On October 2, 2021, when the government proposed the creation of an underground metro, all stakeholders were in agreement that the best solution to the never-ending problem of traffic congestion was the introduction of a public mass rapid transit (MRT) system.

To reduce congestion, one must reduce the number of cars on the roads, and that means that Maltese licensed drivers would need to make a switch and use MRT. A study into the social, political and economic barriers to the adoption of a mass rapid transit system in Malta was conducted between 2019 and 2023 with Heriot-Watt University (Edinburgh) and made possible through the Tertiary Education Sponsorship Scheme (TESS).

Malta has seen an unprecedented population growth in the last 10 years. With a population of over 520,000, according to the NSO, and with over 260,000 licensed drivers and more than 420,000 vehicles on the road network, it is the fifth-most-densely-populated country with the fifth-most-dense transportation network.

As 65 cars are being registered daily onto our network, substituting our fuel cars with electric cars may reduce contaminants in our roads but not congestion. What is needed is a model shift to MRT. This study was a predictive analysis to determine the probability of the adoption of an MRT by Maltese licensed drivers. Their attitude towards the use of an MRT, and the subjective and descriptive (society-driven) norms that would justify or impede such a decision, were investigated.

Prospect Theory variables were also introduced, such as judgement errors, social preferences and self-identity concerns. An initial pilot study consisted of 143 participants, while 520 participants took part in the main study.

The social barriers relative to the adoption of an MRT highlighted the comfort and safety of the service as an important requirement. The participants understood that an MRT was the solution to breaking the use of cars daily. The acceptance of MRT as the main national mode of transportation by Maltese licensed drivers was, however, contingent on the acceptance and a positive perception by the Maltese population.

The government needs to incentivise personal commitment to use MRT before this is deployed, through a change in culture with advertising and positive incentives while highlighting the advantages of using such a fast, convenient, safe  and reliable mass public transportation system.

The political barriers identified a lack of consistency in the political message, of commitment and of consultation. Proposing a metro was a positive step but the solution chosen is only a fraction (in terms of network and number of stations) of what is required nationwide, and it completely discarded Gozo from the equation. 

The political dialogue or consultation proved to be worthless as none of the comments by the public were discussed, while the actual strategy documentation prepared by ARUP (the consultancy appointed to propose this solution) was never made public. Many argue that proposing a metro, in a country as small as Malta, is unfeasible and not logical.

Where introduced, mass rapid transit systems have led to incredible transformations- Karl Camilleri

The economic barriers identified the need for MRT to have a positive economic impact on the island as well as its users. When purchasing a car, one enters a long-term locked-in financial commitment, so the MRT must be a comparable or cheaper substitution to a car, with a network that goes almost everywhere; a system that is punctual, safe and comfortable, thus reducing trip duration as well as eliminating congestion induced stress.

The study concluded that the general approach of the respondents was positive to the adoption of the MRT and, thus, switching transportation mode.

The study also made 20 recommendations on how such socio-economic and political barriers can be eroded over time and the adoption of behavioural economic solutions to promote MRT to the Maltese as the main mode of personal transportation.

Various towns and cities in different countries have successfully implemented an MRT to contain their congestion problems. Where introduced, MRT systems have led to incredible transformations.

Cities and towns became more pedestrian friendly, less polluted, increasing habitability, commerce and the quality of life for its citizens.

It is, therefore, a major disappointment that the government announced in last October’s budget that any MRT project has been put on the back-burner indefinitely, thus fuelling the belief that the original proposal was simply a pre-election gimmick rather than a real commitment to a reduction of car use in Malta.

One can only hope that this discussion is not only placed back soon on the forefront of the political agenda but is also given its required importance with a genuine consultation with all stakeholders.

The problem of traffic congestion must be resolved before it gets out of hand.

Karl Camilleri is deputy director of Institute for Business Management and Commerce at MCAST. He is also an engineer by profession with an MBA from Cranfield and a DBA from Heriot-Watt. His areas of research are transporation and structural equation modelling.

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