The Malta Independent 1 October 2023, Sunday
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Msida Creek project plans contradict strategy to encourage cycling – NGO

Kyle Patrick Camilleri Sunday, 10 September 2023, 08:00 Last update: about 21 days ago

In mid-August, the bicycle advocacy group, Rota, published its criticism on the planned Msida Creek project following an in-depth analysis of the works’ tender that had been issued by Infrastructure Malta.

Concluding that the proposed design contains unaddressed critical shortcomings for bicycle users and pedestrians alike, the group raised concerns over the government’s Connections for Safer Active Mobility (C-SAM) Project – the €35m five-year project announced by Infrastructure Malta meant for “promoting and enhancing the use of alternative modes of transport with safer pedestrian and cycling connections”.

Policymakers believe that through this project, active mobility is being promoted while attempting to change the local mentality that a car is always the best option to commute. However, local cyclists believe that road builders need to do much more to encourage more bicycle users, and thus, they have shown concern that this direction towards active mobility will not reach the intended aim .


What is the C-SAM Project?

The project, which plans to add 50-60km worth of additional cycling routes into Malta’s road network, was first announced in October 2022 by Infrastructure Minister Aaron Farrugia. According to Ivan Falzon, the CEO of Infrastructure Malta, the key objective of this project is to provide a safe network for cyclists, scooters and pedestrians to commute through, segregated away from cars and other larger vehicles, and thus intended to provide a safe network to promote active mobility. The C-SAM Project was officially launched this April.

Contacted by The Malta Independent on Sunday, the Ministry for Transport, Infrastructure, and Capital Projects said that the C-SAM network will be implemented gradually over the coming five years, beginning with areas located in central Malta with a starting focus around Valletta. It said that discussions are ongoing with relevant stakeholders and that following Phase I in central Malta, this network will expand gradually across the rest of the island.


Reactions from Rota

The Malta Independent on Sunday contacted Rota twice to obtain the NGO’s opinion about this project – once before and once after the works’ tender for the Msida Creek project was made public. At first, the lobbying group showed faith in Infrastructure Minister Farrugia’s plan to promote active mobility, calling it “a great step to provide a real alternative to driving by car in one of the most densely populated parts of the Maltese islands”. However, the group later showed concern that the plan for Msida is not truly prioritising active mobility, saying that “a genuine network” must be constructed by reducing the allocated space to cars.

Following the Msida Creek Project announcement, worries that this project is another false dawn by Infrastructure Malta are beginning to set in for Rota. The NGO said “our continued faith in the C-SAM Project depends on getting Msida Creek right”.

The reasoning was that one of the main strategic goals for Phase I of C-SAM is to connect Valletta and Sliema through these cycling routes, which, according to the published Msida Creek plans, is already being contradicted in favour of optimising traffic flows for cars.  

“It does not inspire confidence that the plans for C-SAM appear to contradict the plans for Msida Creek,” Rota told this newsroom.

The NGO continued that a safe, direct and segregated route must be placed as part of this overall network since Msida is a critical area located within the first phase of this active mobility network.

Despite C-SAM being paired with a “national strategy for modern cycling”, according to Minister Farrugia’s initial announcement of the project, questions remain as to why several pivotal drawbacks are being noted so early on into Phase I of this project.

Rota highlighted some of these shortcomings in reference to the Msida Creek Project worth €18m. For instance, the NGO noted how plans currently provide no direct links for cyclists to safely travel from Msida/Pietà to Valley Road, Birkirkara and how the 21m wide road connecting Msida to the Skatepark is set to create a pinch-point that will restrict entry onto the planned bicycle path, thus hindering the promotion of active mobility.

Examples of praised cycling infrastructure were noted recently as independent Żebbuġ councillor, Steve Zammit Lupi, completed his dream cycling trip from Malta to Stockholm in 41 days earlier this summer. As the activist posted semi-regularly on his journey, he included various images of secluded bicycle lanes and bicycle highways he encountered along his trip. He had told this newsroom that the good infrastructure he travelled through was planned neatly by authorities which value bicycles.

In its comments to this media house, Rota stated that after numerous studies, lack of road safety has proven to be the single largest deterrent for people to travel via bicycle. The NGO also said that the most optimal way to overcome this barrier is to supply high quality infrastructure.

When asked what is contributing to the lack of road safety for cyclists and users of alternative modes of transport in the Maltese islands, the NGO cited the country’s “lack of well-designed and segregated cycle paths in a coherent network”. The group highlighted that existing cycle lanes and shared spaces are disappointingly of a generally low quality, saying that “they are too narrow in places, are poorly maintained, give up at junctions and do not link with one another”. It is hoped that the C-SAM project begins to remedy this infrastructural drawback, the group said.

Another factor that keeps people away from using bicycles is the authorities’ priorities when developing new roads – the priority to “maximise private vehicle flows rather than to keep its most vulnerable users safe”.

