One of the most talked about measures mentioned in the budget for 2022 as presented to Parliament last week was free public transport as from October next year.
It is a promise that the Labour government made some years ago, and now it understands it is in a position to fulfil it. Mentioning the implementation of the promise in the last budget before the election was probably intentional. Once it happens, Malta will become the second European nation to offer free public transport to its citizens – the first was Luxembourg.
The idea is to encourage more people to ditch their cars, Finance Minister Clyde Caruana said in his budget speech last week.
Whether the initiative will lead to less traffic congestion on our roads as people will start taking buses remains to be seen. One argument that is made, even when the idea of an underground system was launched a few days ago, is that the government is expanding roads and building new ones to ease the traffic flow – and then goes into projects that aim to encourage people not to use their own car. It seems to be a contradiction.
There are several issues that need to be addressed for the free public transport initiative to be a success – the first is the elimination of the distrust that exists in Malta’s public transport system. For people to start using buses to take them to their destination on a regular basis, including going to work on a daily basis, the system must be free of any hitches.
It must be reliable, sticking to time-tables to the minute. It must also offer frequency, giving commuters the possibility to plan their journey well. The system must also provide a network that makes it easy for passengers to arrive at their destination comfortably, even when they need to catch two buses to get there. Not so long ago, someone came up with the idea of different hubs to create more connections, but the system failed.
The question is – is the current public transport system we have in place now adequate to meet with the demand and entice more people to use it, when the service becomes free? If it’s not, then it is pointless providing a free ride because people will not take up the offer if they realise that it will take them much more time to arrive where they want to go.
Then, even if the public transport system works like a Swiss clock, there has to be a drastic change of mentality.
This will not be easy in a country where people take their car to go buy bread from the grocer 500 metres down the road, and double-park so as not to have to walk too much. It will not be easy in a country where car usage continues to rise each year. It will not be easy in a country where it does not cross any person’s mind to use public transport if he or she own a car.
So it will take much more than offering free rides for people to start using public transport.