Dad, political sociologist, local councillor, drummer from Malta

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Transport Quandaries

The Times, February 9, 2015
http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20150209/opinion/Transport-quandaries.555353



Transport Minister Joe Mizzi recently announced that a grand total of 38 cars failed the emissions test in Malta over a 22-month period. Yes, 38 cars. In addition, another 155 cars faced licence restrictions. This occurred after Transport Malta received 22,182 SMS emission reports and sent 681 notifications, including second notifications, for cars to be submitted for emission testing.

These figures reflect the sad state of Maltese administration when it comes to environmental matters. Many questions come to mind in this regard.

For example, why is it that only 681 notifications were sent when Transport Malta received 22,182 reports? Can detailed statistics be provided? What were the criteria for submission of notifications?

In sectors such as construction, delivery and tourism, but even in the case of many private cars, there are vehicles that would never be allowed on the road in a society that gives serious consideration to the environment. I wonder how such vehicles pass VRT tests.

The argument that such cars are required for our economy is short-sighted, to say the least. To begin with, many societies which have strict emissions policies also happen to be high economic performers. Besides, the emissions by junk vehicles which are polluting our roads have high environmental, health, social and economic costs.

The car emission issue is, in my view, one of Malta’s most pressing environmental concerns. Judging by the government’s performance and PR, it seems that the best it can do to tackle emissions – apart from removing 38 cars from the road - is to come up with a scheme to incentivise the few owners of certain luxury cars to drive on weekends. I wonder whether anyone is taking this proposal seriously.

There are other transport issues which also deserve serious attention.

As we all know, Malta has exceptionally low standards when it comes to roads. It seems that strict monitoring and certification takes place only when EU funds are involved or when certain local councils voluntarily choose to fulfill their responsibilities towards residents. Unfortunately, though, local councils’ restrictive budgets do not permit a thorough upgrading of road infrastructure.

Roads also tend to be monopolised by cars at the expense of pedestrians and cyclists. In various urban areas, people are literally unable to walk, play or ride bicycles due to excessive pollution, lack of space, excessive traffic, lack of holistic planning, poor infrastructure and so forth.

To make matters worse, many roads in localities are characterised by restrictive pavements that often give priority to garages, signage which hinders accessibility and shoddy workmanship. Very often, a walk on the pavement becomes a major hurdle for persons with disability, parents with children, elderly persons and others.

Basic proposals, such as having shared space between cars and bicycles through sharrows, are being ignored by Transport Malta, even when local authorities support them. Various new projects, such as the new coastroad, seem to be giving very little space to pedestrians. Or will it have a proper promenade and ample space for cyclists?

Notwithstanding the above, there are examples of good practice. A notable case is the pedestrianisation of Valletta, though one hopes that the monti issue will not eat up precious open space.

Another positive example concerns regulations on front seatbelts, where practically all Malta has been following the rules since the late 1990s. The same cannot be said with regard seatbelts at the back, where enforcement seems to be lacking.

The introduction of wardens, traffic lights and traffic-calming measures have also generally lead to more disciplined drivers, even though there are exceptions.

So why can’t we have better practice when it comes to emissions and quality of roads?

A practical way forward would be to ensure that traffic wardens give more imporance to car emissions. They should use their authority when clear cases of heavy pollution are seen on the roads. When this is the case, they should order examination of such vehicles by Transport Malta.

Local councils should also be given more authority. Along the lines of subsidiarity, councils can adopt fiscal measures to encourage or discourage certain modes of transport and can also introduce schemes, for example with respect to parking, through which revenue can be generated for infrastructural purposes.

With regard to public transport, I eagerly await the government’s information campaign as well as the long overdue tabling of its agreement with the new operator.

At first glance, I welcome certain promised improvements, such as encouraging the use of cards rather than paying on the bus. At the same time, and from the sparse information available, it seems that the removal of day tickets and weekly tickets might have a negative price impact on certain users.

The transport issue is very much in synch with the consumer vs citizen debate.

As consumers, we require cars as a source of identity, as a source of personal freedom and as a practical tool that enables mobility.

As citizens, we have our environmental rights and responsibilities, which go beyond having a car and which relate to everyday democracy. Clean air, access to open space and practical mobility without necessarily resorting to a car are key indicators of a good quality of life.

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