In a few months’ time, everyone with a Tallinja card will be able to ride the bus for free. But despite the fact that almost the whole population will be eligible for free public transportation, experts believe that the incentive will not persuade a large number of people to exchange their car keys for bus cards, not large enough at least.
In fact, it’s easy to accept that the most important concerns surrounding public transportation use in Malta are not connected to cost – many of us currently travel for free or at a reduced price. Reliability and scheduling, for example, are both major contributors.
When it comes to improving public transportation, buzzwords like higher service quality, dedicated bus lanes, and improved infrastructure are frequently mentioned. But what can be done to successfully reform the system?
Transport is mentioned directly in five targets of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals agenda on road safety (Target 3.6); energy efficiency (Target 7.3), sustainable infrastructure (Target 9.1), urban access (Target 11.2), and fossil fuel subsidies (Target 12.c). This shows us that sustainable transport influences the achievement of several goals and that conversations on the management of transport systems should be taken more seriously.
Higher frequency of buses in existing routes
This is a pretty straightforward point, and also has the most benefits. The more frequently the buses go through their rounds, the better.
This means reduced waiting times, more people on time for appointments and jobs, higher reliability and trust in public transportation, and fewer people on the buses.
With a more positive experience, more people could promote the use of the buses, and would therefore most definitely result in this change having a direct and immediate benefit.
There are certain places in Malta that are not easily accessible unless you have your own private vehicle. This is mainly due to the fact that population density is the only “incentive” there is. It is grossly unjust to have just one or two routes going around once an hour to a locality of a couple of thousand people just because there aren’t as many people that live in that location.
Some people may say that more routes would be implemented if more people from said area used it, as demand normally drives supply. But this is no way a proper strategy to encourage more people to use the bus. If a bus they would need to ride only comes round every hour, if it ever comes, then the people who may have been inclined to grab the bus rather than having to drive to their destination, would be demoralised waiting for one for so long.
The more reliable and the more frequent the buses are, the more people would be willing to use them, and the more worthwhile the public transportation system would be.
Yes, theoretically, the number of buses for certain routes (the ones mostly used by tourists to go to the main places of interest and beaches) increases in summer. Personally, I never noticed the difference in frequency.
You miss a bus and not only have to wait for 30 minutes or so for the next bus on the same route, but you have to do it in the sweltering Maltese sun and uncomfortably high humidity, while most likely trying to find the little shade the bus stops shelters provide (seeing as they are mostly transparent if they exist at all) with sand and salt scratching at your skin.
The amount of buses per route should be increased across the board, especially during summertime.
Another area that Transport Malta seems to have abandoned from their timetables are the night buses, removed at the start of the COVID pandemic to discourage people from going out with friends at night. Despite the government calling for an end to pandemic rules in Malta, these routes were never reimplemented, forcing people too drunk to drive to order a cab.
While trams, underground trains, overhead trains and all sorts of other transportation methods have been floating around politicians’ pledges for the better part of a decade now, there’s an easy solution to the “green” aspect of public transport: electric buses.
This not only reduces the amount of exhaust inhaled by Maltese drivers daily, but it’s cleaner for the environment. And this has been done before in Malta as a test – and yet, all projects related to this aspect have either been stopped or delayed indefinitely.
The conversation surrounding electric vehicles has been speculated to be not as green as one would think, due to their manufacturing process. Even if so, electric vehicles are still a better alternative, especially in a country where there are many old cars contributing even more to carbon emissions. However, our aim should not just be in changing our cars, but reducing the number of cars on our roads. A 2020 initiative provided free transport for school children, which impacted the number of cars during rush hour. A similar initiative would be to incentivise a shuttle system, for people who work in big companies with many people driving to the same building.
Transport has always been an issue in Malta, and the way we are just widening roads is definitely not the best way to go. There are so many advantages to increased use of public transport in such a tiny country. If I had to mention them all, this article would never end, but the top two advantages would definitely be:
This is a continuation of the first point. The more frequently buses pass, the more people tend to use them due to their trust increasing in the system. More people using public transport would mean that fewer people using their own private vehicles. Fewer vehicles on the road would obviously result in less traffic.
Before the COVID19 pandemic, Malta was one of the very few countries in the EU, to record an increase in carbon emissions. As a country, we registered an increase of 6.7%, while the average of the EU was a decrease of 2.5%. In 2018, the NSO estimated that on average 45 cars were added to the Maltese roads every day30. Although a metro system or a tram could be great alternatives to our public transport system and would potentially decrease the number of cars significantly, these are long term projects and unfortunately, some issues need to be fixed as soon as possible.
The European Environmental Agency has proposed financial incentives and taxes be put in place to encourage consumers to buy cars with lower carbon dioxide emissions and other air pollutants such as nitrogen oxide and particulate matter.
Less carbon emissions
Yet another issue that the younger generations are extremely worried about in this country is our environmental impact. And yet, these are the same people that go out and buy second-hand cars just months (if not weeks) after they acquire their driving licenses. This most definitely stems from their teenage years being riddled with cases of waiting for buses that show up late, or not showing up at all. This lack of trust has a correlation with the public buying private cars, hence increasing the carbon emissions per capita of our country.
A radical change in infrastructure to include only pavements and bicycle lanes is surely unattainable and not feasible, however, if we start incorporating these into our infrastructure from now, we would benefit substantially in the long run. Infrastructure projects such as parking areas and car favouring schemes, such as flyovers and the widening of roads are not expensive but have a negative impact on both our environment and public health. Case studies have shown that incentives favouring cycling have benefited the economy, environment, and public health.
All in all, while we citizens can’t really do anything, we can push our politicians to implement any or all the steps mentioned above. And while there are surely going to be people that defend the current system – and improvements on it like making it free for everyone – that doesn’t mean that we can’t strive to make it better.
Written by: Matthew J. Cassar
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