Monday 20 August 2018

And what if no one wants to use the metro/monorail either?

This article first appeared in Malta Today

I hate to be a party-pooper, but the news that the Government has commissioned studies for a metro and/or monorail system as a means of mass public transport did not fill me with any particular delight.

As I recall, I had the same less than enthusiastic reaction when the PN proposed it as part of their election campaign last year. You see, I do not think that this is going to make all our traffic problems disappear for the simple reason that you have to get people to want to use the darn thing in the first place. And how exactly are we going to do that?

When I saw the positive reactions to this project, I wondered just how many who gave it a thumbs up would actually use it when it comes to the crunch. Would they really leave their car at home, despite having to do the school run, shopping for groceries, doing numerous errands all around the island after work, and all the other reasons they use to justify why they will never be caught boarding a bus? For many people, catching the bus is unthinkable as an option, so why would using the metro be the solution? The only difference I can see is that a metro or a monorail does not get stuck in traffic like a bus, but the same situation applies if you have multiple destinations as it will not transport you exactly to the front door of wherever you wish to go i.e. you would have to do some amount of walking to and from your nearest stop.

Walking? Walking? Did someone say walking? How dare you?

It is all very well to come up with glossy, futuristic designs of what this mass transport system would look like, but if I were a betting gal, I would bet that the same people who cling ferociously to their precious car now, would still be clinging on to it for dear life no matter how many monorails or metros sprout up. Even if it means sitting in their car for hours in snarling traffic to get to their destination (which up to a few years ago, used to be a mere 20 minutes away).

The argument for private car use is always the same: “I want to be able to get from A to B whenever I wish”. But that’s the clincher isn’t it? We are not getting from A to B. We are crawling at an excruciating snail’s pace in gridlock, inching gradually away from A, but with B still very tantalizingly out of reach. When we approach somewhere approximately near B, we face our second hurdle: that elusive parking space. We circle the block three or four times to no avail, our eyes peeled for a space, any space we can squeeze our car into. Those who are law-abiding are particularly limited for choice: we are up against garages, double yellow lines, a disabled parking space – it’s no use, the parking gods are against us. We gesture “are you leaving?” when we spot someone getting into their car, but our hopes are dashed with disappointment when we realise the person is simply getting something out of their vehicle. Just when we are about to admit defeat, a miracle happens. We have found the Holy Grail, a parking space, and almost weep in gratitude. But things can get really unpleasant if we find the empty space at the same time as another, equally desperate driver, because it becomes like the legendary showdown at the OK Corral – you can almost hear the tune of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in the background, as you lock eyes defiantly and start maneuvering and reversing your car into the space before the other guy beats you to it.

By that time, you would have spent two hours in traffic and 30 minutes looking for parking before finally reaching your destination (which you have do on foot anyway because there is no way you found parking right next door). And yet, we still convince ourselves that a car is the only possible option because it represents convenience and freedom. OK, if you say so.

These days, to avoid this scenario, I try to limit my car use as much as possible and I do this by basically doing all my errands and assorted appointments in the area where I live. Even when people suggest going out, the choice of venue or beach ultimately falls around the amount of traffic and the availability of parking, and basically doing the opposite of what everyone else is doing on any given day or time. Viewing the serpent of cars weaving their way from Rabat all the way down to Burmarrad towards St Paul’s Bay on the weekend I wonder, not for the first time, what possesses people to willingly subject themselves to do that kind of torture and frazzled nerves.

And now let’s talk about the cost

Another aspect of the monorail/metro discussion which people seem to be sweeping under the carpet is the cost, especially in the light of the millions we are already spending at the moment.

So, let me get this straight: we are spending a large chunk of money to widen all the roads in order to accommodate more cars. This, may I remind you, after the chunk of money which was spent to make some main roads single lane, such as Triq tal-Balal, as a ‘traffic calming measure’ which I distinctly remember at the time had been met with objections because emergency vehicles would have a difficult time getting through. But the geniuses in charge did it anyway. Now we learn that the very same Triq tal-Balal is going to be widened. With cars multiplying as fast as new apartment blocks, we keep chopping down trees, and eating away at more agricultural land to create more lanes. Instead of trying to solve the problem of too many cars, we are feeding the problem, and perpetuating it.

Meanwhile, there is the added cost in terms of money and time because of people stuck in even more traffic as the road construction happens simultaneously all over the island to meet the Government’s seven-year plan. I have nothing against the Marsa flyover project which is a good idea, but what I do not agree with is razing down anything remotely green in order to make way for more lanes. But the main issue is that while embarking on this massive nationwide mission to widen and re-build, at substantial cost, all of the island’s major roads, why are we now talking about another massive project which (especially in the case of the metro) will mean having to demolish the roads all over again in order to install the necessary infrastructure? Or do we seriously think we can build a whole network of underground tunnels for the tube to pass through without digging up any of the roads?

It is also worth pointing out how long this will all take. When the idea was first brought up in 2014 as part of a proposal to obtain EU funds, it was reported by Malta Today that “Technical, socio-economic and financial feasibility studies are underway and expected to be completed by June 2015, with a start-time for early 2017 if financing is in place. Execution will be planned in four phases each involving a duration of 24 months so that the first phase will be completed by end 2018.”

Suffice to say that those timelines never materialised. In fact, this week Transport Minister Ian Borg was quoted as saying that proposals commissioned by an international company have just started being considered. It is safe to say that such a project, if it ever gets off the ground, will take many years to complete and meanwhile, every day, the traffic problem just keeps getting worse. If and when it is finished, it would also have to be financially feasible because if you make it too expensive for commuters, forget it.

Mostly, however, my biggest beef with talk of a metro or monorail is that we are missing what is right under our nose. Our existing bus system. Why not re-direct the investment there instead: give bus drivers very good wages to employ more people and ensure they are happy, buy more suitable buses (including smaller ones for short distance routes), increase the routes to ensure everywhere is connected with an efficient service, and most of all make it extremely cheap to use, even if it has to be completely subsidized.

The last thing our existing roads need are even more upheaval on top of the upheaval currently taking place. And if we finally get the public transport system we deserve, by making the bus service so good that it becomes more of an attractive option than driving, maybe, just maybe, we won’t spend the rest of our lives facing other people’s bumpers in never-ending traffic, breathing noxious fumes and looking in vain for a parking place.

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