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Traffic headache in Sliema

The question of residential parking in Sliema has received much media attention recently. Each report or letter on the subject attracted a large volume of blog comments. This says a lot and points to the catastrophic parking problems and traffic congestion in the locality.

Malta’s approach to traffic and street design remains archaic

Unfortunately Malta’s approach to traffic and street design remains archaic. What faces us now is the result of half a century of short-sighted traffic planning that concentrated only on private vehicle movement. Improving public transport or providing for healthy mobility options was never on the agenda.

The function of streets as a social space is ignored with the consequence that they have become dreary spaces in which nobody feels inclined to walk.

The traffic problem in Sliema is intensified by high population density consequent on property overdevelopment with the mushrooming of apartment blocks. This is compounded by a dysfunctional public transport system that is largely shunned. So everybody uses a car.

Residential parking space is an important issue, especially for people who commute to Sliema to work. This has resulted in a vicious spiral of ever-increasing traffic that has now reached saturation point. As things now stand, using a bicycle as an alternative for short journeys remains out of the question because of the appalling road conditions faced by anyone who ventures out on a bike. All this has health implications, both in terms of lack of physical activity and pollution.

Malta has the highest obesity prevalence in the EU, which must be partly related to our excessive car dependence. Whereas it is commonplace in many European countries for adults to use public transport and to do short (and, sometimes, long) trips on foot or by bicycle, in Malta it remains the rule that the only way to move is by car – even for short distances of a few hundred metres.

Children can barely walk safely in our streets and grow up cocooned in bubble wrapping, conditioned from an early age to being moved only by car. The thought of children cycling to school if distance allows (as taken for granted in progressive countries) is totally alien to our culture, so they are ferried to school by their parents or by bus – adding to traffic congestion.

A recently published report – Healthy Mobility In Sliema; A Case Study (www.tppi.org.mt/~user2/images/reports/sliema%20mobility.pdf) addressed Sliema’s problem. The starting point of this report is the principle of giving the street back to people, gradual conditioning of drivers to proceed with more respect for other road users and, most important of all, making roads more pedestrian-friendly so that walking becomes an enjoyable experience and cycling safe.

None of the recommendations would imply loss of parking space.

Two recent road upgrades (Sliema Ferry area and opposite Whitehall Mansions) show how we continue stubbornly to pander only to motor traffic. These upgrades are aimed only at easing motor traffic with wider roads and narrower pavements. They lack any provision for encouraging bicycle use when a cycle track along the Sliema/Gżira seafront would permit people to traverse Sliema safely and with ease. Such a cycle track could one day stretch from, say, Spinola all the way to Pietà. Similarly, not a single industrial estate (new or old) to which people could cycle to work, if distance permitted, has any provision for encouraging cycle commuting.

Sliema lends itself to bicycle use. The whole area encompassing St Julian’s, Sliema, Gżira and Pietà would be easily accessible by bicycle if infrastructure to encourage bicycle use along the seaside periphery existed. It has been shown that even if a mere five per cent of people travel by bicycle, efficiency of traffic flow increases by 20 per cent. It would also free up some parking space in shopping and business areas.

In modern European cities, a healthy attitude to cycling is being encouraged by every possible means as a solution to traffic congestion in towns and cities. Traffic has been drastically reduced in many towns because more people use public transport or travel by bicycle. Cycling is taken for granted, even among the aged, as a normal means of transport for short distances.

Back in Malta, because of decades of antiquated half-baked traffic and public transport planning, we remain stubbornly car-dependent while other Western cities have long been providing people-friendly street conditions that are more attractive to pedestrians and cyclists. London, for instance, has recently allocated a further £913 million to revitalise urban cycling to ease traffic.

Malta’s continuing lack of imagination and inability to think out of the box have created urban environments that are a recipe for disaster, which is what we now have in Sliema.

We’ll never learn.

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