Only a few days ago we might have witnessed one of the most ambitious transport plans on the island. No, it’s not another set of flyovers, nor anything of that scale. Following an artistic depiction of Hamrun’s main street being pedestrianised, its mayor has toyed with the idea of doing just that and give the space back to the public. This was met with a great deal of approval by many residents, surely a sign that as time goes by, more and more people are appreciating the need to have more open spaces.
Apart from being the economic hub of Hamrun, St. Joseph High Road has been acting as a major traffic thoroughfare between Valletta and Birkirkara, becoming one of the most car-dense localities in Malta. Despite Hamrun being surrounded by the Marsa-Hamrun Bypass and the Santa Venera tunnels, so that “areas like Hamrun, Msida and Fleur-de-Lys will be used less commonly”, nothing has been done to quell vehicular traffic from the town centres. Thirty years on, this has led to both bypass and town centres being riddled with cars, congestion, and pollution, as the net increase of car ownership in Malta continued to rise well over 400,000.
Over the past few years, the demand for public spaces has seen an exponential growth around the globe. The COVID-19 pandemic, if anything, served as an impetus to see this demand grow rapidly in Malta as well. One of the key areas of focus suggested by the United Nations Human Settlement Programme for an effective urban response during the pandemic is that of establishing an integrated system of well-connected public spaces, including residential streets. This means that any well-designed open space should be designed to serve its purpose, and not as a piece of leftover land as a showcase of our environmental credentials.
The creation of public spaces is not only an environmental issue, but there is also a social and economic case for it. The most ardent opposition for this sometimes comes from high street business owners, who believe that pedestrianisation would result in loss of business. This is because they believe that consumers will buy less if they are forced to park their cars further away. In reality however, they end up benefitting the most. People spend more time in open spaces rather than in polluted areas. Pedestrianised streets are also more inclusive, allowing safe access for cyclists and mobility-impaired citizens. These are also potential consumers, but are driven away because their needs are not catered for. Hence why business owners believe that the majority of their consumer demographic is solely made up of car drivers.
The creation of public spaces is not only an environmental issue, but there is also a social and economic case for it.
A study by Transport for London (TfL) in 2013 found out that improvements to walking and cycling in high streets increases retail sales by 30%, and that people who walk or cycle spend up to 40% more than those who drive. In Bern, Switzerland, consumers who cycled generated almost €1,000 more for every square metre of parking space than car drivers themselves.
The bigger and the more expensive a project is may not necessarily result in the most substantial change that our society so urgently needs. Sometimes it only takes the courageous decision to give space back to the residents, rather than for idle or polluting vehicles. Sure, it’s not easy at all to get everyone on board, but we cannot afford to wait until the change in mentality occurs. If we wait, we risk waiting forever.