Why Malta’s Transport System Could Be Brilliant And Why It Isn’t

Malta is a tiny island, for better or for worse. Journeys can be no longer than 30km. In Europe, almost a third of journeys are under 5km; a report released in 2016 suggests that the figure is closer to 50% locally. Many localities, especially across the central belt, are fused together; it's practically impossible to determine where one stops and the next begins.

Reason would tell you that a place such as this should have a brilliant transport system. Given such short distances, one would expect walking to be commonplace and bikes to be ubiquitous. After all, it probably wouldn’t hurt to have active modes of transport be the norm in what is officially one of the fattest countries in the world.

Alternative modes of transport, such as E-scooters and ride-sharing could thrive in a small place with so many people getting to places nearby. Public transport could flourish by covering the bulk of the kilometres, with passengers covering the last few hundred meters on scooters or bikes which they don’t have to own.

Our small size yet high population density should also make Malta the perfect location to trial new mobility tech. The recent announcement of driverless Tallinja buses as part of a pilot project gave us a glimpse of what that would be like. Malta could well be at the forefront of the future of mobility, the model for the larger cities in Europe and beyond. Why not?

In 2016, Transport Malta reported that congestion would cost us up to €1.2 billion annually by 2050, almost a tenth of GDP. It lamented the slow rate at which roads were being expanded. This just goes to show that even then, bulking up roads infrastructure was the sole course of action. And this was before Muscat’s 2017 electoral campaign promise of revamping the entirety of Malta road network in 7 years and the advent of Ian Borg.

Cars are more important to Malta than to the plot of the Cars Movie.

Most recent reports quote the figure of 58 being added to our streets daily. There are now over 400,000 cars on our road. As a percentage that’s around 80 cars per 100 residents. In Latvia, which is much larger and less densely populated than Malta, that figure is close to 38 per 100.

This is, first and foremost, a matter of policy failure. There’s only a car culture only insofar as this state of affairs persists.

Infrastructure for pedestrians is just an afterthought. It does matter if the pavement is more likely to break your grandma’s pelvis than tree-climbing (ignoring the fact that there are no trees left to climb), or that individuals with reduced sight or who use a wheelchair struggle to navigate daily life. Who cares if pavements just “vanish in thin air”, or are riddled with dog excrement, dust, and shrubs? What even is public health? Or carbon emissions?

Promoting alternative mobility does not consist of a 15% grant on new bikes; might as well issue vouchers for undertaker services. Cyclists are still in danger, most of all because there is no infrastructure to protect them; ill-kept bike lanes (which also tend to “vanish in thin air”) simply aren’t enough.

The sentiment behind tightening legal requirements for the use of e-scooters is understandable. But stopping there, and not providing infrastructure which would make using them safe and easy means that they will struggle to become the norm, despite their potential.

Maltese governments have repeatedly failed to cater for, let alone meaningfully promote anything beyond our four-wheeled friends as a way to get around. It’s not that we lack capital; we’ve invested millions into road projects, and a few thousand more on sleek videos and Soviet-inspired flyover inaugurations.

Malta’s transport policy has consistently failed to go beyond. A roadmap for mobility must make alternative mobility the heart of new infrastructure. It must prioritise low-emission, active modes of transport which promote people’s health. It must ensure that there’s a safe, efficient and accessible way to get about.

Cars are not the future; electric ones won’t solve most of our problems either. And as Lightning McQueen says, “It’s futile to resist change, man”.

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