The future of mass transport in Malta imagined – Part 1
Is the answer a metro, a tram, or the good old bus? On Thursday 15 September, on the eve of European Mobility Week 2022, the EIT Urban Mobility RIS Hub Malta and Dawra Madwarna organised a symposium to discuss the future of mass transport in Malta.
A full conference hall at the Valletta Design Cluster was introduced to the topic of mass transport by Dr Suzanne Maas. The 2021 National Household Travel Survey revealed that 85% of local trips are made by private car, and with 55 new cars being added to our roads daily, it is evident that the transport system in Malta is on a one-way road to ever-increasing traffic and parking issues. The need for an efficient mass transport system is clear, but what is the right solution for the Maltese context? The government publicly proposed their Malta Metro plan last year, with a projected cost of 6.2 billion and an estimated 15-20 years to complete the project, with the first line potentially operational in around 8 years. Is a metro system indeed a viable solution, and could other alternatives be worth consideration?
The symposium “Exploring the future of mass transport in Malta” sought to provide a space for an open, constructive and stimulating discussion on the future of mass transport in Malta, with a panel of experts and the audience weighing in, to compare and assess different solutions for a mass transport network in Malta. To inspire the audience, five pre-selected participants were invited to pitch their ideas for mass transport and improved public transport in Malta.
Architect Malcolm Cachia kicked off with his concept for a Hybrid Mass Rapid Transit system. He started his pitch by questioning what kind of city we want to live in: “do you want to be walking through car parks or through plazas?”. He made the audience question what quality of life they want for themselves and the society they live in. His alternative to today’s congested streets full of private cars is a hybrid mass transit system, comprising 5 lines combining the best of underground metro and overground tram systems. The lines on the surface would enable the creation of green spaces along them, and would enable connection with the existing bus network, maritime links and micro-mobility options, to provide connectivity from A to B.
Second to pitch was Dr. Deborah Pizzuto who presented Malta Public Transport’s plan for a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system. A BRT is the mass transport system that is the closest to a conventional bus system as we have, and can therefore be implemented rapidly and at a much lower cost than an underground mass transport solution, as it requires minimal infrastructure changes. She explained the main advantages of a BRT over today’s bus system. Bus rapid transit systems feature dedicated lanes with right of way, with optimal busway alignment and intersection treatments to increase efficiency and comfort. Platform-level boarding and off-board fare collection, much like tram and metro systems, make boarding and alighting very fast and efficient. Integration with intelligent transport systems and new technologies, such as electric buses, ensure the system can work in an optimal and low emission way. Malta’s South bus corridor, passing through Fgura, has over 1,800 passengers per hour and has been identified by Malta Public Transport as a potential pilot corridor to test the BRT concept in Malta. Currently, buses are mixed in with traffic, and therefore suffer from delays and issues such as bus bunching. BRT could provide that which public transport users today so desperately seek: high frequency, reliable rides with shorter travel times.
Architect and urban planner Steve Montebello was inspired by images and nostalgic feelings of the recent past where the streets were the living room of our public space and when people gathered chairs in front of their house and kids could play in the streets – to reinvent one of the busiest corridors in Malta. His Green Line project aims to connect the town centres of 8 localities along the old railway line by providing unobstructed paths for active mobility and public transport (BRT or tram). Such infrastructure could connect Valletta to Birkirkara in 7 min by tram or BRT, 12 minutes by bicycle, or 30 minutes on foot. Steve also envisions the former railway link as a green corridor where trees and vegetation are used as landmarks and urban components to improve air quality, noise reduction and urban cooling, thus enabling people to use public space to relax.
The Alternative Grid of architect Daniel Scerri is a separate and segregated infrastructure network to provide a safe and efficient alternative for cyclists, pedestrians and kick-scooters. His idea is to create a secondary network that follows existing country lanes and abandoned paths and to interconnect them with bridges and tunnels to level off the hills and the current difficulties and dangers in using the existing primary road network. Daniel Scerri pointed out that throughout the year, transport has become more complicated for pedestrians and light mobility users and much easier for cars. The average trip distance in Malta is around 5.5 kilometres, a distance that can be easily made by bicycle or on foot. Facilitating cycling as a main mode of commuting could save an immeasurable number of lost work hours in traffic and reduce pollution emissions related to cars. His proposal could also increase Malta’s tourism attractiveness with the development of heritage trails and viewpoints along the route. Daniel Scerri already planned the first 2 routes connecting Pembroke, Swieqi, and Sliema to the University of Malta.
Our final speaker, ICT specialist Dr. Godfrey Vella chose to approach the mobility challenge from an IT perspective to explore a national mass scale Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) system as the backbone of our public transport, going beyond the scope of existing operators in Malta, such as ride-pooling company COOL and the on-demand service of Malta Public Transport. Dr. Vella believes that fixed routes and schedules like public transport won’t convince people to leave their car behind. He envisions a national stem, made up of minivans, pick-up and drop-off points, that could bring one from A to B without changing modes of transport and not taking much longer than a private car take, and at a low cost. The efficiency of the system will depend on a central software system handling trip requests, tracking vehicles and assigning and modifying routes respecting constraints. Mr Vella would like to study the feasibility of a national on demand responsive transport system and conduct sophisticated simulations based on realistic trip data to understand the technical, operational and economic feasibility.
These inspiring ideas, their merits and drawbacks, and their potential role in the future of transport in Malta were then discussed with a group of local transport experts: Dr. Odette Lewis, Senior Lecturer, University of Malta (Faculty for the Built Environment), Dr. Therese Bajada, Lecturer, University of Malta (Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development), Mr. Konrad Pulé, General Manager, Malta Public Transport, and Ing. Karl Camilleri, Deputy Director, MCAST (Institute of Business Management and Commerce), moderated by Dr. Suzanne Maas.
Stay tuned for our second article, in which we will present the main takeaways from the discussion, answering the question of whether and how such solutions could be implemented in Malta.
This event was organised by the EIT Urban Mobility RIS Hub Malta in collaboration with Dawra Madwarna. The EIT Urban Mobility RIS Hub Malta, supported by EIT Urban Mobility, an initiative of the European Institute for Innovation and Technology (EIT), aims to nurture sustainable visions for better local urban mobility on the Maltese islands. The Hub in Malta is led by Project Aegle Foundation (PAF, a non-profit promoting sustainable mobility), the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology (MCAST) and the Valletta Design Cluster (VDC, part of the Valletta Cultural Agency). Dawra Madwarna is an organisation made up of professionals from different fields who work together, voluntarily, to propose better green public spaces for Malta. The aim at Dawra Madwarna is to contribute, be proactive, visionary and inspiring, to promote a new model for the design of urban open spaces.