Traffic – 10 ideas that can help reduce the problem

As Malta slowly starts to wake up for another weekday, prior to first few sun rays, every single day all around our villages are experiencing a sad scene. Young children all the way to young adults lining up on bus stops or pick up zones as early as 5.30am in order to try and get in time for school. 5.30am! If that’s not sad and inhumane then unfortunately I don’t know what is.

Yesterday evening I had a conversation with a parent that told me how her daughter is waking up at 5am in order to leave home by 5.30am in order to get to school, after that she will arrive home around 4.30pm and after a quick meal she will have around 90 minutes of homework. All that and we’re only in just in the 2nd week of school. Imagine when on top of that she needs to add her studies and maybe a private lesson or two a week. Is this what we want for our kids? However that’s a discussion on its own and I’ll discuss it next time. Today I would like to tackle the issue of traffic!

Let’s start of by saying that this is definitely not a politically biased post. It’s obvious that the problem we have today has been brewing for the last two decades and we’re only feeling it more today for the obvious reasons that with 35 new cars a day, today will be worst than yesterday and unfortunately tomorrow will be worst than today. Just imagine how we’ll be in 10 years if nothing major is done.

What’s happening today;

During the last year we’ve seen the Kappara Project in progress and we need to give praise where praise is due. It’s quite impressive how the project was handled with the least disruption possible. Being form Msida with very close ties to Swieqi, St. Julians & Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq I happen to pass through this junction almost every day. Not once was it closed completely and although work was going on almost every day (and night), they always left a lane opened to facilitate traffic going northbound and southbound. I’m very confident that once this project is completed in the next few weeks, this area is going to get a breath of fresh air. I say this area because once you reach Swieqi then we’re back to square one. Unfortunately the bottle-neck in the Swieqi/Paceville/Pembroke junction is going to be amplified. Solutions are needed so that the traffic lights’s timings leading to Paceville then to Swieqi and then to Pembroke are improved. As it stand today you are guaranteed to spend at least 10 minutes to cross that 200 meter area. In rush hour and with thousands of cars passing an hour, those 10 minutes can easily escalate to 20. Similar to the Kappara project we will soon see another similar project in Marsa where hopefully we can tackle one of the permanent traffic wounds of our country, driving through Marsa. Hopefully work on this junction will go by smoothly and we will see an improvement in this area as well.

Apart from that I bet that once the Kappara Junction project is completed, traffic coming from St. Julians going to Msida/St. Venera will flow through the new flyover and immediately get stuck just before reaching the University roundabout. As it stand, we will be moving the bottleneck just a few hundred meters. This will hopefully be addressed and resolved once the Marsa project finishes in a few years time.

Today we’re also seeing a new phenomenon. Over the lat few months most roundabouts and most roads are being tweaked. Roundabouts are becoming smaller and some one lane roads are becoming two-lanes and other two-lane roads are having another lane increased. In this case the question begs, is this a proper solution? To start with in most cases the extra lane is only there for a few meters and when we come to the junction after it it goes back to it’s original number of lanes. So all we’re doing there is moving a bottle neck to one place to another. However without wanting to sound negative, some of the arrangements implemented are good of course. I liked the exit lanes implemented next to the Airport and also next to the Iklin roundabout. Although not the conventional solution, it clearly fastens the traffic a bit.

My main concern here however is this; is this a proper solution to the ever growing problem? Is the increasing of some lanes and the amendment of some roundabouts a definite solution? My view on such measures is that these are short sighted at best. We have a situation where we already have more cars than we have people plus we have 35 new cars a day being registered. By making roads wider, more lanes and smaller roundabouts all we’re doing is that we’re postponing the inevitable. It might work for today, however with 65,000 new cars on the streets in the next 5 years we’re going to be back to square one. By doing these measures we have not solved the problem, we have simply postponed dooms day. We need more permanent measures and sometimes to see a drastic change, we have to implement drastic measures.

Some ideas to think about;

I’m not an engineer or an architect. I’m simply someone that drives all day long and when I’m not driving you’ll find me talking to people. So most probably some of these ideas might not be possible. Most of these ideas have been echoed by people on social media and others were told to me by people that I meet. Apart form that spending most of my day stuck behind the steering wheel does give me an eureka moment every now and then so some of them might be mine too 🙂

a) Waste collection – We’re a tiny island! We have simply 320 sq. km of land. Why do we have to collect waste across this Island every day in the morning? Around 12 years ago I had the opportunity to live in Sutton, Surrey in the UK for 6 months and there waste is collected twice a week during the night. Low and behold I never managed to see a truck collecting waste during these 6 months. This is because these are collected during the night hours when there are less cars in the streets. This idea can be implemented quite quickly in Malta and the cost of such implementation is close to zero.

