It is by now very clear to all, except possibly a few political fanatics, that the current road widening strategy will not solve the issue of car congestion but merely shift it to another location down the road.

These road-widening exercises come at a hefty national cost, not only for building the infrastructure but also due to the negative effects on health and the quality of life that construction and cars bring to our society.

So why is the transport minister insisting on proceeding in this direction, proven to be unsustainable in many other European cities, and avoiding sustainable mobility options that can give better results in the short and long term?

The answer may be due to indirect taxation.

The government is using our over-dependence on cars as a source of revenue, making sure that any other alternative modes of transport are restricted as much as possible.

Youths are coerced to purchase a car and start driving as soon as they turn 18. Alternative modes of transport like cycling are socially considered risky due to the number of irresponsible drivers and lack of enforcement on our roads, and because of the deplorable cycling infrastructure.

Purchasing a car means registration fees, licence fees, VAT on insurance fees, licence fees and a continuous stream of excise duty and VAT from fuel.

According to the EU publication ‘Excise Duty Tables Part II Energy Products and Electricity’, dated January 1, 2019 (1), Maltese car drivers were paying €1.36 per litre for petrol of which 76 cents – 55.6 per cent of the retail price – were paid as excise duty and VAT. For diesel the retail price was €1.23, with 66 cents, or 53 per cent, going into excise duty and VAT

This means that cars, and especially cars stuck in traffic, are a great source of revenue for the short-sighted state.

I use the term ‘short sighted’ because these monies and more have to be forked out for public health and EU fines for not reaching CO2 emission targets.

In a society that uses cars as if they were wheelchairs, taxing fuel is very easy. It is like increasing the excise duty on tobacco products, a no-brainer really.

The state appears to be doing something for the environment but the tax increase is not sufficient to curb use, only enough to augment revenue.

If the State really wants to curb the use of the private car, it would put in measures to discourage the use and parking of cars on our roads, especially in congested areas, as well as offer alternatives such as an efficient and timely bus and tram service, safe bicycle lanes and safer pedestrian walkways.

The political and social challenge for the Maltese politician of the 2020s will be to convert the nation from a fuel-dependent society to one that is sustainable-energy dependent, be it pedal-power, walking or renewable electric.

An effective transport strategy would be one that encourages mixed modal share, where people use different means of transport for different types of trips: private cars are used for group outings and for carrying heavy loads, cycling for single person trips of distances between 5 and 10 kilometres, and walking for distances of less than 3km.

Such active trips are not only more pleasurable but would keep us all healthier and fitter. If one is not sufficiently fit or not in the right mood, s/he can use the bus or a tram, as we do when we travel in other European cities. Buses and trams with separate lanes are very efficient since the vehicle is never stuck in traffic.

Pedestrian/cycle bridges spanning across valleys such as Msida would make walking between Santa Venera and Swatar a mere 1km flat trip instead of 2.4km going downhill and uphill. Such pedestrian/cycle bridges spanning the Maltese valleys would connect communities and make sustainable mobility accessible to more people.

Our road transport strategy should focus on moving people and goods, not on moving vehicles. When we put this concept as our strategic focus, widening roads to move 1000kg cars with all seats empty bar the driving seat does not make sense.

The government is using our over-dependence on cars as a source of revenue

It is inefficient both in terms of energy consumption and space allocation.

What does the future hold for the private car? One can foresee that as oil becomes scarcer and more difficult to drill out of the ground, it will become more expensive. Since crude oil is the raw material for both petrol and diesel fuels, their prices will increase further.

Emission fines imposed by the EU in its struggle to mitigate the climate emergency would push their prices further up.

Electric cars have the potential to reduce emissions from our cities but electricity still has to be generated by the electrical utilities, albeit one hopes under stricter controlled emissions and through renewable sources like solar and wind generators.

Still, the electric car does not solve the severe space problem of our tiny island and lack of parking and congestion would continue to plague our tiny island State.

One has to further imagine the environmental situation of having to deal with depleted electric car batteries. Imagine the current local fleet of fuel cars being replaced by electric cars. Imagine a pile of 330,000 batteries over a period of five years that we would have to find a way to recycle – a process that we are still struggling with even now. We would be jumping from one crisis to the next.

I believe that we should take a leaf out of our history books and look once again at cycling and walking in the new light of the climate emergency and not as an antiquated means of travel.

Modern bicycles are very efficient movers with light-weight frames and plenty of gears for different types of road gradients. The electric bicycle has revolutionised cycling for hilly countries and makes going uphill a doddle even for an 80-year-old person!

All we need now is safe roads that allow us to travel without risk of injury at the hands of an irresponsible driver. The benefits of encouraging cycling are immense – healthier people, less road congestion, more free spaces in town and village centres and less air pollution.

But most of all, cycling and walking give people the chance to interact and socialise while on the move, something that cannot be done when one in enclosed in a steel box on four wheels.

Let us do our little bit for our country and for our planet. Let us try to use the car less and walk and cycle more!