Miriam Camilleri, Chairperson of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT) in Malta believes that the current traffic situation is in crisis, and has been escalating over a long period of time, though perhaps at an even more alarming rate in recent months. “The problem is multi-faceted and there is no magic wand that can put things right,” she says.
Pointing to the “lack of professionalism and the self-centred and narrow minded approach by all stakeholders,” as the root of the problem, Ms Camilleri applies this to both national and local authorities, road planners and engineers, road builders and enforcement agencies along with road users themselves. “If we are honest enough, we should admit that the whole spectrum is somehow at fault, with none of us ready to admit that we are not living up to our responsibilities,” she says.
According to Prof. Maria Attard, Director at the Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development at the University of Malta, various studies continue to show that the dependence on travel by car has increased in Malta – a fact that certainly doesn’t help matters. “The 2010 National Household Travel Survey shows that over 70 per cent of all trips are done by car, and the recent study by the Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development shows that congestion is very high in Malta and is showing signs of deterioration over time,” she states.
These studies confirm our car dependence to be one of the highest in the world – but what has caused this? Prof. Attard maintains that the causes run the gamut, from increased household income to a lack of investment on effective public transport systems and spatial planning, which fail to integrate the location of particular land uses and accessibility, as well as a systematic removal of space for people on our roads in order to accommodate vehicles and parking.
Angelo Xuereb, Chairman and CEO of AX Holdings Group is in agreement, making reference to a combination of better disposable income which has made cars more affordable, along with challenges in public transport, as the primary factors which have led people to resort to using cars to get about.
“Road infrastructure development has not kept pace with the increase in transport and principally the design of road junctions leaves much to be desired, causing bottlenecks. Furthermore, instead of taking steps to make public transport more efficient, steps have been taken to make it more convenient – these are not the same thing. There are too many bus stops, slowing down journey times. People need to get from A to B in a predetermined time, and putting more stops on a route lengthens journey time,” he asserts.
Indeed, according to Sergio Vella, Vice President of Manufacturing Operations – Western Europe at Actavis, the traffic situation is one of the major issues that needs to be addressed. “It is costing time and money to passengers, drivers and especially employers. It is also perceived very negatively by tourists and is aggravating environmental air pollution in our islands. The latter is a situation that needs significant attention if we are really serious about environmental sustainability,” he warns.
Certainly, on the business end, Franco Azzopardi, Chairman and CEO at Express Group believes that having over 300,000 cars on the road, the roads and space being what they are, coupled with the propensity of the Maltese towards using their private car versus public transport or two-wheelers aggravates the traffic situation. “I think this is inevitable considering the original scope of build of the road system in contrast to the changes in public transport and increasing population due to foreign workers and tourism. Public transport cannot be improved in my view without reducing traffic on the roads,” he maintains.
So, viewing the chaotic traffic situation in concrete terms, what is the cost of the congestion to the country?
Entrepreneur Jonathan Shaw makes an attempt at calculating this cost, basing his estimate on a local workforce of 190,000 and the assumption that 50 per cent of those workers waste an average of 30 minutes a day in traffic, parking or commuting. “Should one value this lost time at an average rate of €10 per hour, the annual cost of lost productivity will stand at an incredible €124 million,” he explains, warning, “if congestion is not drastically addressed and it gets worse, it might well cost the country €1 billion in five years’ time.”
The effect is more far-reaching however, with costs related to the extra fuel used, lack of accessibility, the increase in pollution and traffic accidents also needing to be taken into consideration. Prof. Maria Attard refers to a study carried out last year by the Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development, which showed that external costs of passenger and commercial vehicle use are costing the economy a total of €274 million. Shedding light on the seriousness of this number, she adds, “this is equivalent to four per cent of the GDP.”
Building on this, Sergio Vella asserts that the fact that an increasing number of people are regularly getting caught up in traffic jams implies a significant socio-economic cost. Adding to the list of mentioned effects, he posits, “the consequences of such traffic jams are delays in starting work, missed meetings and appointments, as well as late deliveries. Costs related to traffic accidents, air pollution, climate change and noise are further significant aspects of this problem.”
On a business level, as Express Group Chairman and CEO Franco Azzopardi maintains, both businesses in the service industry as well as businesses that require the movement of cargo and goods are affected. “Commuting is eroding away at personal time and quality of life. Delivery times for goods transported to destinations are becoming ever lengthier with the consequence of creating inflationary pressures that are domestically driven,” he affirms, pointing out that there are many moving parts affecting the economy that are directly dependent on road use.
As befits the multifaceted nature of the problem however, there is no single solution to tackle the traffic situation. According to Prof. Attard, the reality is that there are still too many fundamental problems with the basics of our transport systems to even contemplate one solution which will resolve the congestion problem. “A medium to long term strategy is required which brings together both disincentives for those that wish to travel by car and rewards for those that opt for other modes such as walking, cycling, ferries and public transport systems,” she asserts. Meanwhile, infrastructures such as roads, pedestrian areas, open spaces and public transport require significant investment to upgrade.
Indeed, Actavis’ Sergio Vella also believes that a mix of short and long term measures are required, including an effective public transport system that meets the public’s requirements and encourages people to use it instead of their personal transport; an efficient harbour ferry network; incentivising the use of school transportation rather than parents driving their children to school; a professional assessment of the number of inadequately designed roundabouts and dedicated bus lanes; increased safety on our roads; proper road maintenance programmes to improve the quality of our roads and reduce accidents; proper enforcement of no parking areas and clamping down on abusers who park indiscriminately; as well as the introduction of the UBER system, as has been done in several European cities.
Franco Azzopardi agrees that there is no single solution. He mentions incentives towards small cars or penalties for larger cars on a usage basis, maintaining that car registration costs should not be part of the equation. “A small utility car should be compellingly cheaper to use every day than a massive SUV-type vehicle, in terms of parking costs, road licence for use during rush hours and so on,” he asserts. Another suggestion he proposes is a special vignette for rush hours, which could see carpooling incentivised during rush hours, or even penalties for non-compliance. Moreover, he adds, “if road usage is lightened, efforts to improve public transport could be more effective.”
Angelo Xuereb, meanwhile, has his own recommendations. For the short term, he feels that tackling bottlenecks at road junctions could just be down to better traffic management. “Many roundabouts are too small, especially when these are located between two, three, or more major roads. Where possible, these junctions should incorporate exit lanes which bypass the use of a roundabout and direct you straight to another major road,” he explains.
Other short term solutions include capping the number of cars on the roads by encouraging buyers of new cars to scrap an old registered vehicle, the creation of an additional lane on some major roads, better traffic management when road works are in progress, and a direct connection between Sliema, Valletta and Cottonera, which he feels will encourage people to use this mode of public transport.
On a medium term, Mr Xuereb notes the need to create a number of bypasses with a minimum number of traffic lights and junctions; adequate alternative diversions when road works are taking place; and a bridge that joins Salina and Qawra. As for the long term, he feels that “there is no option but to invest in an efficient integrated public transportation system that includes an underground and elevated monorail system that handles almost all the commuters using the public transport on a 24/7 basis.”