The government does not presently have an “appetite” to penalise private car use to encourage more people to use public transport, Aaron Farrugia said on Wednesday.
The Transport Minister was addressing a Times of Malta event titled The Road to Reliable Public Transport.
Fellow panellist and economist Marie Briguglio hit back at Farrugia's claim, saying that with such an attitude, the government was taking off the table all the best solutions to downsizing car use.
Fielding questions, Farrugia said "the government is presently not interested in creating financial burdens as a disincentivising measure, particularly as people are facing challenges created by the pandemic, inflation and high energy prices.
“There may have been the opportunity to implement such measures in the past and I’m not saying they’re off the table forever, but presently, we’re not going to go there. Right now there is no appetite for sticks [as opposed to carrots].”
The average commuter should not be made to feel as if they were being punished for basic journeys such as going to work or visiting family members, he added.
However, Briguglio retorted that car use will never see any significant reduction if there was no penalty for unnecessary use.
“It’s like trying to discipline a child without any punishment,” Briguglio said.
“We cannot stop at awareness: everyone is aware that we have a traffic problem. What we have to start doing is penalising car use when it is unnecessary."
She said it was nonsensical to be afraid of using so-called “drastic” measures to tackle car use and push commuters towards public transport.
Paid on-street parking, penalising more than one car per household and putting a stop to fuel subsidies were some of the strongest “battle tools” in getting people to curb car use.
“Our roads and pavements are full and there are more new cars on the road every day: the problem is not getting smaller.
"We have to hit where it hurts if we want to make an impact. It doesn’t make sense that the best tools to fight it - which have been proven to be effective in many countries - are off the table,” she said.
Joining Farrugia and Briguglio on the panel were Malta Public Transport General Manager Konrad Pule, Head of Geography and Director of the Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development at the University of Malta professor Maria Attard and eCabs founder and CEO Matthew Bezzina.
CVA shows even small penalties work
Attard added that, with a well-implemented plan, measures that may at first appear overly punitive to the public could easily turn into a political win if they produced the desired results of less traffic and more open spaces.
“The benefits that come from instituting taxes, or the price of use of a car, that can be seen within the lifetime of the minister who implements them, will automatically elevate that person because they would have been the one that solved the problem,” she said.
“But we have to have a plan that is carefully studied and backed up by evidence because right now, we’re not getting it right.”
Attard said that previous administrations were heavily criticised for introducing measures such as pedestrianising St George’s Square in Valletta and the Controlled Vehicular Access (CVA).
“Following the introduction of CVA, 10 per cent of commuters to Valletta switched from car to bus. No other villages experienced a modal shift of this scale,” she said.
“It's clear that even a small penalty would work,” she added, referring to the relatively inexpensive price of CVA bills.
Rethinking bus routes
The minister said that one of the issues that are in the process of being addressed is the fact that the national transport policy drafted in 2015 has become outdated due to an explosion in the population.
Asked how public transport is expected to evolve to meet demand, Konrad Pule said that critical rethinking of bus routes to better reflect today’s demographics was key to bringing the service up to par with commuters’ needs.
“The routes we currently operate were drawn more than ten years ago and we need to evolve to reflect reality,” he said.
“Some localities saw large population growth and the places where people live and work have changed as well.”
Pule said he understood that commuters required better frequency for the bus to become a viable option for them and the idea of increased bus lanes and even perhaps paid parking, would see more space freed up for buses to be able to operate better.
“We could have bus lanes from Cirkewwa to Marsascala but when we have a problem of space limitation it's not going to result in reduced travel time,” he said. “If there is more space for public transport and less space for private cars, that can be one way to go about it, but we do require more space for public transport to function better.
Pule also said that disruptions on the roads had an impact on more than 30,000 bus trips every month.
Commuters, he added, must also shift their expectations about public transport and should not expect a single vehicle to take them to the entirety of their journey.
“It cannot be just buses, we have to think in terms of multimodality to strike the right balance, have a bit of everything,” he said, referring to ferries as well as e-scooters, bikes and limited car use.
“We are making an effort to give people a choice that can serve them in a well-planned journey, but if you expect to walk out your front door and immediately catch a bus, then public transport is not the solution for you.”
Two-thirds of Maltese roads are being taken up by parked cars
On the topic of optimising land use to improve traffic, Matthew Bezzina noted how an overwhelming amount of public space is being taken up by parked cars and that political consensus was needed to find a solution.
“Two-thirds of Maltese roads are taken up by parking spaces, and 75 per cent of parked cars are on public land,” he said. “Those could be bus lanes, scooter lanes, wider pavements or avenues of trees. We have to see the opportunity in these spaces and truly consider the cost of this public real estate. What can we do with all this space that cars are occupying without contributing anything?”
Bezzina agreed that the time for punitive measures has come, but in order for it to be consistent, there needed to be agreement between the government and other political parties to ensure longevity.
“You cannot have one government that agrees on a measure only for the next one to undermine it. Everybody needs to be on board with the stick. If we’re going to introduce paid on-street parking it cannot succeed if it clashed with the car-centric policy we’ve been implementing. It’s like separated parents who both have custody of a child,” he added. “They have to agree on mutual rules. If they both say no to junk food, the child benefits overall. This is the kind of political consensus that we need.”