By Jorg Sicot
Once upon a time, there was an island in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea. Life was simple, the inhabitants lived on a small and happy scale. Settlements and villages were set up and laid out to the needs of the day: little roads winding their way past side alleys to a central gathering point. The roads were not only a passage for transport and movement, but also a space fo communication, where residents sat out and chatted to neighbours.
As everywhere else across the world around, the inhabitants of the day found the need to move about with other means of transport, over and above their own two feet. They began to make use of horses, mules and carts. Their narrow streets reflected a quaint and charming character with the odd cart or three moving through their picturesque towns and cities. The pace of life was slow and graceful, space to move was largely available to all travellers.
The fairytale, as with everything on this little island, has of necessity changed over the centuries. The tempo of life has changed, equally the modes of transport have changed. As the financial possibilities of the inhabitants increased, their longing for a more comfortable lifestyle has led them to rely on their vehicles for most of their movement. Where once they could walk to their nearest vendor to buy food and drink, they now need to drive to a distant supermarket for their needs.
In todays fairytale the common car is the preferred means of transport for virtually everything which Maltese inhabitants need. The quaint picture has become somewhat skewed owing to the fact that the built reality has not changed with this increase in private car ownership. The little winding streets and alleys in every remote town and village remain quaint, small and narrow. Perhaps the bigger, newer cities had the good fortune to widen their roads, to accommodate the increased traffic movements, but even these attempts fall short of what is needed, when every move is by car.
Cars are not just parked: fact. Malta is faced with a surge of construction. Building footprints are developed outward and upward to maximum capacity, in order to stack as many offices and residences, to yield a maximum profit from the land. The amount of people stacked onto a single piece of land increases as much as possible. A newer fairytale from developers suggests user numbers would be identical, whether development be outward or upward. The argument is seriously flawed considering that upward development is strongly based on commercial use, which generates exponentially more traffic.
The planning applications, the foundation for such developments, attempt to show enough parking spaces. But even if every car on this island were to have a dedicated space to park – which is far from the case – consider that these cars all move. Even more so around sunrise and sunset, as in the fairytale. The movement of all vehicles, and those additionally on our roads with the establishment of the high-rise buildings, becomes a major concern. Village cores, towns and cities on this island did not develop naturally to take these masses.
As a clear testimony to the problem, the past weekend with its festa activities in Msida showed the extent of the dilemma. Just a few roads closed here and there, and the major part of the island stood in a gridlock for hours. During the festa weekend we turn a blind eye, we know the issue is short-term. But if we have allow the high-rise mania to set its roots without a professional, impartial masterplan, which needs to establish solutions to mass movement and transport, the gridlock will become a permanent one. And that particular fairytale does not seem to end with the “happily ever after” bit.