People walking, cycling and taking public transport can come first

Has our new Transport Minister already forgotten what he probably –? – learned in his stint as Environment Minister over the past few years? Climate change is here, now! Carbon emission reductions need to be ramped up drastically and immediately, as per Malta’s obligations under the global Paris Agreement of 2015 and the European Green Deal, 55% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and net carbon neutrality in 2050 in the EU.

The New EU Urban Mobility Framework (2021), which guides EU member states’ mobility policy, stresses the urgency of the climate crisis and the need to “shift away from the current approach to improve traffic flow, and instead move to an approach based on moving people and goods more sustainably, with a focus on strong public transport, promotion of active mobility, and zero-emission urban logistics”.

Today, road transport contributes to one third of total greenhouse gas emissions in Malta. To stop fueling the climate crisis and reduce carbon emissions, as well as the impact of air pollution on public health, road safety concerns and diminishing public space for anyone outside a car, we need to move away from planning only for cars.

But no, our Transport Minister says that “efficiency for cars comes first”. For the past decades we have seen investments in wider and further roads for cars, and there is nothing efficient about it. Building more roads and parking for cars only leads to more cars.

This is a vicious and endless cycle termed ‘induced demand’ and is a simple story of supply and demand: increasing the capacity for cars on the road increases the amount of cars on the road. This phenomenon is well documented in the literature, based on examples from all over the world, and can be observed clearly in Malta as well, where new bypasses and flyovers have not resolved traffic congestion or parking issues at all.

Exactly because Malta is small and space is limited, we need to invest in cleaner and leaner modes of transport. The car is the least space efficient mode of transport of all! The average commute in Malta is only 5.5km, therefore we need to invest in direct, safe, comfortable, attractive and connected infrastructure for walking and cycling, so that the choice to go on foot or by bicycle for short trips is easy and obvious. This is not about “accommodating cyclists over the cars on the road” as the Minister said, but about envisioning, devising and implementing a sustainable mobility policy for the country.

The EU guidelines on Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans (SUMP), a plan which is currently in the works for the principal urban area in Malta, stress the need to address the transport sector to tackle the climate crisis, with a primary focus on public transport, walking and cycling. And yes, such a plan should also seek to regulate and reduce private car use in a city, especially in its centre(s).

This is being done around Europe, where (local) governments have woken up to the harm that excessive private car use is causing their cities and citizens. Cities such as Paris, Milan, Barcelona and Seville are reducing access and space for cars, and investing in public transport, active mobility and green public spaces instead. Or look at the inspiring mobility policy of Rimini in Italy, which was shown as a case study in Transport Malta’s own recent workshop on ‘Enabling a shift towards sustainable transport modes’ as part of their updating of the Transport Master Plan.

Even the government’s own Low Carbon Development Strategy (2021) identifies active transport (walking, cycling) as a high priority policy area for the short term to reduce carbon emissions in Malta.

From my own PhD research on the promotion of cycling as a mode of transport in Southern European cities I found that road safety is the main barrier for people cycling, in Malta and many other similar cities. If the Minister wants to make our roads safer for everyone, efforts should focus on reducing large differences in mass and velocity of different transport modes; reducing travel speed to a maximum of 30 km/h and applying traffic calming where roads are shared between cars and vulnerable road users, and providing safe, separated infrastructure where the speed is higher.

There are many things the Minister can do to promote cycling and other forms of sustainable mobility. Here are some to get started:

Invest in decent pavements to promote walking for local trips, with adequate widths, safe crossings and green infrastructure to provide shade and mitigate noise and air pollution.

Apply traffic calming principles in town centers and residential roads, to create safe spaces for walking and cycling, where cars are guests.

Dedicate space to efficient and reliable public transport and increase the connectivity between the bus and ferry networks.

Publish the long overdue National Cycling Policy announced in the Transport Master Plan of 2016. Appoint a cycling commissioner/committee and set up the Cycling Malta platform proposed in the draft National Cycling Strategy, and task them with the creation of a comprehensive cycling network and the creation of cycling infrastructure standards and guidelines.
Reduce speed limits and road widths, to discourage over-speeding; the most efficient way to improve road safety!

Stop relying on a shift to electro-mobility as the only sustainable mobility policy. It will not be enough to reach our carbon emission reduction targets, and certainly will not resolve the other problems associated with too many cars: traffic, parking, take up of public space and road safety concerns.

There are professionals in Malta who can advise the government and the Transport Minister on real, effective and efficient sustainable mobility policy and planning, such as the Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development, and NGOs like Rota and Friends of the Earth Malta, alongside many others who have been promoting policies for healthy liveable urban areas. Together we can create a real sustainable mobility future for Malta, to improve quality of life, public health and public spaces. We are here to help and make this a reality.

If the Minister really does not know what else he can do to promote sustainable mobility, maybe he should consider handing in his resignation; a Minister for Transport is not a Minister for Cars.

Suzanne Maas holds a PhD in Sustainable Mobility (Melit.) from the Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development at the University of Malta. She is the Climate Campaign Coordinator at Friends of the Earth Malta and an active member of Rota.

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