I refer to the article entitled ‘Tracks for a green future’ by Konrad Xuereb (January 31). I agree with most of what the author is proposing.

Widening of the roads is not a long-term strategy in a small island state such as Malta or, as Lewis Mumford remarked: “You cannot build your way out of congestion. It is like dealing with obesity by loosening your belt.”

It is also quite comforting to know that various sides of the political spectrum are supporting plans for a Mass Transit System (MTS), thus slowly deviating from the auto-centric policies (promoting transport by private cars only) that, since 1931, were a common denominating policy for all successive governments to date.

In the past years, attempts to adopt a more multimodal traffic approach system were not successful for various reasons. Still, it is essential for Malta to mitigate our congestion problem and the resulting anthropogenic effects of pollution, traffic being a key contributor. Traffic needs to be reduced and one of the ways this can be achieved is by transitioning to a dedicated lane MTS, creating a fast, comfortable, safe and clean daily commute.

The article hails the metro as the best solution. However, boring through Malta’s rock is not an easy task. It is a very laborious, time-consuming job and expensive compared to an urban network. Thus, while completely agreeing that a multimodal network of buses and cars should complement this new national endeavour, one needs to take in consideration time and expense, given that, as the article notes, it will take visionary, brave political determination to commence this project as it would take several years to complete;  longer if underground, as tunnels need to be reinforced, prior to any laid track, signalling system and stations installed.

Thus, a tram system or Light Rapid Transport (LRT) with dedicated tracks would be the best next option working on the same principles as a metro.

Before proposing any network design, such project will require a number of key considerations, studies and detailed planning. The first considerations are cost and time. An LRT is cheaper than a metro, and, thus, an easier solution to fund, and faster to build.

Secondly, in implementing such a network, its main aim is to substitute and not eliminate the use of private cars while a metro would compete with them.

Thirdly, a clear strategy, communications and policy plan, before the commencement of the project, is vital to promote to the public the benefits of any solution adopted.

You cannot build your way out of congestion. It is like dealing with obesity by loosening your belt- Karl Camilleri

This is important for various reasons. Primarily is the cost of maintenance or running cost, to ensure enough generated revenue through ticketing (daily use) to sustain its maintenance.

Secondly, it should not cannibalise the public bus transport system. Ultimately, whether this is launched as a public-private partnership or a government-owned infrastructure, it has to serve  citizens, which means that a detailed longitudinal study needs to be conducted to understand transit patterns over at least 12 months. Such a study needs to consider public accessibility to central destinations and back, thereby keeping in mind equity, that is, ensuring that all and not just part of the population benefits from this project, while incorporating multimodal options within the network. Such a holistic approach could be supported by the urban mobility network of the European Institute for Innovation and Technology (EIT), which is a large European community of professionals that proposes solutions to transition towards a user-centric, integrated and truly multimodal transport system. EIT Urban Mobility is represented in Malta through a consortium of Project Aegle Foundation, MCAST and the Valletta Design Cluster.

A tram system would need to have dedicated lanes laid on the roads to make it unobstructed and as fast as possible. Anything less will make it part of and exacerbate the congestion problem. Although this would seem to deny part of the road to private car users, a multimodal approach would allow us to make shorter car journeys and then take the tram, ergo removing cars from the network, especially at peak hours, while possibly implementing a more widespread national differential time strategy –  entities start and terminate their operations at different times, to re-distribute peak hours.

Such studies also need to forecast the peak capacity required by the carriages to avoid commuter congestion. The operational and H&S lifeline of all the network will depend on a well-planned load distribution system, for its electrification, air conditioning and fail-proof signalling network.

LRT laid on the road have been successful in many European cities such as Poznań, Montpellier, Angers, Strasbourg, Bern, Bremen, Freiburg and Bergen  and also contributed to increase real estate properties along the network, trade and cleaner environments.

Finally, the success of this project has to be part and parcel of convincing our driving population that this is a viable, better, cheaper opt-in solution. Thus, the tram or metro cannot be sold to the public as a fiscal disincentive or a government ‘knows best solution’ because, as behavioural economics has proven, people primarily consider short term fiscal constraints and the opinions as well as norms of those they respect.

Thus, it takes time to underpin transportation arguments and policies in favour of any MTS that are economically efficient, environmentally and socially sustainable and acceptable. More importantly, it is fundamental to understand how commuters, as the main stakeholders, will make their decision, whether they will embrace and support this project not just through its completion but also by its adoption and, ultimately, decide its success or failure.

Karl Camilleri is deputy director, Institute for Business Management, MCAST. He is an engineer by profession with an MBA from Cranfield. He is also a researcher in transportation. Anyone interested in getting in touch with EIT Urban Mobility hub can do so by sending an e-mail to info@paf.mt.

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