Many of us feel a sense of frustration when we share public space in Malta.

If you drive a car, you get frustrated at long delays, road works, traffic jams and lack of parking. If you ride a bike, you fume at the lack of connection between limited cycle routes and how cars take over the little space that is left for you.

If you are a pedestrian, you are anxious to avoid the pitfalls of unmaintained, unconnected footpaths, commercial tables and chairs limiting your route, rubbish bags piled across the path, cars and scooters parked to block your way and force you out into the roadway where you risk being mown down by a driver speeding while speaking on a mobile phone.

Those of us who use public transport try to be patient when the bus is delayed because the road is given over to private cars with single occupants. Thirty cars take up more public space than a crowded bus trying to operate without designated bus lanes.

Yet people in authority talk glibly about how we can’t expect car drivers to give up their privileged use of the motorcar because the alternatives are inconvenient.

Politicians themselves continue to expect the convenience of a chauffeur parked on the pedestrian streets of Valletta outside their office. Car culture continues to privi­lege those who value their convenience more than their sense of fair play.

Handing out free public transport does not resolve this social justice issue. Convenience for the car owner means allocating more public space to the private motorcar than is granted to those who don’t own a car.

If you are a car owner, you are perhaps turning the page in dismissal at this point.

If you have the courage to read on, perhaps you are part of the solution, the latest catchphrase trotted out when we try to think through what can be done to resolve this overwhelming conflict of interests.

Whether or not you own a car, those of us who are lucky enough to have a roof over our heads also put energy into turning our private space into a safe haven, a home.

But our sense of home, of belonging to a particular place, such as Valletta, depends also on how we share the common and public space that surrounds our private space. Car owners use their car to extend their private space, so they expect a car park space immediately outside their home, as well as the ability to travel in a bubble anywhere they wish in public space, distanced from connecting with others. Some even tint the windows of their car, illegally, to exclude others from their private domain.

As the number of boxes of extended privacy grows, whole communities are split apart by the chains of traffic passing through their home spaces. Pedestrians are funnelled into metal bridges or dingy underpasses or required to walk out of their way along busy roads to find a crossing. The extreme is that more and more pedestrians are killed or injured because drivers fail to acknowledge the responsibility that comes with operating a potentially lethal weapon in crowded public space.

As citizens, we agree to regulate public space so that our interactions are just and do not cause harm to others. Governments are trusted to put in place regulations that prevent some people from grabbing more than their fair share to the exclusion of others.

Perhaps those of us who don’t own a car could demand that we are allotted an equivalent space outside our home where we can grow vegetables or chat with friends in the evenings- Josephine Burden

The police and other government authorities are charged with preventing abuse of both the space and the people who use it.

Yet something is wrong with the regulatory systems in Malta. Perhaps overwhelmed by the volume of demand on public space, the response of the authorities appears to be to divide up regulatory responsibility such that several different bodies are involved.

For example, consider the recent confusion in relation to conflict bet­ween temporary crane licences issued by the local council, and the regulation of private cars parking in the licensed area, previously regulated by the police. Seve­ral citizens have reported frustration as they try to deal with conflicting demands and changing responsibilities in public space.

Anyone who has tried to take action on the overexploitation of public space on Valletta streets by commercial interests will also recognise the frustration that emerges when trying to work out which of several government authorities charged with permitting use of public space also assumes responsibility for controlling abuse.

I tried and was left spinning with the complexity of public space regulation and the lack of clarity about both the regulations and the responsibility for enforcement. The Ombudsman reports a similar lack of clarity.

Something in the Maltese culture associated with our use of public space has been spinning out of control over years and we are now witnessing how public Valletta has become a place of threat rather than of home.

Across the island, public space has been turned over to the private motorcar, to commercial overdevelopment and to the general privatisation of public land. The resultant chaos has become threatening for us all.

People who own a car are in a clear majority in Malta and they feel justified in claiming more public space than those of us who don’t. Theoretically those of us who don’t are entitled to as much public space as the car owners, particularly since all car owners are also pedestrians at some stage in their journey.

Yet in addition to the extensive network for private cars spreading over public space, car owners also demand a car park space outside their home and available car parking space wherever they want to go in public space.

Perhaps those of us who don’t own a car could demand that we are allotted an equivalent space outside our home where we can grow vegetables or chat with friends in the evenings.

Car ownership somehow entitles people to a much larger slice of public land than those who don’t own a car. If we are to begin to ease the frustration for all of us, we have to face up to the fact that use of public space is an issue of social justice rather than convenience or economic benefit.

Josephine Burden is a former academic in community cultural development. She is now a citizen of Malta, a writer and a resident of Valletta.

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