The Ghost of Transport Future

It was around a hundred years ago, in the city of Alexandria in Egypt, that a merchant of Maltese origin had a conversation with his wife that is still recalled, with shaking heads and wry smiles, by his descendant’s in Malta today. One of his daughters was my baptismal godmother, and although she was only related to me by her marriage to one of my mother’s favorite uncles, family closeness ensured that I, too, have heard the tragi-comic story.

It goes like this. The merchant was a thriving supplier of horses to the British army in Egypt, then all but officially the coloniser of the country. His wife, however, was of the mind that perhaps he should venture into trade with a newfangled mode of transport: cars. According to the story as told to me by his grandson (I’m sure time has greatly simplified it), the merchant shook his head: “No, they will never catch on!”

Some years later, the merchant and his family returned to Malta to begin a new life here.

We can smile gently at the memory of this merchant but, a century from now, will future generations be gently shaking their heads at us? At our seeming inability to see a transport future beyond the private car? At our dependence on a mode of transportation that maximises the space taken up by the car on the road and at rest? A system that ensures that we hurtle past each other, a meter or less apart, at fast speeds while encased in projectiles made of metal and glass?

The record of fatalities and serious injuries on the roads is, indeed, far worse than that of flying, which seems at first blush so much riskier.

It might seem that the level of debate in Malta is improving. Both political parties of government have promised major proposals for fundamental overhauls of the transport infrastructure.

But that is not a debate. That is a promise to come up with a solution. The proposals will still need to be discussed and sifted, hopefully in a way that generates more light than heat.

Unfortunately, as far as major policy proposals are concerned, the ghosts of Christmas past and present are not very reassuring.

The ghost of Christmas past: Four years, in 2012, our country was celebrating Christmas and the New Year knowing that we were going to be plunged into a heated electoral campaign within days of the festivities coming to an end. We knew, also, that energy policy would feature prominently in that campaign. So, we did not discuss energy policy, thinking the time to discuss it would come.

What happened, instead, that each of the major parties did make major proposals with respect to energy. But, within an electoral campaign, there was not enough time nor enough serenity to discuss the issues intelligently.

We would be foolish to let that happen again. We should not allow ourselves to be placed in the position of needing to choose between major transport policy proposals in a matter of five weeks during the hubub and craziness of an electoral campaign.

The ghost of Christmas present: The last time transport was discussed publicly, with any intensity, was in October, during the cyclical crisis of jammed roads. Since the traffic eased up a bit, almost complete silence has resumed.

This cannot be healthy. Transport – our sustainable mobility – remains one of the top three strategic issues facing our country. Discussing it cannot wax and wane in line with how long it took us to get to the office this morning.

Sustainable transport requires sustained public discussion.

Hence my wish for Christmas future – the remaining Christmas before we are once again plunged into an electoral campaign. That our new year resolutions include the resolve to approach this most fundamental but tricky of issues in a new way: one that is broad-minded, informed, objective and with civil society in the lead.