HomeTechIt’s cars, stupid: why AI could worsen Malta’s traffic problem

It’s cars, stupid: why AI could worsen Malta’s traffic problem

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Whisper it softly, but not everyone buys into the great white hope that AI might solve Malta’s impossible traffic volumes by making it easier to drive around.

The tech entrepreneur Prof. Alexiei Dingli successfully pitched for a €1.3 million deal on Shark Tank to use AI to optimise Malta’s worsening traffic flows, in a bid to adjust traffic lights by analysing the island’s traffic cams. The key is in the robots of course: make them do what humans do today, faster and more efficiently.

But one Maltese veteran of tech marketing is wary of the solution: making traffic in Malta more efficient will only increase its use – ergo, more traffic.

Richard Muscat lives with his family in Austria and has worked with dozens of world-class organisations like Automattic and Redgate, building and managing high-performing products and teams. Since 2019 he has focused on in-depth climate solutions. But as he sees Malta’s unfolding traffic problems, he prescribes perhaps the simplest of solutions – less cars.

“In Malta, there is already real-life and tangible experience of how this has panned out with respect to traffic. Over the decades, successive governments have attempted to ‘tackle’ the traffic problems with tactics like widening roads, bypasses, flyovers, tunnels, and better paving. Not once has this resulted in a decrease in traffic and congestion. This is because when you ‘add a lane’ to a road to decrease congestion, it incentivises more care use not less. More car sales not less. And less use of public transport or car-sharing not more.”

It’s called the ‘rebound paradox’, Muscat says: as technological progress increases the efficiency of, in this case private transportation, it just encourages greater demand for that resource. “Say you buy a block of 500g of cheese, and it will be cheaper on the whole than the smaller 200g block. But we know through experience that you will eat the larger block in a shorter period of time: because when it feels there’s a surplus, we’re more likely to take more.”

And that’s why Muscat thinks neither Dingli nor successive administrations are rising to meet the problem of Malta’s traffic woes, or rather one of its symptoms. Malta is already turning to Artificial Intelligence to reduce traffic congestion, with the government spending €2 million to incorporate existing traffic lights, CCTV and display panels systems into one system and analyse congestion, to distribute the information to motorists on apps such as Google Maps.

But Muscat believes the problem of car usage goes beyond simply making life easier for motorists.

“The traffic problem in Malta includes not just the difficulty of reliably getting from point A to point B using private cars. It also includes, in no particular order, air pollution, Malta’s high rate of obesity, reduced road safety for cyclists which further disincentivises non-car use; and reduced effectiveness of public transport.

“And together these items increasingly make Malta an unattractive tourist destination, a sector on which the island’s economy relies heavily on.”

Tally up the cost of all these car-related issues, and you can start imagining how the savings reaped from addressing the symptoms, might turn the tables on Malta’s worsening traffic problem.

Muscat piles even more on that list of traffic woes: the increasing costs of spending money on fuel and parking, the loss of more land for new roads, petrol stations or parking areas, the lack of safe outdoors for children, and the overall degradation in quality of life and mental health.

“With just this starting point, and with the efficiency paradox in mind, it is not hard to see how ‘using AI to improve traffic’ will not only make some items worse. It doesn’t even begin to address some of the more important issues,” Muscat says.

His solution, on the other hand, is that direct focus must be on significantly reducing the absolute number of cars – electric vehicles too – on the road.

“Reducing cars on roads, besides tackling the immediate issues of pollution and stress, will result in reducing the burden the health system, increasing happiness and wellbeing, create more fulfilling work environments and school experiences, and give people back the ability to spend quality time with children, elders, and community,” Muscat says.

Muscat has been a proponent of degrowth solutions that promote human and ecological wellbeing, and his experience in climate technology has opened his eyes about the way people go about in solving problems.

In 2022, he left a climate tech start-up which wanted to reduce shipping emissions through the use of wind energy – but Muscat believed that rather than simply automating shipping travel and reduce its overheads (such as labour costs) the industry had to also reduce the volumes of raw materials and finished goods it needed to transport.

“What is really causing the shipping industry’s emissions… is that a whopping 90% of the world’s goods are transported by boat at not one, but at several points in their life cycles,” Muscat said.

So ores and raw materials are transported from mines to refineries, to chemical plants, then to the factories that make parts, to the other factories that turn the parts into cars or clothes, not to mention the oil and coal that powers the plants, with the finished goods being shipped to their final destinations, and then have the waste ‘recycled’ back- shipped out – to other nations.

“I wanted to open up those containers and work out just how much of that shit shouldn’t have even been produced in the first place and then create market or political incentives to stop making that crap. I wanted to open-source data on wind routes and incentivise slow shipping to halve that 90%. And halve it again, and again.”

Muscat still believes that climate solutions lie in turning off the tap of constant production, consumption, and waste generation. “Degrowth and post-capitalism ideologies and policies are the best bet of achieving this.”

That is why Muscat insists that only the reduction of cars can represent a way forward. Which begs the question: how to go about it?

Muscat proposes a suite of “degrowth policies”. A few examples and suggestions include the already-implemented free public transport system, but also subsidised taxi services, car buyback schemes, free or subsidised bicycles and bike repair shops, reducing traffic lanes, free priority transport for teachers, nurses, doctors, and other essential workers.

It would also mean the removal of subsidies for petrol and diesel, taxing new cars, tolls for usage of certain roads at certain times, but even more flexiwork schemes, a four-day working week, and more green spaces.

“Can AI play a part in all of this? Without a doubt. AI can assist cyclists, enabling increased physical activity. AI can optimise the public transport network and routes. It can help predict where and when essential workers will be most needed,” Muscat says. “It can help create the friction needed to reduce cars on the road instead of making it more likely that jumping into your car remains the default option.”

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