Any day now I’m expecting to read a news report of someone committing grievous bodily harm on another person because of the traffic chaos and the parking nightmare which Sliema has become.
The frustration, anger and blind fury is palpable as I read daily accounts by those who have to drive to and from this area because they live or work there, visit their relatives or simply want to go shopping. Personally I have given a wide berth to Sliema when it comes to the latter precisely because of the chaos. When I need to make deliveries of our Wedding Day magazine, I call ahead to the outlet to make sure someone meets me at a designated spot, and like furtive CIA agents passing on top secret documents, we make the drop off as quickly as possible.
As the sweltering summer heat approaches, it’s going to get even uglier, with people’s nerves stretched to breaking point because of the inevitable irritability caused by daily gridlocks. Every day I read stories and anecdotes online of drivers turning into one street after another only to be met by blocked entrances, cranes, construction sites, and wardens instructing them to turn back. Parking your vehicle is like a game of Russian Roulette – you take someone’s spot at your peril. I’ve been told that even reserved parking for the disabled is now being completely ignored as drivers, exasperated beyond belief, are simply disregarding the signs and parking in these bays (not just in Sliema mind you, but throughout the island). Illegal parking, despite carrying a fine, is the order of the day because frankly, when you have nowhere to park and you just want to go home, you end up dumping your car in the first available spot you find. Many Sliema residents say that a parking ticket is no longer a deterrent when you are cranky, tired and desperate.
Yesterday, apparently, was a particularly awful day – and the harangued Sliema Local Council was the target of much tongue lashing as livid comments sprouted all over Facebook. The Council, on its part, pointed out that certain decisions fall under Transport Malta, and as fingers continue to be pointed, we trundle from one day to the next facing a traffic ‘system’ which has gone completely haywire.
I could not help but contrast this mayhem to what I recently experienced on a visit to London. I hadn’t been to this city for a few years, so I was pleasantly surprised to see that it is less polluted and less congested, no doubt due to the congestion tax which was introduced in 2003. Although it was initially met with controversy (it now costs £10 to enter central London at peak times, with residents being exempt) the tax has been welcomed by environmentalists due to a marked drop in vehicle emissions and less exposure to nitrogen dioxide.
The irony is that in terms of traffic management, this major city with over 8 million people and innumerable tourists is definitely less stressful than our own tiny Sliema because with so many means of alternative transport available, you really do not need a car to get around.
Oh and there’s another thing – people walk as much as possible. I saw men and women dressed smartly for the office wearing trainers to be exchanged for proper shoes once they got to work. Bicycles for hire, launched by Barclays Bank in 2010, are also very popular – a key costs ₤3, you then pay for the time you use the bike and you can collect and return a bike at any docking station. Child seats and trailers are also available for those who have children with them.
Others have invested in their own bike for their daily commute. Yes, there are proper bike lanes, but I also saw cyclists speeding along in the car lanes and treated with consideration by other drivers. Suffice to say that I felt safer walking and crossing the road at peak times in London then I often feel here. In one week I only saw one bumper to bumper…in one day in Malta I sometimes see three or more crashes.
We all know what is wrong but it bears repeating again and again. We have too many cars for too small of an island – and we have reached boiling point. A whole new mindset has to be created and not more car parks. We need educational campaigns on leaving your car at home for short trips when you can walk instead (thus also cutting down on the national problem of obesity in one fell stroke). We need to encourage the benefits of car pooling where possible to save time, petrol and above all your sanity. Children should be taught in schools how to obey traffic signs including how to respect bicycle users and TV and radio programmes should educate adults.
Public transport is getting better but is still not meeting people’s needs in certain areas of the islands. For example, instead of those massive beasts, why not introduce smaller buses which run on a shuttle service around the major shopping areas in Sliema? There is also one means of transport which I have often suggested and that is cheap taxis which can be flagged down on any major road, and which can be shared by people going in the same direction.
Of course, there are always going to be defeatists who shrug and say, “it can’t be done, this is Malta ey?” I’m sorry but I refuse to believe that we cannot solve the traffic/parking problem on such a small island. Let’s stop blaming and pointing fingers and figure out some workable solutions instead.
Come on, if London can do it, so can we.