On this point, Rota said: “There needs to be a change in mindset to our priorities when it comes to allocating road space – is it about squeezing as many cars through as possible (thereby inducing demand and more congestion) or is it about enabling the most efficient, least polluting modes of transport?”


Statistics and trends in registered road vehicles and alternatives

Despite concerns on road safety in the Maltese islands, general interest in alternative modes of transport is growing across Malta and Gozo; this was mentioned by the bicycle advocacy group and is backed up by NSO statistics.

The constant increase of road vehicles in Maltese roads has been something long reported on for years. Over the second quarter of this year, the total stock of licensed motor vehicles increased by 5,319, boosting the total stock of licensed motor vehicles to a whopping total of 432,039 vehicles. In just three years, from Q2 2020 to Q2 2023, including the pause imposed onto everyone through the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of vehicles in Maltese roads has risen by 9.3% (or 36,626 vehicles). This total includes the 37,586 registered and licensed two-wheeled vehicles such as bicycles and motorbikes.

The overabundance of cars on Maltese roads has contributed to the deteriorating traffic problem in conjunction with the many ongoing roadworks across this country. Henceforth, more people are now seeking alternative solutions.

Since 2018 (a year that saw 78 new vehicles per day), the number of annual registrations for vehicles with less than four wheels (the vehicle category for bicycles) has more than doubled. While 2018 saw 2,882 of such vehicles registered, 2022 recorded 5,843 new registrations.

In this regard, KSU (Kunsill Studenti Universitarji) was contacted to gauge youth interest in these alternative modes of transport; this was done by asking questions about the KSU Green Fund – a fund available for University students to subsidise purchases of two-wheelers and related equipment, for example bicycles, pedelecs and different types of motorbikes. KSU told The Malta Independent that in the last academic year, it received 101 such applications amounting to €22,150.

From those 101 applications, 83 were accepted and 60 went to subsidise student purchases of bicycles, e-bikes, motorbikes (electric and with combustible engines), helmets and motorbike permit courses.

As two-wheelers have grown in popularity, not all of these vehicles are seen in a positive light. For instance, e-scooters have been a recent talking point in some news avenues with some residents even calling for them to be banned.


The e-scooter issue

Last Tuesday week, hundreds of Sliema residents flocked to protest about their anger due to the worsening state of their town. Topics of note pertained to poor waste management, frequent disturbances, lagging infrastructure, rat sightings, as well as e-scooter mismanagement.

At a point during this protest, the frustrated protestors erupted in a chant screaming “No More Scooters” after one of the speakers stated they are against scooter abuse, rather than scooters themselves.

Resentment towards these vehicles has developed since the area has become one of many localities in Malta where these scooters are often parked in such a way that entirely block pavements. Aside from being an inconvenience to most passersby, this frequent and irresponsible parking has become a serious issue for physically-impaired people trying to move along pavements, especially wheelchair users.

Swieqi mayor, Noel Muscat, expressed his own frustrations on these vehicles with this newsroom in a recent interview.

The Nationalist mayor criticised the local introduction of e-scooters, saying that policymakers are at fault for allowing licenses to be first issued without legislation being in place. He said that all the issues faced today regarding e-scooters, for example irresponsible parking, are due to a lack of adequate parking bays and riders failing to abide by the Highway Code and going down the wrong way of one-way streets – are all a direct result of this negligence.


Would a directional shift towards active mobility improve the traffic problem?

Mayor Muscat was also critical in the same interview of the plans which commenced in the Pembroke Junction Project, saying that the improvements through the ongoing works only provide a temporary solution.

“It is not going to solve the problem. It is going to just alleviate the problem for the main flow of traffic for a couple years, but it is going to be detrimental to the residents of Swieqi… it is not going to solve the problem in the 10-20 years to come.”

This opinion was also shared by Pembroke mayor Dean Hili earlier this June through Times of Malta, who said that this project is a short-term solution that will not address the high influx of cars.

MEP and former Prime Minister Alfred Sant has also given his own take on fixing the traffic issue – the solution would be to “tax cars and tax driving so heavily that people will abandon cars and start insisting that public transport become really efficient”, even though he admitted this is a decision that would mark “political suicide”.

Going back to comments given to this newsroom by Rota, the NGO believes that “all new developments and roads must consider how to encourage active mobility and discourage driving”.

Moreover, it noted that “there have been previous false dawns with cycle infrastructure in Malta, where the lanes give up at junctions or there's no safe way to join the infrastructure, so we look forward to continue advocating for high quality design”.

The NGO hopes for the promised network of safe cycle lanes, as part of the C-SAM project, to be implemented as intended, in spite of the pitfalls identified through the Msida Creek Project. Henceforth, they hope for “Msida’s village square to be reverted to a localised, pedestrianised village core it deserves to be”.

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