The Malta Independent 9 March 2021, Tuesday

‘Car is king - authorities don’t care about needs of other road users’ - ROTA president

Jake Aquilina Tuesday, 19 January 2021, 08:06 Last update: about 3 months ago

The authorities look to make life easier for car drivers, but refuse to cater for the needs of other road users, the president of ROTA Michelle Attard Tonna told The Malta Independent.

ROTA is an NGO that advocates for cyclists and pushes the government to deliver on their obligations towards bicycle users. 

“Most of our energy is invested in trying to improve bicycle infrastructure. Research has shown that ill-designed road works contribute significantly to the quality of a journey and to safety, or the lack of it,” Attard Tonna said.

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Asked why she thinks people find it difficult to switch to more sustainable modes of travel, the ROTA president noted that “we are obsessed with cars in Malta.”

“It is a status symbol and not owning a car or not having a driving license is perceived like some kind of failure in our society.”

However, she stressed that being such a small country means that we should be more careful about how we use up space. 

“Being a small country is all the more reason to use other modes of transport, as distances are very short and space is very precious. If space is taken up mostly by cars, by default other modes of transport are going to suffer as a result,” she said.

Furthermore, she highlighted a lack of empathy from some citizens, as it appears “that some people only care about car users and not about other road users.”

“Try being a pedestrian in Malta, especially if you are a wheelchair user or accompanying someone in a wheelchair or pushing a child’s buggy. Most of your journey will entail walking in the street, either because the pavement is blocked by illegally parked vehicles, or the pavement is too narrow or non-existent,” Attard Tonna noted.

Buses, on the other hand, do not prove to be reliable, she remarked.

“You may be lucky and arrive in no time, but if there’s traffic, it’s nothing different than travelling by car because most bus lanes have vanished over the last few years to make space for more car lanes,” she said.

“Why would someone choose to travel by bus if it is not reliable? This mode of transport can only become appealing if it takes you to your destination quickly, as it will cut travel time and you would not need to worry about parking. In fact, this is why public transport is not appealing in Malta, because it is not being prioritised like it is in other countries. It may become free for everyone, yet nothing much will change.”

Advantages of cycling

She noted how, throughout her years of using a bike, she has seen a lot of advantages.

“You won’t be stuck in traffic on a bike, and will not have to look for parking. These are two characteristics in local commuting which cannot be undermined, as they are the daily concern of all those travelling by car. It is extremely reliable as your journeys do not depend on the time of day or traffic, so you can plan precisely when to leave home; it is most of all a very cost-effective way to travel.”

“I save a lot of money on fuel, car wear and tear and parking fees. Bicycles do not pollute, do not damage roads, are not invasive or dangerous to other road users or people in general. They take up very little space and do not create traffic,” the ROTA president remarked.

Attard Tonna noted that from a political perspective, a lot of conflicting messages are being sent. “We now have billboards by Infrastructure Malta saying things like: ‘Qed ngħinuk biex tivvjaġġa bir-rota' or ‘Spazju għal min jimxi jew juża r-rota’ (‘We are helping you travel by bicycle’ or ‘space for those who walk and cycle’) and yet we build flyovers and forget to connect the bike network – or, very often, to include one. We construct bridges with lifts which do not function most of the time and lengthen the journey of those who walk or cycle significantly.”

“Car is king in Malta and all infrastructure projects have that as a priority - not to break up traffic flow,” she said.

She also noted that even if electric cars come into the picture over the next few years, they still take up the same amount of space as non-electric cars do.

Asked if the new roads cater for cyclists, she responded firmly in the negative. “They most definitely do not. One needs to keep in mind that travelling by bicycle in Malta entails traversing villages and localities. Most of us work in a different locality from that in which we reside, so we need to go through main roads and heavily urbanised or industrialised zones to reach our destination.”

“This can only be doable if there is a network. It is not sufficient that a new project includes a couple hundred metres of cycling lanes, if reaching it becomes suicidal or results in the cyclist encountering constant death traps like roundabouts and junctions which do not cater for them.”

“Every project is coordinated by an architect who decides on how to handle the bycicle infrastructure – when these are present – based on his or her whims rather than a standard, national, agreed upon procedure.”

Asked what she thinks the government can do as a next step, the ROTA president remarked that authorities need to heed the words of the people more.

“Authorities need to be more respectful. I will not mince my words here - the authorities do not care about the needs of other road users.”

No national cycling policy

“Contractors, businessmen and road engineers who are oblivious to the needs of other road user are more important for the authorities than the rest of the population,” she said.

“So tell me, how can we, as an NGO promoting bicycle use, compete against these pressures and be on the same lobbying level as contractors and businessmen who are making millions from the construction of bridges, flyovers, and constant road surfacing? This is not me being cynical; this is being non-naive and realistic.”

There were also no moves for a national cycling policy to be implemented, she noted, something which they have been asking for over the past 9 years.

“The attitude needs to change. For me, it is unacceptable that a person holding public office and taking decisions about my safety shows arrogance or ignores my pleas, or that of my members, simply because he is being allowed to do it. It is unacceptable that as an NGO we ask to collaborate to suggest safer routes, yet at design stage we are mocked, shouted at or else completely ignored.”

“We are effectively being penalised for choosing a cheaper and cleaner way of travelling. Some of us paid with their lives for it, because they were killed while riding a bike. Others were permanently maimed,” she stated.

She also made an appeal to Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Capital Projects Ian Borg.

“Listen to us, listen to the people. You can become the politician who will be remembered in Maltese history as being brave enough to solve this mess we are in. Stop bickering with those who challenge your ideas and stop boasting about the huge infrastructure projects you are building, because these projects are leading to even bigger problems and they are affecting our lives and our health.”

“Our air quality is very worrying and there is no way we can ever attain the goals of carbon neutrality that we committed ourselves as a country to achieve if we keep moving in this direction. You are young, you are full of energy, you are surrounded by people who can give you good advice, and you can make a difference,” she said.

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