Free public transport for all won’t result in the desired, and much needed, reduced congestion.

It is not a matter of doing away with the car completely; certain journeys, or parts thereof, will still require a car.

Now that, thanks to the 2022 Budget, everyone will have access to free public transport; ask yourself, will you be using the bus to travel? Probably not?

There is a valid reason for why not: public transport is too inconvenient. If one had to run errands during or after work – drop the kids off to football practice, go to the supermarket, collect the baby from the mother-in-law’s house – one cannot carry out any of these errands using the bus transport system. Well, not in as short a time and level of convenience as personal transport.

‘But now the metro is coming,’ you could say. Yes, metro talks seem to have taken off positively with possibly some results to be seen in our lifetime. Which brings about the next hypothetical question: if the metro were to be here tomorrow, would you use it?

As you may have seen from the plans published, the closest metro stop is unlikely to be at the end of your residential street. How will you get to the closest metro station? Will you be using public transport and interchange at the station? Or will you drive there, hoping you’ll find a parking spot as close as possible to the escalator?

In any case, we cannot pin our hopes solely on the metro, a project that is years away from completion. Between now and then, with 31 motor vehicles being added to our roads per day, congestion has the potential to increase to the point of gridlock, and it is not policies like free public transport for all which will reduce this risk.

Us Maltese have embedded within our DNA a culture to walk as little as possible and arrive in the shortest time possible. Public transport does not cater for this. It is in fact intrinsically impossible for public transport to offer this kind of convenience. Due to economies of scale, stations need to be located in areas where they capture the most passengers or the route would be unfeasible.

Many of us have ventured out of this small island we call home, and many of us have been keen to use public transport while away. But many may also have noticed that when abroad, we tend to walk more. No city provides bus stops / underground stations in front of every hotel/residence. So, to use public transport when abroad we tend to walk the distance from the hotel we’re staying at to the closest station; at least proving that our legs have the ability to cover the distance. So why do we not walk when we are back home?

Culture needs to change. We all know it. We all say it. But we say it meaning that other people need to change their habits. Other people need to stop using their car so that when we drive, we do not get stuck in traffic, so we can find a parking spot closer to where we need to go. But if culture is to change, we all need to make the effort.

How can this be done? Culture is changed through education, incentives, and disincentives and this is where the Budget needs to focus its investment, rather than on free bus tickets for all.

Better Use of Investment #1: Education

Fifty years ago, shepherds herded goats through our village streets and pumped milk directly into jugs proffered by our grandparents, who happily drank the milk directly from the goat’s udder with all the health risks that practice brought with it. With education, that practice has ceased completely, and we look back on it as ignorance. The same efforts to educate the public need to be deployed to cure today’s population from our cancerous transport habits.

Focus on education at schools. Teach children how to ride bicycles; the pedestrian’s etiquette; teach children the benefits of everyday exercise and the harm cars do to the environment. The fact is that children convert parents.

Do you think this is farfetched? Recently, the entire nation shifted from piling garbage into black bags to various coloured bags collected on different days of the week. The system is not perfect, not everyone complies, but the majority do.

Should a similar educational campaign be launched targeting the transport culture, a good number of us may convert to more sustainable travel practices. ‘A good number of us’ would translate in less congestion on our roads, and while ‘a good number of us’ is not good enough, it is, at least, a start.

Better Use of Investment #2: Infrastructure

Another better use of public funds would be to improve infrastructure. If behaviour is to be shifted, the right infrastructure must be in place to encourage this shift in the commuting practice. The government cannot expect the public to change their entire lifestyle – transport is lifestyle – without offering some options.

‘Infrastructure’ does not mean increasing flyovers, widening of roads, asphalting country roads – all this does is invite more cars to the road. It is a directly proportional cause and effect as every new road gives the perception that it will get us there sooner if we use our car.

The infrastructure needed is closer to home. The planting of trees to provide shaded sidewalks, levelled pavements which do not assimilate an obstacle track, and wide enough to allow a pushchair to pass through.

The residential street needs to be as inviting as possible to walk on. If our streets were inviting, we may be more willing to walk five minutes to go buy milk and bread instead of using the car for a two-minute drive, double park at the corner (Hazard lights on!) rush in and rush out. If streets are safer, we may be more willing to trust our children to walk to school or at least walk with them to the M.U.S.E.U.M.

Anything within a ten-mile radius from any given point can be covered by a bicycle; this distance covers most of our island, yet many of us do not dream of using a bicycle – many of us do not even know how!

Better Use of Investment #3: Incentives

If Covid has given us anything, it gave us more flexible work-from-home policies which were unheard of just a couple of years ago. Rather than distribute free bus tickets, use public funds to build on these policies and make them permanent. Most people don’t need to travel to their workplace to produce an eight-hour day; let them stay home!

For those whose work does not allow them to work from home, incentivise the private sector to draw up and implement Green Travel Plans which include a mixture of transport options based on the ‘office’ hours and needs of their employees. Such policies may include:

– Transport on demand for employees to get to/from home but also to cover any travel required during working hours. This would be applicable to workplaces where employees start and finish at different times and can be replaced by fixed shuttle transport services to/from specific locations for workplaces with standard start and finish times;

– Setting up of showers and changing rooms at the company’s premises;

– Park and Ride services to/from locations outside the urban centre.

Instead of distributing free bus tickets, Government may assist by offering grants whereby companies can subcontract experts to assist them in compiling such policies. Funds would be paid as reimbursement and against audits which confirm the actual implementation of the Green Travel Plan.

Government, on the other hand, needs to lead by example and start implementing these practices with its own employees.

Better Use of Investment #4: Dis-incentives

Dis-incentives are a difficult bone to chew on, both for the reigning political party as well as for the taxpayer. However, when coupled with the right incentives, disincentives can be effective in inducing discipline.

Daunting fines and rigorous enforcement have trained an entire nation to congregate in groups of no larger than six. Face masks have become an apparel as sought after as fake Louis Vuitton handbags. We’ve even relinquished our beloved village festa (for the most part). Should the same level of enforcement be applied to our roads, imagine the potential!

The bus can never compete with the convenience that a personal car offers. To solve congestion, therefore, government needs to make the personal car less convenient. I can feel you bristle as you read this, but look at it in another light; we have completely relinquished our public space to cars. Cars are parked on pavements. Some streets don’t even have pavements to allow space for parking. The longer this practice goes on, the less we are encouraged to walk, cycle or even enjoy a meal at the village pjazza. Why should the village pjazza be a parking lot when we have such mild weather to enjoy?

The question therefore remains: if it were twice as expensive to register and keep a car; if parking is not allowed within any village core; if street parking was paid by the hour; if you had to pay a fee proportional to how much your car pollutes every time you pass through an urban area; would you still not use the offered free public transport then?

None of the above are new ideas, and they have all been implemented in many European cities already, including Luxembourg. And we enjoy the results…when we are abroad. So why don’t we demand the same of our home?

It is not a matter of doing away with the car completely; certain journeys, or parts thereof, will still require a car. However, if streets were safer and more inviting, we may be more inclined to walk to the grocer shop or cycle to the post office to pick up that parcel. If our workplace were to provide us with flexible transport options, we may be more inclined to leave the car at home at least two or three times a week. This puts fewer cars on the road, generating less traffic, and making public transport more efficient due to less congestion. Would you use public transport for certain journeys if you knew it would get you there on time?

Hard decisions need to be taken. Unpopular ones at first, but once results start to be felt we will look back and think, ‘Oh how ignorant we were!’

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