Wednesday, September 16, 2015
Improved Public Transport?
The Times of Malta, 14th September 2015
In the past days, Transport Minister Joe Mizzi announced that Malta’s new public transport system will have improved routes and more buses. He added that changes will be gradual and correspond to requests from the public.
In the meantime, it is very difficult to find users of public transport who would agree that the system has improved. This includes both commuters and workers.
To put things into context, prior to the 2013 general election, the then-Labour Opposition promised a new public transport road map. Labour was a main protagonist in the chorus of criticism towards all aspects of the previous public transport reform, which, in turn, was also plagued with problems, though costing much less than the system that replaced it.
Now that the Labour government is in its mid-term, the public has indeed witnessed gradual changes in public transport but there are little signs of improvement, if any at all.
Commuters are complaining on a wide range of problems, including lack of punctuality, more lax standards and the replacement of day tickets with two-hour ones that are more expensive.
Workers are protesting against bad conditions, especially in relation to their shifts. The General Workers’ Union is being quite vociferous on this matter. In itself, this is very significant, especially considering that the union is usually conspicuous by its lack of militancy whenever the Labour Party is in government.
Another matter I have recently noticed is the odd bus emitting black stinking fumes. This problem was supposed to have been consigned to the dustbin of history through the Arriva reform and, if anything, one could not criticise them on this. Today, is anyone checking on such matters? If yes, can the people have their at rest that such emissions represent unfortunate exceptions that are being tackled?
The contractual backdrop of public transport reform is not helping matters. To-date, the government’s agreement with the operators has not been published, so citizens cannot really know what one should expect from the system. For example, what are the contractual obligations of Autobuses de Leon? Which standards are obligatory and which are voluntary? Are there any standards at all?
Are the operators being fined for late trips, as was the case with Arriva? Also, are they being fined for matters that cause discomfort to users, such as occasional lack of air-conditioning?
Are workers’ conditions, rights and duties clearly earmarked in the contract?
Does the contract include workings that explain the doubling of the State subsidy? Does the increase in buses justify this increase? What else does the subsidy cover?
Where does the demarcation line between Transport Malta and Autobuses de Leon end? And where does the ministry fit in the equation?
As things stand, the public has to rely on press events by Minister Mizzi to be updated on what happens next.
This is a far cry from modern governance, where citizens would have full access to information in the respective policy field. And, unfortunately, this information deficit is not a one-off.
Let us not forget that the government has also failed to publish other public agreements in other sectors.
As we move closer to Budget 2016, the government can show that it intends to give priority to public transport reform through certain measures. For example, bus users in certain hours can be incentivised. Instead of proposing earlier school hours for children, how about rewarding students and others in rush hours by exempting them from paying?
Also, wouldn’t it make sense to make certain transport services more accessible? For example, the limited number of minibus licences sometimes results in cramming of voyages in the early hours before school. Maybe an extension of minibus licences will increase choice, access and comfort.
The government can also explain whether it intends to have a holistic plan on transport in general, dealing with matters such as traffic, pollution, enforcement, alternative forms of transport, modal shifts and new ideas, such as the consideration of an underground metro, which is increasingly becoming the norm in modern cities.
In the run up to the Budget, the government should also publish its agreement with Autobuses de Leon so that civil society can put forward constructive criticism from a position of knowledge. What better way to show citizens whether the agreement is truly advantageous for all stakeholders of public transport?