Wednesday 06 December 2023

The reason for all this traffic? It’s not my car, it’s yours

The column first appeared in Malta Today

You know that old line people use when they want to break up with someone but don’t want to hurt their feelings, so they say, “it’s not you, it’s me”?

Well, when it comes to traffic this saying (and the implied blame) has been turned on its head.

Inevitably, when talk turns to traffic, everyone in the conversation circle tends to nod their heads in unequivocal agreement as they rattle off the list of what is wrong: too many cars, unreliable public transport, terrible traffic management, concurrent roadworks. What no one ever, ever does, however is to raise their hand and say “mea culpa, I’m in one of those cars, so I am the traffic”. Instead, the underlying belief is that “it’s not my car, it’s yours”…the problem is always OTHER people driving their cars everywhere, at every minute of the day.

That’s another thing by the way. Whatever happened to rush hour traffic at predictable times of the day which used to be a window of a few hours in the morning and early evening? These days, the whole day seems to be one long rush hour which merges into a never-ending blur. Where is everyone going all the time? Surely, on weekdays, most of the country should be at school, or at work or at home getting things done? If we leave aside those people whose job actually requires them to be out and about, it always makes me wonder how there can be such long lines of traffic at any given hour.

I do realise that a lot of the driving which takes place revolves around children – either ferrying to and from school, to and from extracurricular activities or collecting them from whoever is minding them after school. And, because there are so many separations, there is also the shuttle between the respective households.
The traffic mayhem which coincides with the start of the scholastic year would have usually settled down by now, but not this time. Instead, like an uncontrolled virus, the car population just seems to be multiplying.

Despite the fact that free school transport (and from this year, free public transport for all) was supposed to alleviate the problem, it has not stopped many parents from still doing the school run themselves for a variety of reasons. First, there is the pick up time in the morning which can be at some ungodly hour, with children being dropped off at school an hour early because the vans have other trips to make. Secondly, some parents simply do not trust the way the school van drivers drive. And, because of logistics, it sometimes makes more sense for parents to collect their children if they have to be somewhere else after school by a certain time.

Taking all this into account, it is not surprising that the pointing of fingers as to who is causing the traffic is often directed at parents. There has even been the draconian suggestion that parents should be ‘forced’ to use free school transport, or else be penalised. Perhaps what would be more realistic would be to encourage those who live within a kilometre from their child’s school to take their kids on foot (or if they are old enough, they can walk to school by themselves). However, the problem with this is that most of the families on the island do not live in the same town/village where their children go to school – can you imagine how much easier it would be if they did?

If you watch enough TV shows about selling real estate to prospective buyers you will often hear the phrase “it’s in a great school district”…this is because in many countries those with young families choose the location of their home based precisely on where they will be sending their children to school. There used to be a time when most children went to their local school but social mobility has changed all that. It’s not unheard of for someone living in Mellieha to send their child to school to somewhere like De la Salle or St Edward’s, which are on the complete opposite side of the island. It may not be what everyone wants to hear, but sometimes you have to sacrifice the location of your dreams in order to factor in your child’s school when choosing a property. After all you will be driving them back and forth for the next 12 years. You might ask, is this really necessary on such a tiny island? Well, the daily grind of morning and late afternoon traffic from Monday to Friday should answer that question.

The main reason this has literally become a Traffic Island is that no one wants to be inconvenienced, and instead of making it more difficult for people to use their private cars, the very culture bends over backwards to accommodate them. Take the recent Campus Hub private car park issue. When they announced a steep hike in their hourly tariffs for students and lecturers, many collapsed into a pile of tears and tantrums. As ten student organisations prepared to protest, the company made an abrupt U-turn and said it would only charge students a flat rate of €3 daily.

Rather than protesting against the fees, I feel that the car park issue was a missed opportunity for students to really take up the mantle of environmental awareness by shunning their dependence on their cars. It’s not like there aren’t viable alternatives. There is free public transport for a start (there’s no use complaining about spending your stipend on parking when you have a free option). Or they can use an electric bicycle as some already do. And KSU runs a carpooling system, which allows two or more students with a parking permit to reserve a parking space on campus until 10am if they choose to drive to campus in the same car. With the many thousands who attend University I always find it inconceivable that at least two people from the same town/village cannot car pool, which would immediately cut down the number of cars by half. The objection to this has always been: but our lectures are at different times! Well that is what I mean about not wanting to be inconvenienced. Is it really preferable to be stuck in traffic for an hour or more, rather than arrive early at University and, who knows, maybe even read a book?

The other large chunk of daily commuters is, of course, people going to work/returning back home. Let’s leave aside those with valid reasons who really must use their own car. There still must be thousands of others who go straight to their workplace and straight back home, who leave their car languishing in a car park for a whole day. Government departments and corporations with a large workforce must take the bull by the horns and offer solutions to their staff by organising transport. I know that some are already doing this, but for a real domino effect, it must be encouraged on a national scale to really get more private cars with just the driver off our roads. Ideally, it should be done altruistically, for the good of the environment, for the health and mental well-being of their staff and even in their own interest to make sure people arrive to work on time. But if need be, the Government should offer a fiscal incentive, such as an eco rebate for those companies which provide such transport and even for individuals who leave their car at home. Working from home should also be re-introduced for those who prefer it, which would remove more cars in one fell swoop.

Last, but definitely not least, there is the recurrent bane of public transport. Will the authorities ever get it right? As evidence has shown, it has never been the price which was the deterrent, but the lack of reliability. When there are long queues of traffic, then the buses are obviously stuck in it too and cannot run on time, so it is a chicken and egg situation. Why not have shuttle vans between neighbouring villages so that someone who only needs to travel a few kms away does not resort to using their car?

Ultimately though, what really needs to change is our mentality and how we ourselves contribute to the traffic while simultaneously complaining about ….the traffic. What it boils down to is cutting down on our “one driver, one car” habit as much as possible unless it’s absolutely essential. Everyone has to make the changes though for it work, and everyone has to finally accept culpability by admitting that actually, “it’s not you, it’s me.”

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