A few days ago, the United Nations environment agency spoke about the need to put people before cars. The UN said that governments should invest at least 20 per cent of their transport budgets in infrastructure that promotes walking and cycling, to save lives, curb pollution and cut climate-changing emissions from vehicles.

Incidentally, on the same day I participated in a local councillors’ meeting in Rome on green mobility for healthy cities. The main speakers presented successful and inspirational examples in different European cities. It was clear that policymaking can make a difference if implemented well.

For example, it was shown that congestion charges in Milan have reduced traffic and helped provide funding for a clean transport system. The implementation of the charge was tweaked in agreement with the business community.

There was resistance from certain car park owners, certain political forces and some residents, but the eventual positive results are there for everyone to see. Indeed the local council administration wasreconfirmed in a subsequent election.In the meantime, the vast majority ofworkers have continued using public transport, and various economic sectors are reaping advantages.

Malta’s small size provides an opportunity for a modal shift towards cleaner transport

During the conference, those present also learned about improvements made in the transport system of Naples. A congested southern city with a fair share of crises and a financially challenged poor local council is now investing in pedestrianisation, bicycle lanes, bicycle sharing, car sharing and collective taxis. To top it all, Naples has developed a state-of-the art underground station.

In some other localities across Italy, public transport is more accessible, new tram networks have been created and cycling mobility has increased.

Policies are also being adopted to replace older vehicles for merchandise distribution with smaller, cleaner vehicles. And moves are being made for better usage of smart technology which provides holistic information on buses, bicycle use, parking and other matters which can make life much easier for commuters.

This type of policymaking is also being adopted in French cities such as Paris and Grenoble and Spanish cities such as Valencia. Again, public investment in public transport, bicycle lanes, car sharing and pedestrianisation is on the increase.

A lovely case study which was presented in the conference concerned Brussels. It was explained that car dependency has decreased through the ‘stop’ principle. Here, policymakers give successive priority to walking, riding, usage of public transport and finally, the car. The latter is only addressed in terms of policymaking when other methods are exhausted.

Consequently, Brussels has an abundance of bicycle lanes, a bicycle sharing system, strong investment in pedestrianisation, buses and trams, and a progressive reduction of car speed limits which will eventually cover all local roads.

Studies referred to in the conference show that from 50 per cent car usage in 1999, the usage of this mode of transport decreased to 33 per cent in 2010. Today, 37 per cent of commutes take place on foot, and usage of public transport has increased massively. This has taken place despite an increase in population of 250,000 and 60,000 more jobs during the same timeframe.

It was also explained that had Brussels adopted a business-as-usual approach in transport policy, there would have been a massive increase of cars. Yet, once again, sustainable policymaking is helping bring about a modal shift in transport.

Other positive examples were presented during the conference. Rather than hearing of usual acclaimed success stories such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen, participants learned of successful transport policies in other cities which are less known for such approaches. Incidentally, even Amsterdam and Copenhagen were over dependent on cars years ago.

The benefits of such forward-looking policymaking are multifold. Apart from helping improve mobility and accessibility, they also help reduce air pollution and congestion. They help improve people’s well-being and help build a sense of community through open and safe spaces.

Such a sustainable transformation is possible through determined policymaking which is evidence based. Will Malta ever move towards this direction?

Will positive examples such as Valletta’s pedestrianisation be mainstreamed? I believe that Malta’s small size provides an opportunity for a modal shift towards cleaner transport. And before we resort to the Malta’s car-culture narrative, let us keep in mind that other cities were car-dependent too.

Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.

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