The State of the Environment report by the Environment and Resources Authority, which covers the period 2009 – 2015, claims that noise pollution is becoming an equity issue, related to socio-economic status, age and place of residence. The poor, the old and those living in dense places in Malta are exposed to heavy traffic and are the most affected.
When a new infrastructural project concerning road building or road widening takes place in Malta, this is usually communicated to us with pomp, billboards and press conferences showing the relevant ministers cutting the ceremonial ribbon. We are led to believe that these new infrastructural upgrades will be of benefit to the community and our lives will definitely improve as a result – trip times will be reduced and the lack of potholes will render our journeys smoother and more pleasant.
Yet, as the Environment and Resources Authority report suggests, transport investments tend to benefit the ‘non-poor’ mostly. Where transport investments have stimulated economic growth, the poor have often benefitted only marginally. In many cases, they have not had the resources to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by better access.
Having investments focusing mainly on car use will force all members of society to buy a car, whether they can afford its cost and upkeep or not. This can especially affect the low earners of society who will need to invest a sum of money in a purchase that does not match their earnings to widen their life possibilities that require easy mobility and which gives them access to a wider radius of job opportunities.
The groups most likely to experience transport-related social exclusion are women (because fewer women than men are gainfully employed in Malta), low-income groups, ethnic minorities, the elderly, travel-impaired people and car-less households. Indeed, the ERA report states that some 4,200 households do not own a car due to their inability to afford the costs of ownership. Apart from transport, the built environment and urban form have a strong impact on the lives of individuals, their experiences and their perception of their surroundings, community and fellow citizens. These factors of the human habitat impact on the individual’s mental and physical well-being.
While it is a given that good transport infrastructure is a necessary condition for economic growth and poverty alleviation, transport investments alone cannot address the problems of the poorest households. As one can easily observe in Malta, despite substantial road building, congestion has been getting worse and average traffic speeds have been declining. Congestion affects all road users and poor people frequently have to walk or to travel in slow-moving, overcrowded buses.
It is time for the country’s sustainability to be focused upon a socially and politically just philosophy
Solutions to congestion, including high-capacity urban road construction, can be extremely expensive. While rural road building can directly benefit poor communities, urban transport interventions (new roads, metros, bus rapid transit) are often designed to reduce urban congestion due to increasing car use and can disproportionately benefit wealthier sections of the population unless properly designed.
Health, or lack of it, is another area that is closely linked to poverty. Many features of the built environment that detract from health are more likely to be experienced in areas of socio-economic disadvantage. On the other hand, the capacity of local environments to support health is of particular importance to the disadvantaged and vulnerable groups of society who typically find themselves in locations that are less conducive to good health and with little ability to move away from these unhealthy working and living environments.
Because of the reasons we just outlined, we are strong proponents of the use of the bicycle. The bicycle is a feasible mode of transport for all these groups except the travel-impaired people. Low-income households are at risk of transport poverty due to budgetary limitations of purchase and regular car use. In this case, a bicycle, given its cheap financial outlay, would be a feasible alternative for these households.
Having said that, one can only encourage people to commute by bicycle with the existence of safe cycling infrastructure. Although cycling may be relatively inexpensive, without proper infrastructure and education on its use, both for cyclists and other road users, it is often difficult and potentially dangerous.
One of our aims, as the Bicycle Advocacy Group, is to create a healthy community that goes hand in hand with priority areas such as equity; vulnerability and poverty of particular sections of society (including that of migrants); community resilience, climate change and the whole determinants of the health agenda.
We feel it is important that we have humancentric localities that are designed to facilitate positive environmental factors and human health determinants. They ensure that people feel safe and happy while, at the same time, counteract poverty and dysfunction.
As part of our continuous awareness campaigns, we make the following suggestions:
Walk – develop neighbourhoods that promote walking;
Cycle – prioritise non-motorised transport networks;
Connect – create dense networks of streets and paths;
Transit – locate development near high-qualitypublic transport;
Mix: plan for mixed use;
Densify – optimise density and transit capacity;
Compact – create regions with short commutes;
Shift – increase mobility by regulating parking and road use.
Car-related costs in Maltese households’ expenditures is obviously related to the problem of forced car ownership. This notion points at the phenomenon that the poorest households sometimes may be forced to live in low-cost locations, compelled to buy a cheap car from their limited incomes to maintain a reasonable level of mobility and accessibility and are thus faced with high transport costs.
It is time for the country’s sustainability to be focused upon a socially and politically just philosophy having a balance among environmental sustainability, social equity and economic growth.
Michelle Attard Tonna is president of the Bicycle Advocacy Group and Matthew Farrugia is treasurer.
This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece
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