There will be no radical solutions to Malta’s traffic problem in the near future, after a proposal to cap the number of cars was definitively shot down by both the Labour Party and the Nationalist Party.
Kearon Bruno, the PL deputy mayor of Luqa, caused a stir when he spoke about his thesis for his Transport Economics Masters degree, a proposal to permanently cap the number of licensed cars at 200,000 and create a market for car licenses.
In a nutshell, the proposal goes as follows:
There are around 302,000 licensed passenger cars in Malta, which means 102,000 of them must be removed to decrease the stock to 200,000.
The government can either buy everyone’s car license and auction them all off to 200,000 bidders, with each family only allowed one license. Otherwise, it can issue a tender and buy the 102,000 licenses that are offered to it at the cheapest price.
In either case, the number of licenses will then remain permanently capped at 200,000, meaning any potential new driver must find someone willing to pass on or sell their license to them.
Bruno later clarified that the study wasn’t intended as a detailed policy proposal but as a pilot for further studies and as an indication to policymakers of the overall costs associated with capping private car use if they ever intend to go down that path.
However, he said he was left baffled at the social media backlash he received, including from a constituent who threatened him that his family from Luqa will never vote for Bruno again in the local council elections.
“The message for policy makers is loud and clear, touch our cars and you stand no chance no chance of ever being re-elected, touch our cars and it’s political suicide,” Bruno said.
“Now more than ever, I’m coming to terms and better understand why most policymakers, tend to shy away from addressing this problem and quite frankly I do not blame them… after all, they are elected by these individuals.”
“Moreover, policymakers in Malta tend to be blamed for the inefficiency of public transport… Unless the number of cars on the road is reduced, public transport will remain inefficient.”
“It is useless for a small number of individuals to forego cars use and opt for public transport as this would reduce their utility without them experiencing any drastic gains. This goes to show that like many other measures, a collective effort is required and if individuals are not willing to leave their comfort zone, maybe because they are afraid and unaware of what lies ahead if they go ahead with such change, then policymakers must intervene one way or the other.”
It is clear political parties realise the implications of such a policy.
The PN was quick to use Bruno’s study to spin a suggestion that the government is considering limiting the use of private vehicles.
“Drivers will end up suffering as a result of the government’s decision to bring in thousands of foreigners every year, many of whom are using their own private cars because they don’t trust public transport,” PN transport spokesperson Toni Bezzina said.
The Labour Party promptly denied having any intention to limit the use of private vehicles, arguing the government will clamp down on traffic by investing in road infrastructure.
So if Malta won’t cap car use, what can it do?
1. Invest heavily in infrastructure
This is the strategy adopted by the government, which has pledged to spend €700 million over seven years to upgrade the road system, which wasn’t built to sustain the current traffic load.
It’s an incredibly expensive venture which comes with its own side-effects, such as the uprooting of trees, the take-up of more land, the temporary closing of roads and the inconvenience of turning roads into construction sites.
It’s also a short-term solution and it’s likely the new roads will eventually succumb to traffic too, especially seeing Malta’s current rate of population growth and vehicle take-up.
Transport Minister Ian Borg has acknowledged this and has promised the government will use this breathing space wisely to invest in a metro system.
Yet a metro will likely take decades to build and there’s no guarantee it will happen either. Studies have not yet been published, Borg has already said it will cost billions and Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has warned it will only be financially feasible if Malta’s population increases “significantly”.
2. Mass investment in public transport
One of the reasons people use their cars so regularly in their first place is because public transport is, quite simply, not an attractive option.
No one enjoys waiting for a bus in the sun or rain, then boarding and being made to stand because there isn’t enough space, and then having to catch a second bus to reach their final destination.
The government currently spends around €29 million on public transport subsidies every year, less than a third what it spends on upgrading the roads.
If it pumps serious amounts of money into improving public transport, people will start changing their transport habits. After all, buses are cheaper, don’t require frantic parking searches and allow you to occupy yourself while getting from Point A to Point B.
3. Use the carrot to nudge people towards alternative transport
Instead of forcing people away from their cars, the government can encourage them to shift to alternative transport voluntarily, such as by introducing schemes to purchase motor scooters.
Such schemes have so far been met with minimal success, so perhaps it’s time to throw more resources and brainpower into this strategy. Perhaps the government should launch a scheme like ‘Vexit’ which would strongly incentivise alternative transport only to people who give up their driving licenses.
Perhaps it should build proper bike lanes, offer free motorbike lessons, extend the ferry service and use blockchain technology to gamify alternative transport and give people rewards to regular users.
4. Use more subversive sticks to shift people away form their cars
Straight out capping the number of cars is a drastic solution but there are other ways the government can ‘punish’ people for using their cars more subversively.
For example, it can slowly increase the license fee and other car-related taxes, raise the minimum driving age and make a concerted effort to reduce parking spaces.
It will be politically unpopular, but there’s a definite possibility that carrots alone won’t do the trick.
5. Do nothing
So as not to step on anyone’s toes, the government can leave the transport situation as is and let things develop as they will, perhaps with a few nudges here and there. Maybe people will eventually get so sick of being stuck in traffic and not finding parking that they’ll shift away from their cars completely voluntarily.
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