The current state of public transport in Malta is such that our cars remain the most convenient means of transport most of the time. Granted, sometimes the car is less convenient than other means. Perhaps when going somewhere close we might walk. Or perhaps we’re going out in the evening and we know we will be drinking – so we take a cab.
But, most of the time, the car is simply more convenient than anything else, all things considered. We’ve already paid the capital cost, we can drive as the crow flies, we probably will walk less and wait less than if we took a bus and spend less money than if we took a cab.
And, so, quite reasonably, we take the car. We all do, it’s what we’ve always done. But as the population size bubbled over the last decade to sustain our collective ambitions to modernise, our roads got all clogged up and the time it takes to go from A to B is nowhere near where most of us would like it to be.
So we need a solution and we need it now. We cannot wait a decade for a metro, or two decades for jetpack technology to become commercially viable. We have reached a critical point where the costs of the traffic problem we collectively bear are no longer merely inconvenient, they have become critical.
Truth be told, this situation has already made cars less convenient than they used to be. And through various incentives, alternative means of transport are also now more convenient than they used to be. But I would like to point out that this is the crux of the problem: the gap between the convenience of the car and the inconvenience of other means of transport.
The problem of transport in our country is a collective problem. We’re all in this together. The problem is collective also in the sense that it involves an issue that is not about how some particular individuals behave. It is a problem that arises collectively when we behave sensibly as individuals. In the social sciences, the problem is known as ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’.
In Malta right now, everyone does the sensible thing and uses the car to get from A to B. And because we all do the sensible thing, we have a problem. Some of us are brave enough to take on a personal sacrifice for the common good, opting for the inconvenience of alternative transport over the convenience of the car.
We all agree that these people are praiseworthy but most still choose the car, for good reason. This is why punitive measures, such as fiscal deterrents, do not offer a viable remedy. It’s not like we can realistically opt out of the car to avoid additional fees if these were to be introduced. Most of us will simply have to sniff and put up with the added costs.
A parking fee is not going to change my transport habits because if I opt for an alternative means of transport, like the bus, I might never make it to work on time at all. Or worse – our roads have also become a more dangerous place to be.
Car users are rightly disgruntled at the prospects of higher car usage costs. They legitimately ask: what’s the alternative? Right now, the alternatives at best do not work well enough, at worst not at all. So what if we fix the alternatives to level out the balance between convenience of the car and inconvenience of alternative means of transport?
Transport Minister Aaron Farrugia is proposing two initiatives that are intended to bring about a shift in how we collectively use transport because, if implemented, they will precipitate a situation where sometimes we will end up thinking that it is more reasonable to take the bus than the car.
Do we need for things to get worse before we act?– Gordon Sammut
How? For starters, staggered traffic hours. Some vehicles will simply be wiped off the streets at some points during the day or night. This already changes everything. Some will find time on their hands that they did not have before, as they cannot do their work during the same hours they did before. Others will find that new duties have cropped up at hours that were free before.
If this really happens, many of us will have to adapt to something at some point. Imagine changing the time for the post to be delivered, or the time fresh bread reaches your local grocer, the time you are called in for a hospital appointment, or the time you are called in to court. There are a lot of cultural habits implied in this already.
But there’s a second proposal on the table, that for priority traffic. Among other things, this means bus lanes with many more and much faster buses. Which potentially means that there will be less room for vehicles on our streets than there is now because some of that room will be taken up by bus lanes.
So our cars will become even more inconvenient but public transport should become less inconvenient – until we hit what’s called the ‘Tipping Point’. That is the point at which most of us will decide that, between the inconvenience of public transport and the inconvenience of the private car, the former is the least inconvenient (if not the most convenient).
And, so,we change our ways and opt for the bus or some other alternative transport means. This is the collective behavioural shift these proposals are intended to bring. An obvious question ensues: should we go for it?
I’d like to point out that these proposals also come with a warning. The minister says the situation is already bad but getting worse every day. To the tune of approximately 40 new cars added to our roads – every day. So, the balance of convenience that the car presently enjoys stands to deteriorate anyway.
If we do nothing at all and stick to our cars as the default option, we will be staying in them a little bit longer tomorrow than we did today and an even bit longer the day after tomorrow and so on, like we have done for the past 10 years.
If we’re to tackle this problem, we need to precipitate a shift in behavioural habits. Is the time really ripe for that? Do we need for things to get worse before we act? How much worse? Perhaps it really is time to do something this time.
Gordon Sammut is an associate professor in social psychology.
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