I might not like the fact that its collected twice a week only, however let’s say that waste is collected 4 times a week however always during the night. The last thing a family does before they call it a day is to bring out the garbage bag and by the the time dawn is with us, the streets are cleared of all the garbage bags. In return this will free all the country of all the waste collection trucks during the busier periods of the day which will obviously have a direct effect of the traffic. Apart from that it will also make the life of the waste collectors easier as they won’t be stuck behind slow moving traffic as well thus they can collect all the garbage bags in a much quicker time.

b) Incentives for more motorcycles – Over the last few years we’ve seen various incentives that flirt with the idea to increase the number of motorcycles in Malta. However if we had to be honest, these incentives didn’t result in the desired increase. We need a drastic inventive that will seriously motivate anyone to purchase a motorbike. An idea that I was given by someone I met last week is to give anyone that is willing to hand in his car license 10 free years free road-license for the first motorbike purchased PLUS a 50% refund of the insurance purchased for the first 10 years as well. Apart from that also give a refund of all the tax paid on any new motorcycle. That way, for the first 10 years, all you have to pay is only 50% of the insurance.This would have significantly reduced the yearly cost of someone that wants to start utilising a motorcycle instead of a car, while also making the initial purchase cost significantly cheaper because of the tax refund. If this measure is successful we will see a reduction in people driving cars because in order to benefit from this, they would have to give up their car license.

c) Pro-rated Car License fee – Another idea to incentivise people to drive their car less would be to introduce a scheme where a someone pays a pro-rated car license fee against the average usage. In order to do this the authorities would need to determine what is the average kilo-meters a year a that a car drives. Once that is determined when its time to pay your car license you will pay a pro-rated amount against the nation’s mean. In order for this to be fair we need to get averages for different type of licenses paid and everyone pays the license according to the average of their own segment. That means that if the average kilo-meters per year for a civilian car is 15,000 kilo-meters per year however I drove 20,000 kilo-meters during the last year, I would need to pay 20,000/15,000 * the cost of the license fee. In this scenario I will end up paying more, however if someone uses the car for only 5,000 kilo-meters a year he would only pay 25% of his license fee. This can have an added incentive on drivers to drive their cars less in order to pay less car on their car license fee the year after. With the ultimate benefit of having less cars in the roads!

d) Large Vehicles timing – This is very controversial because we all know the importance of the construction industry in Malta, however if we’re not drastic, we will not see improvement. An idea which I saw on the social media is that from September to May, large vehicles (excluding public transport buses) will only be allowed to roam the streets from 9am till 4pm. That way they will not be in the streets during the rush hours. Obviously this might have a drastic effect on the construction industry thus before its even considered all the stakeholders involved needs to be consulted.

e) Public Transport by Sea – We live in a tiny island. Why isn’t the idea of having public transport by sea ever considered? We only have a small ferry crossing between Sliema/Valletta/Cottonera. What about having other ferries that cross between St. Paul’s Bay and Sliema/Valletta? Msida to Gzira to Sliema to St. Julians,  Marsascala to Valletta and many other options. If they are affordable (and timely) I’m sure that people will consider them. We should look at the traghetto model in Venezia where it’s efficient, affordable and obviously popular since there’s no other option of going around!

f) Incentivise private companies to offer transport – I remember a time when most factories used to offer transport to their employees however lately this isn’t the norm anymore. How about we expand on this platform once again? Government should be able to incentivise companies that utilises organised transport. One such idea would be that the cost of the transport will be reduced from the income tax paid by such companies. In order to allow even the smaller companies to benefit from this scheme, it can be expanded to companies operating closely to each other so that they can share their resources and organise transport for their employees together. This way we will reduce the number of cars in the street substantially as more people will be travelling to their place of work and back home in organised transport.

g) Organised transport from sports / social groups – Similar to the idea above, however applied for people attending a sports club. As it stands today most parents drive their children to football training (and a lot of different other activities) after school hours. How about we start incentivising these associations to organise transport that goes out to pick kids from several pick up points and then taking them back home afterwards? This way parents won’t have to drive and thus reducing once again the number of cars. This can be adopted to several different disciplines and not just sports. I understand that this scheme would have its limitations due to the different locations that members live in, however at least it will help eradicate half of the problem.

h) Different school hours – Why do we have to have school between Monday and Friday from 8am till 2/3pm? How about we experiment with different starting times? What about if the starting times are spread between 7am and 9.30am? That way school transport will be spread between 6.30am and 9am instead of 5.30am and 7am.

i) Bicycles – Bicycles is definitely one of the best solutions for our traffic, however in order to go there we need to make our roads safer for bicycles. At the moment most roads aren’t safe for someone to ride a bike every day, however it’s evident that in cities such as Amsterdam, bikes helped to solve the major traffic problem they had. We can start by helping local councils to fix the pavements, however to do that local councils need the required funding. This is rather a large investment however it will go a long way in solving this problem. Apart from that we can also start installing more bicycle racks at various public places all over Malta so that people can safely park their bike. That is something that Local Councils can definitely help in and I’m sure that the Government would happily assist here too.

j) Alternative Public Transport – This will require major investment across multiple years. However if we want to truly eradicate traffic once and for all we need to have public transport that incorporates buses, underground, trams etc. This is a huge project and will create chaos until its finalised, however I believe that if there’s a proper plan on how to do this and people are educated as to what’s going to happen, then we can do this. We owe it to the next generation to give them something to be proud of, hopefully it won’t be traffic but it would be a large scale alternative public transport project.

In order to solve this problem we need to work together. We need to ensure that both political parties shed off their point scoring agenda and work together hand in hand in order to solve traffic once and for all. If we continue doing what we’ve always done, we can’t expect to get a different result. With that in mind we need to do things differently, only then we can expect to start seeing different results.