Driving in Circles

Last Updated on Thursday, 17 February, 2022 at 11:57 am by Andre Camilleri

Luca Cachia-Morena is a co-founder at Elephant & Cross, a start-up that works alongside world leading course providers and universities in order to connect people with the best courses for their needs

I was on my way to work, at half eight in the morning when I saw him. He was behind the wheel of a BMW X1 (custom plates), shifting uncomfortably beneath the various layers of viscose and polyester that made up his suit, hopelessly trying to merge from the left into the overflowing Triq Hal-Qormi. The traffic dribbled glacially past him, indifferent to his plight, never allowing a gap large enough for him to squeeze through.

It is important to understand that there is a particular mental atmosphere on Triq Hal-Qormi at rush hour. Regular society breaks down and cars belong to two strict groups:

1) Those cars currently on Triq Hal-Qormi; and

2) the tired and huddled mass of losers stuck in side-road purgatory.

Group one can be broadly understood as a hive mind. It wishes to maintain the road as a closed system and will try everything to stop a member from group two to merge in.

Group two is not so much a group as a collection of frenzied individuals. Madness reigns. There is very limited coordination and the general rule is every car for itself. Taxis and food-delivery mopeds are well suited to the landscape and get out quickly, using a combination of cunning, speed and suicide to slip into the herd. Others, like our man in the BMW X1, are lost.

But we hadn’t anticipated the sheer extent of his desperation. Like a cornered rat he made a mad dash for it, lunging into the path of a Toyota Vitz, almost spinning his wheels. No luck. The gamble hadn’t paid off: the brave Vitz refused to yield and the gap was closed in time. Now he was adrift in no man’s land: neither on the hallowed slum of Triq Hal-Qormi nor behind the stop sign. His car was at an almost perfect 90-degree angle to the traffic and sat partially blocking the carriageway. He was not equipped to be here long.

Being the car directly behind, I had a perfect side-on view of him from where I sat. He was gesticulating wildly at other road users and panic had set in. He stopped and started with no apparent plan – turns began and were quickly abandoned, seemingly immune to geometry. Now he looked like the last breathing man aboard a doomed submarine. Cars began to hoot; the water was filling up quickly. Traffic closed in on all sides until the only space available to him sharpened to the small personal hell of his BMW X1.

Sometimes a man must stand against the tide. I stopped and waved him through. Bravely holding off the traffic as he performed a number of manoeuvres to face right way. But I never got the customary hand raise, he never even looked back. We hadn’t shared a human moment. He slipped into the stream, becoming one with the beast.

These are our roads. Driving here is a grotesque parody of humanity and we almost all collectively take part in it. Your conscious mind registers merely annoyance, impatience at the traffic. But on a cellular level, your body cries out in weariness. Does anyone really think 400,000 cars can circulate around a rock, nine miles wide? Do we really believe the most efficient way to move half a million people across a tiny and densely populated island is in individual two tonne boxes of metal and plastic? Of course not, it’s ridiculous, and yet, we sit there: stuck in traffic, getting fat, catching cancer from breathing heavy metals and listening to Bay Radio.

The solution that has been proposed is to continue to build more car infrastructure, to keep adding lanes and to keep rediscovering the well-known concept of induced demand. Don’t mention the proposed metro project, please. It would be very nice, but I prefer to judge transportation policy on how the budget is being allocated now, not based on how well produced the CGI trains are. And right now the budget is being allocated towards a medium of transportation that is stupid, polluting, slow and is covering our limited countryside in asphalt.

As a final note: bicycles exist. They are good. They are fun to ride and make you happy. You don’t even need to be very fit to start cycling anymore thanks to e-bikes (but you’ll get fit in the process)! More people would cycle around if they could do so without instantly ending their lives.

Let’s stop the “we can’t build bike infrastructure in Malta because no one rides bikes”. People don’t cycle here because there is zero cycling infrastructure and they want to go home to their families. And no!! Paint on the hard shoulder is not cycling infrastructure. Let’s build for the commuters we want, not the ones we have.

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