What do we overlook when an efficient transport system is all we want?

“A developed country is not where the poor have cars, but where the rich use public transportation”

– Gustavo Petro, President of Colombia

Considering that I’ve already written about Malta’s transport crisis and some of its potential solutions elsewhere, I did not expect to find myself writing about transport again. However, as time passes, I increasingly notice there is an aspect of the public discussion on transport that is conspicuously absent: the connections between transport, inequality, and the (un)democratic use of public space.

We tend to think of transport in terms of efficiency and this is a very reasonable way to think about the problem. Our roads are clogged with traffic and whatever we do, it never seems to go away. We know that the current approach of widening roads does not work – and, contrary to what is claimed by government adverts promoting such projects, makes the problem even worse – but we do it anyway.

But the framing of efficiency overlooks the fact that the current transport model – one that prioritises private cars at all costs – is not just inefficient, it is unjust too. One only needs to go on the bus to see how this is the case. Who uses the bus? I am not aware of reliable statistics that answer this question, but observations indicate who does.

When I go on the bus, I see the following groups of people: students, the elderly, migrants, and tourists. Tourists aside (whose inconvenience lasts only the length of their stay on the islands and who may choose to rent a car anyway), these are groups of people with little to no political representation. In the case of migrants, it is doubly unjust as current voting laws make it impossible for them to vote despite paying taxes.

We see a different variation of marginalisation of non-car users in recent calls by some parts of the PN for a ban on rental scooters and to require their scooter users to have driving licenses. Without getting too far into the details of this case, much overlooked in this discussion is the fact that a major reason why scooters are parked haphazardly is because parking places for scooters were never provided, to begin with. Without any dedicated parking spaces, e-scooter users are then left to compete with pedestrians for the pitiful remaining amount of public space not dedicated to private vehicles.

The government’s recent announcement that they are looking into providing such parking places for scooters is thus most welcome and is a rare instance where the government has acknowledged a root cause of the issue.

A similar point can be made about a lot of ‘pedestrian’ infrastructure built in recent years. Many vaunted pedestrian bridges often do not exist to help pedestrians. They exist to improve traffic flow. From the point of view of a pedestrian, many of these bridges serve to lengthen the journey needed to cross to the other side of the road. When those promoting government infrastructure projects boast of eliminating traffic lights to improve traffic flow, they are also boasting of marginalising pedestrians. Removing traffic lights and similar traffic calming measures only encourages drivers to speed, making our roads more dangerous – for both pedestrians and drivers alike.

We have designed all our infrastructure around cars while forgetting the fact that not everyone can or wants to drive a car. Instead of addressing these planning failures, the problem is often shifted to non-car users – public transport users, pedestrians, cyclists, and micro-mobility users – and, when this becomes problematic (such as in the case of scooters), we propose to shift the problem again by eliminating potential alternative transport options.

This forces those who can afford it to use a car, to clog our roads even more. In this way, transport problems are never really solved. Problems are shifted elsewhere, and real solutions are never really considered, while the transport system continues to degrade and become increasingly inefficient.

At the heart of Malta’s transport crisis is an unfortunate reluctance to question the dominance of the private car and the industry that underpins it. One can attribute this to a variety of factors from lifestyle aspirations to economic interests lobbying to keep cars as the dominant (if not the only viable) mode of transport. Having a car is associated with independence, but the social prestige of having a car comes at a heavy price. Here, a reconsideration of what we consider valuable is increasingly necessary.

We are arguably reaching the limits of a transport strategy based on continuing to prioritise private cars at all costs. Accidents on our roads are increasing at an alarming rate with some 18 fatalities this year, while a 2019 study estimated that between 473 and 677 people die prematurely in Malta each year due to air pollution. Our transport network regularly suffers from gridlock and the number of cars on our roads continues to increase with 18 cars added to our roads each day, according to data obtained from the first three months of this year. Something needs to change, or the situation will only continue to get worse.

