Sunday 25 September 2022

Traffic woes every September

This article first appeared in Malta Today

There are some things which always come around in September: sticky, humid weather, the rush to get all the school supplies and uniforms sorted, the books covered and labelled and the obligatory photos of cute, smiling kids on their first day of school which are duly uploaded on FB.

And, as sure as clockwork, when the last week of September arrives and Malta’s children start going back to school, we are regaled by the usual stream of statuses of people moaning about the traffic.

Obviously, I would be tearing my hair out too if I were in their shoes and it is now taking me more than an hour and a half to cover a route which used to take 20 or 30 mins (ah, remember those halcyon days?). But with 43 news cars being added on the road every day according to the latest official statistics, why are we perpetually and annually surprised by the September traffic as if someone had tricked us deliberately while we were not looking in some kind of sadistic game, just to cause our blood pressure to rise?

Everything and everyone under the sun is blamed, and it happens annually. Parents (usually mothers) driving huge SUVs to do the school run are the easy targets, but people tend to forget that those coming back from summer vacation also include the thousands of teachers who are also going back to school. Not all teachers have kids, so those are just additional cars which are being added on to the autumn traffic, which were not there during the hot summer months.

In any case, the blame game has obviously got us nowhere, year in, year out. Solutions to the growing traffic nightmare are often proposed and I won’t bore you by repeating them here, but they are just as quickly shot down by those objecting with their predictable but, but, but…as they point out that it will never work here (because, you know, Malta is so completely unique and has to be treated like a special status country where ordinary, obvious, sensible solutions are thrown out the window even before they have been tried out).

For example, when Malta Public Transport’s General Manager Konrad Pule merely suggested leaving your car at home once a week “to notice the impact on traffic”, his quite reasonable suggestion was immediately torpedoed by the naysayers.

I browsed through some traffic solutions in other cities and each time I imagined them being suggested here, and how they would be met with an ensuing uproar. Admittedly, some of them were draconian – no one would take kindly to having a Certificate of Entitlement slapped on the use of a small size car to the tune of $48,000 as they did in Singapore. Only a specific number of COEs are released each month, part of government efforts to control the number of cars on its roads.

Then you have other less drastic measures, but which can also affect car use: for example, the use of paid parking metres for parking in the street like in New York and LA.

Contrary to Malta, where we think creating MORE carparks and parking spaces is the answer, some cities have actually made less parking available. According to a 2011 article entitled Cities get creative with solutions for traffic congestion woes, “Both Zurich and Hamburg have frozen the existing parking supply in the city centre, and when a new space is built off-street, an on-street space must be removed… In Copenhagen, where parking spots are removed at a rate of about 32 spots per year, traffic has dropped by 6 per cent since 2005, even though car ownership has gone up by 13 per cent. In addition to these cap-and-trade zones, the City of Zurich regulates how much new parking can be added by developers. A new building can only have parking spots if the surrounding roads can absorb the traffic without congestion, and air pollution levels will not be affected.”

Sometimes it is not “punishment” for using a car which works, but incentives. Quoting from the same article, “the city of Murcia, Spain, has asked people to turn in their cars. To ease traffic congestion, the city offered lifetime passes to its new tram system to anyone who turned in their car – assuming it was fully paid off, of course.”

Also in Spain, this time in Bogata, the idea of restricted times when people can use their cars on alternate days according to the last digit of their license plate has also worked.

You will notice I keep comparing Malta to urban city centres, but let’s face it, we have become just one large sprawling metropolis with towns and villages merging into one another and very little areas where you do not see tailbacks of traffic at any given time.

So, we can continue to moan and complain and blame everyone (but ourselves) for all this “terrible traffic”, or a brave soul in authority can actually bite the bullet and impose restrictions on car use. I bet we would surprise ourselves as to just how quickly we would learn to use alternative methods, if we absolutely had to.

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