryside lanes between rubble walls makes one really and truly feel in sync with nature.” Yet Renato Camilleri, a 37-year-old lecturer and experienced cyclist, sees things differently: “I don’t feel safe even on the country roads where I used to roam freely without ever seeing a car. There isn’t the infrastructure, unfortunately,” he says, referring to the dangerous intersections, the lack of (continuous) bicycle lanes and a road culture that doesn’t respect two-wheeled users.

“I think you have to be quite confident to cycle in Malta. Otherwise it’s a scary experience,” Renato tells Equal Times just days after a Serbian cyclist was killed on a new flyover in central Malta.

The Mediterranean island is following the American model, which is neither suitable nor feasible, Professor Attard suggests. According to The Economist, 76 per cent of American commuters drive to work alone, as “the lonely car journey has become more appealing” than public transit. “Until the 1980s everyone used the bus. Then with rapid economic development came a very rapid increase in people’s standards of living. Just like in other countries, but in a very short period of time, Malta expanded its infrastructure and increased the number of cars on the road. The UK in the 1970s had a policy [to expand the road network], which was called Roads to Progress. And that is the mentality which Malta adopted,” she explains.

Unreliable public transport

Sipping coffee in Valletta, three friends in their twenties – Bernice Cherrett, Kim Bezzina and Leo Chircop – tell Equal Times that having consciously chosen to use alternative forms of transport, they often struggle as a result. In 2017, it was recently revealed, one out of 33 scheduled bus trips did not take placed. “You have to be really trained to spot the bus, make them know that you’re there and go for it,” Kim concludes. United by their professional and personal interest in arts, the friends could enjoy Valletta, the European Capital of Culture for 2018, much more if it wasn’t such a daily struggle to move around by bus.

Each one tells stories of waiting for buses in the scorching hot sun, only to see them arriving too full to take any additional passengers. “I am unable to go out and stay out as late as I want to as there is no direct night bus to where I live,” says Kim. Leo complains about the level of service provided to passengers. “When there’s not enough monitoring, drivers skip stops or they just stay there chatting. I know that it’s a tough day, and maybe you’re not treated right, but at least respect people who have to go somewhere, because we depend on you,” he pleads.

Still, they understand that Malta’s poor bus services are a direct result of traffic congestion, under-investment in the country’s public transport system and the poor enforcement of traffic rules.

“The most annoying thing is when cars park on the bus stops, especially at the airport. You’re excited to go home after a flight, and there’s always a car or a taxi parked there – always. So, the bus ends up going further away, or it stays behind and you don’t even see it,” says Bernice.

On a bus from the airport, a group of young German tourists chat about their holiday plans. When discussing mobility, they repeat, in English, a phrase too often seen on many travel forums: “Public transport is unreliable”. They, too, will hire a car, adding to the vicious circle of congestion and long bus waiting times.

Malta’s Transport Master Plan 2025, unveiled in 2016, promises cycling corridors, improved public transit and new pedestrian infrastructure on strategic roads, some by as early as 2021. The main squares of the capital city of Valletta were pedestrianised in 2010, showing that change is possible, but activists and experts regretfully observe that so far, major projects mainly just widen the roads.

“Is there anyone in Malta whose job is specifically prioritising the needs of pedestrians, cyclists and the users of public transport within the [transport] authority? Not like, ‘I have 99 duties, and No. 99.5 is thinking about these things called bicycles, but I haven’t been on a bike.’ No, it doesn’t work that way,” Jonathan Sammut, an activist with Bicycle Advocacy Group Malta, concludes.