We are forgetting that transport design – like all types of governance – is inherently political and this means prioritising some interests over others. Fortunately, reducing cars on our roads can also make driving for car users more pleasant and less stressful as traffic can flow more smoothly. This would in turn help make the public transport system to become more efficient and reliable.

We know too that it can deliver a range of benefits – from cleaner air to safer streets to more opportunities for active travel. It, however, can also foster a more democratic use of public space both in terms of the choices we have on how we travel as well as how public space is used.

We can see this tension between car-centric design and democratic ideals in the politics of road closures. The incident of Aaron Farrugia blaming village feasts for traffic is illustrative of this. In blaming feasts for traffic, he overlooks the fact that closing roads for cars allow roads to open for other, more social, activities – in this case,  the social interactions and revelry that comes with them.

Opening roads to cars during feasts would deprive communities of the very few opportunities when streets are reclaimed for public enjoyment. A similar dynamic is present when the Żebbug (Malta) Local Council closes its pjazza for traffic in an initiative called Pjazza Pedonali. The pjazza is closed to cars but opened for other, more social, activities like socialising, riding a bike, music, and singing. In this latter instance, we see a potential example of what the theologian and social critic Ivan Illich called ‘conviviality’.

Drawing on the Spanish meaning of the word convivencia, this loosely means the practice of living together despite differences. It alludes to the time in medieval Spain (as al-Andalus) when Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together in a pluricultural society. At the moment, conviviality is something that our neighbourhoods lack with the vast majority of our public space dedicated to cars as roads or parking and a deep sense of societal malaise.

A recent Gallup survey found that the Maltese are some of the angriest people in the EU, as well as among its most worried. A separate survey from the University of Malta’s Faculty of Social Wellbeing found that 55% of the population also suffer from loneliness. While this can be attributed to a diverse range of factors (e.g., lack of good mental health services, unequal access to opportunities, and environmental degradation), it is not helped by a dysfunctional transport system and the fact that there is very little public space in Malta that is dedicated to simply being public space.

It is also exacerbated by the common practice of road rage, which is enabled and encouraged by current transport policies. People thrive on social connections and opportunities to socialise in public spaces are seriously lacking. We need more opportunities to bring people together, especially in ways that can bridge different (partisan) political, ethnic, and racial backgrounds.

If we want to meaningfully solve Malta’s transport crisis we need to acknowledge that not only are we prioritising cars at the expense of having a functioning transport system but that in doing so, we are marginalising those who cannot or do not want to use a car.

When Aaron Farrugia says that “infrastructure for cars comes first, bicycle lanes will be included if there is space” and other politicians express similar sentiments (for, when he makes such a statement, he is not only speaking for himself), they are thus not only expressing an intention to continue following a defunct transport model, but also an unjust one where mobility is not accessible to everyone, and where spaces and opportunities for social connection are restricted. This is no pathway for convivial living.

The views expressed in this article are those of XR and are not reflective of ‘A Bird’s Eye View’ as a whole.

Further Reading

Galea, Raisa (2019). ‘My Complicated Love Affair with the Maltese Bus’. Available at: https://www.islesoftheleft.org/diversity-and-prejudice-my-complicated-love-affair-with-the-maltese-bus/

Mattioli, Giulio, Cameron Roberts, Julia K Steinberger, and Andrew Brown (2020). ‘The political economy of car dependence: A systems of provision approach’. Energy Research and Social Science, 66. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2020.101486 (open access)

Nikolaeva, Anna, Peter Adey, Tim Cresswell, Jane Yeonjae Lee, Andre Nóvoa, and Cristina Temenos (2019). ‘Commoning mobility: Towards a new politics of mobility transitions. Trans Inst Br Geogr. 44, pp.346–360. https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12287. (open access)

Thalia Verkade and Marco te Brömmelstroet (2022). ‘How car culture colonised our thinking – and our language’. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/bike-blog/2022/aug/31/how-car-culture-colonised-our-thinking-and-our-language

Yeung, Peters (2022). ‘‘It’s a beautiful thing’: how one Paris district rediscovered conviviality’. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jul/14/its-a-beautiful-thing-how-one-paris-district-rediscovered-conviviality


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