There is a growing consensus that widening roads for ever-increasing traffic is a dead-end strategy. Malta clearly needs to invest in public transport if it seriously wants to improve its citizens’ quality of life.
It is encouraging to note that the President of Malta referred to the need for new methods of transportation during his opening speech at the Sustainability Forum 2021 on January 26.
The president’s reference to a monorail system for Malta also revived the national debate on the type of mass transit system that would be most suitable for the country.
Monorail vs Malta underground system
The most effective mass transit systems are designed to transport the largest number of passengers along the shortest possible routes, with stations conveniently located in dense urban centres.
Such systems are also complemented by a network of buses and other modes of green transport, such as cycling.
There are two systems which would meet these criteria in Malta, that is, either an underground metro or an overground monorail/tram system.
Malta’s densely populated towns and their historic architecture are not ideal for a monorail system. Being an overground system, a monorail cannot pass through dense urban areas like Mosta, Qormi and Sliema without demolition or widening of streets, thereby damaging the character of the towns and causing a negative socio-economic impact.
Monorails would need to be located in town peripheries, causing people to use their cars to drive to and from monorail stations or, possibly, shunning the monorail altogether.
An underground metro, on the other hand, would allow for stations to be established in town centres, such as the Mosta Dome piazza, in the square opposite Paola parish church or in Sir Adrian Dingli Street, Sliema.
The metro stations would be the size of large houses, with the escalators and lifts leading to underground platforms. The central locations of metro stations would allow people to walk, cycle or scooter to the stations, as they typically move around in their respective community.
This is a crucial point as the success of a mass transit system relies on people breaking the habit of depending on their car.
It is evident that Malta urgently needs to invest in an underground metro- Konrad Xuereb
An underground metro would offer a faster, cheaper and healthier option.
A monorail would be supported by cumbersome structures above street level which would have a huge visual impact. Such bulky monorail infrastructure would also create physical barriers fragmenting local communities.
In contrast, an underground metro would have minimal visual impact and stations could become community hubs, generating a virtuous cycle of local businesses and investment.
Greening of our towns
With its substantial street-level infrastructure and its inability to reduce people’s dependence on cars, a monorail system would negate the opportunity to return traffic-choked urban centres to the community for leisure and enjoyment.
It is only once an underground metro system is in place that pedestrianisation projects similar to La Rambla (Barcelona) or the one recently proposed for Champes-Élysées (Paris) can be considered.
Cities such as Paris can only allow such prominent roads to be pedestrianised because they have an efficient underground metro that allows people to ditch their car in favour of an efficient and reliable public transport.
Once an underground metro is in place, greening projects like the pedestrianisation of St Anne Street, in Floriana, proposed by other architects, would become feasible as people would be able to walk from Floriana to the metro station at the entrance of Valletta without needing to use their cars.
Similar greening/pedestrianisation projects of beautiful avenues can be envisioned for Mosta (say, Eucharistic Congress Road), Paola (Antoine de Paule Square), Żejtun (Bon Kunsill Street) and other towns lying along our proposed Malta metro route.
The inert waste that is generated by the excavation of underground tunnels would be used for sensitively located land reclamation projects to create a nature reserve, possibly complemented by wind or solar energy generation.
Malta Metro proposal
It is evident that Malta urgently needs to invest in an underground metro.
Malta is craving for this vision and politicians need to be brave enough to embrace a long-term strategy which may extend beyond their political lifetime.
Following research on the subject, I have proposed the feasibility of a Malta metro project, consisting of a single line and built in three phases over 10 years once detailed studies are completed.
Phase 1 would extend from Mellieħa to the airport, phase 2 would connect St Paul’s Bay to the airport and phase 3 would extend to Gozo, nullifying the need of a car tunnel to the sister island.
Such a metro project would straddle a couple of legislatures and may entail a period of relative discomfort to the nation until the stations are built and the project is completed.
However, the long-term sustainable benefits and the far-improved quality of life for future generations would greatly outweigh this short-term pain.
We need to unite in our commitment towards an improved environment and quality of life by seriously implementing this vision of a strategic mass transit system for our country.
It is the only way forward to a healthier, sustainable and quality-driven future.
Konrad Xuereb is director of KonceptX an architectural and structural engineering firm with offices in Malta and London. He holds a doctorate in structural engineering/future-proofing buildings from University College, London.