The benefits of holding a Car Free Day
The Parliamentary Secretary for Tourism and the Environment, Mario de Marco, has resuscitated the holding of a Car Free Day, today, after a gap of five years during which the event had been allowed to languish.
The object of the activity is to encourage motorists to give up their car for a day and is aimed at promoting maximum use of public transport, cycling and walking and to be free for one day from “the tyranny of the car”.
Launched soon after the first oil shock of 1973, since the mid-1990s the event has taken on a more structured and international, global shape. It was established as a Europe-wide initiative by the European Commission in 2000. In the same year, the Commission broadened the programme to a full European Mobility Week, with the Car Free Day forming an integral part of it. It is estimated that millions of people in several cities in Europe and further afield will be marking this event.
It is against the background of a worldwide effort to change attitudes to reliance on the car that Malta’s participation in this event should be viewed. With over 300,000 licensed vehicles on our roads, over two-thirds of which are privately owned, packed into just 2,000 kilometres of road network, Malta is among the most intensively car-driven countries in the world. Transport is the second largest greenhouse gas emitter, contributing almost 18 per cent of our toxic air pollution, second only to electricity generating plants. The island also has among the highest car accident rates in Europe.
Is holding Car Free Days a worthwhile exercise?
There is no doubt such activities have raised public awareness of the benefits to be obtained from relinquishing the car in favour of other means of transport.
In terms of media coverage, Car Free Days have helped to alter attitudes and to bring home to people that changing one’s lifestyle is possible and that overdependence on the car, rather like any addiction, can be overcome or, at least, controlled.
The test in Malta is different to that in most other European countries. Elsewhere – and one has in mind the northern and Scandinavian countries in particular, where excellent public transport and a tradition of cycling and walking have long existed – Car Free Days have enabled people to see for themselves the benefits of enjoying their cities with fewer cars, lower pollution and the freedom for pedestrians and cyclists to reclaim their environment.
How hopeful can the Maltese be that this will work in Malta? The facts of the matter are that the Maltese are deeply psychologically wedded to their cars, cycling opportunities are sorely constrained because of poor roads and inconsiderate drivers and walking to work or to shop are regarded as alien to our culture. But, above all, the public transport system is simply too limited and inefficient to encourage the abandonment of the car that is so vital to a total change of attitude.
This said, while recognising our ingrained deficiencies, this is no reason for not doing our utmost to make the step change necessary to wean us off our unhealthy attachment to cars. Today’s Car Free Day is a commendable start. We must keep chipping away at this issue in the years to come until we learn better.