This article first appeared in the Sunday edition of Malta Today
It seems tedious to always be talking about the traffic, but it is probably the one major issue about which there is consensus. The problem is getting worse, and successive governments have failed to truly provide an efficient enough public transport system which will make us release our firm grip on our car keys, and opt for the bus instead.
Instead, we are constantly clutching at straws, frantically looking around to try and lay the blame on someone, somewhere, something which is causing all the traffic. We’ve blamed Transport Minister Joe Mizzi (but only using the most delicate terms possible, of course), we’ve blamed certain notorious bottlenecks, the roadworks and even the numerous roundabouts. And, every time schools holidays come around, when the streets seem to become magically traffic free, fingers are quickly pointed at the latest scapegoat: schools.
It’s like everyone is seized by a collective Eureka moment.
You see? It’s the fault of the schools which all start at the same time! (But hasn’t this always been the case?)
We should stagger the timetables and make them start earlier/end later (But won’t that just shift the traffic to different time periods?)
And finally: It’s the fault of the parents who insist on driving their kids to school themselves!
While the last accusation has the loudest ring of truth, it needs to include a caveat. Many parents don’t opt for school transport due to three reasons: the additional hefty expense, the often negligent driving by mini van drivers rushing to finish all their scheduled trips, and the eye-watering, ridiculous early pick-up times which has little kids waiting on street corners before the break of dawn for their school van.
It’s been said before and it has to be said again, even though it is stating the obvious: traffic is caused by too many cars, the majority of which contain only the driver. Now, we can either spend the next 20 years complaining about the traffic while doing nothing about it, or else we have to learn to lump it and start planning our journeys three hours in advance to cross an island which is only around 27 kms from one end to the other. Meanwhile, we can wistfully pin our hopes on far-fetched ideas like an underground Metro station which the PN has promised us (with absolutely no hint of irony) saying that it will take another 20 years to build and cost billions. Sure the idea of a Metro transport system connecting the whole island may sound great on paper, but grim experience has shown us that nothing is ever completed within the scheduled timeframe in this country, apart from the fact that the sheer nation-wide upheaval which will be caused by digging the tunnels is something which makes me want to crawl under my duvet and never come out. You think we have traffic now? Hah! You ain’t seen nothing yet.
Let’s, for once, be realistic and pragmatic. The general public is always offering up all sorts of do-able and feasible solutions which could be implemented tomorrow if we wished, and yet, the authorities keep hoping that commuters will one day wake up and start using the buses or other means of transport out of their own free will. Well here’s a news flash. They won’t.
It is quite obvious that, given a choice, most would prefer using their own private car: it’s roomy, you can throw all your bags and assorted belongings into it, and it can get you to several destinations all in the same day. But we are fast approaching a time when we will have complete gridlock. We have already had several occasions when this has happened, such as when a major accident occurs on an arterial road, or when a main road is closed to traffic for some reason. The whole island grinds to a halt as drivers are unable to budge, and just have to wait there, fuming, with their engines over-heating as fast as their tempers.
I know I keep repeating myself but it all boils down to incentives; in the same way that the Government has successfully launched various incentive schemes and grants for other sectors, from free childcare to get women back into the workforce to the Government grants to install solar panels and encourage the use of alternative energy. If one starts with school transport, the incentives need to focus on the two major concerns which parents have: the expense and the lack of safety.
So why not offer subsidies to those who operate school mini-vans for private and Church schools, enabling parents to have free transport just like they do for state schools? After all, the nightmare traffic affects everyone, so I do not think there should be any real objection to channelling public funds to this sector, as it would free up the streets from the endless queues of parents who are obliged to do the school run. It would also make the areas around the schools much safer as there will be less private vehicles. To set parents’ minds at rest that their children are in safe hands, subsidies would have to be linked to thorough safety checks of the vehicles used, as well as the vetting of all the drivers to not only ensure they drive properly, but that they also behave appropriately in front of minors.
We see our taxes being squandered away all the time, especially on useless monuments which are often eyesores to boot, so I doubt there would be many who would begrudge a chunk of money being used to ultimately make all our lives easier.
To be blunt, getting more private cars off the road can only be achieved through tapping into the “what’s in in for me” mentality so prevalent among people today. Forget about appealing to their sensibilities, or their desire to protect the environment or to make sure they leave cleaner air for their children in the future. People need to be given an extra push to leave their cars at home which usually means getting something in return. Apart from the school transport issue, I’m sure there are several other ways to incentivize commuters to become more creative when travelling from Point A to Point B. It has to be a national, co-ordinated effort to tackle this pressing, national problem. Just to take one example, when mass events such as rock concerts are held, the priority should always be to provide free public transport and shuttle services as much as possible.
There needs to be a major shift in mentality in the way we get around the island and it should be the number one priority of any Government because of the domino effect it is having on our general well-being: from the stress, to traffic accidents, to pollution to road rage. Not to mention the growing problem of obesity (partially due to our over-dependence on cars) and the related health problems which comes with that. So even in monetary terms, any funds which are directed to this issue would be “worth it” for any administration because it would be saving money on all the other factors combined.
The alternative is to sit there, stuck in traffic for the next 20 plus years, griping and moaning as we get fatter, lazier and more stressed out, while expecting “someone” to solve the problem we have created ourselves.