5th July 2021
Paul Balban, the Minister for Transport, will present a proposal to the cabinet to reduce speed limits on most of Gibraltar’s roads from 50km per hour to 30 km per hour.
Mr Balban, a keen cyclist and former taxi driver and driving instructor, knows Gibraltar’s roads well and wants to encourage greater use of sustainable transport, in particular cycling.
Reducing the speed limit to 30kmp/h on the majority of streets is something he feels strongly about to make roads safer, and is a strategy being used in many other countries and cities.
“I think it is a great idea because it does not directly impinge on the driver, all it does is make you drive more slowly,” he said.
Referring to other countries implementing the same strategy, he said that the speed differential between a pedestrian or a cyclist and a car driver is reduced.
“And by reducing the differential, you get a safer environment,” he added.
But having sat in the top seat at the Transport Ministry for eight years previously, Mr Balban is acutely aware that implementing changes on Gibraltar’s roads is a minefield.
“It’s not an easy [Ministry] as it is very contentious as it is to do with change,” he said.
“I would probably, given the choice, call it the Ministry for Change.”
“Because that is what we are dealing with, and changing people’s way of being is an extremely complicated proposition.”
One of the initiatives on Mr Balban’s to-do list is to launch a campaign to educate or re-educate all road users, not just on the rules of the road but on additional safety measures they can take to enhance the safety of cyclists and pedestrians.
Take, for example, something as simple as opening a car door to step out of a vehicle. The minister cites ‘the Dutch reach’, which involves opening the door with the hand furthest away from the handle, forcing the person to naturally look back enabling them to see if there is any oncoming traffic.
He also wants cyclists to be more assertive on the road and know the rules so they can cycle safely and with confidence.
In many respects, Mr Balban’s views chime with recent statements from the Royal Gibraltar Police, which has repeatedly raised concern about the number of traffic offences – many the result of speeding or careless driving – and earlier this year urged drivers to “take a long, hard look at themselves.”
Time and money, however, may not be on Mr Balban’s side.
He noted that he has just over two years until the next election to make the changes, and that funding is very reduced limited due to the impact of Covid on the economy.
That means that major projects such as making large improvements to the tunnels to allow cyclists to move in both directions all around the Rock may have to wait.
However, Mr Balban has a few key projects he is passionate about.
“We need to encourage people to move in different ways, but that is very difficult if there is no infrastructure or the roads are not safe enough to do so,” he said.
“The pinnacle of all this is the pedestrian. Because we are all pedestrians at some point during each day.”
While walking is great, he noted it limits the distance some people can travel, especially if there are hills.
He believes that cycling is the next best option and has been told by different cycling groups that more people would cycle if the infrastructure was there.
“I am aiming to see how we can look at cycle lanes… .but you shouldn’t really rob from Peter to pay Paul,” he said.
“Even though we want to reduce the amount of cars on our roads, I think if you hit out at people who drive, I think you get yourself into issues and problems.”
“I think we need to find the space without being detrimental at first.”
Mr Balban reflected on how the residential parking scheme was “extremely unpopular” when he introduced it.
But now, he believes that if you told residents living in the zones that you were going to get rid of the scheme, they would not be happy.
He noted that there is now an issue with commercial vehicles, some of which are taking up spaces at Western Beach Car Park as an example, “because they have nowhere to go as they were slowly displaced out of residential areas”.
This is a harder issue to tackle when compared to residential cars and is the only drawback of a residential parking scheme, he said.
With less parking available for traffic coming into Gibraltar, be it cross- frontier workers or tourists, many will be encouraged to use bicycles or buses, thereby reducing the number of cars on the road at any given time.
“There has been a proposal to make the bus route simpler,” he said.
But he is aware that when changes were introduced by the previous administration, they were extremely unpopular.
“You can hop on a bus, and the route sometimes is so convoluted, it takes you an hour to get to your destination.”
“When we looked into that, a lot of people who took the bus tend to be pensioners or in that age and they have, rightly so, all the time in the world to get to where they want to go, so they don’t want to change buses.”
“The ideal situation would be a rapid service that does the routes quickly and then have other services called ribbon routes, but it was extremely unpopular.”
He believes that if they make changes that are too radical, it might deter people from taking a bus and instead getting in their cars.
“Buses are extremely important. I think they are the backbone of what we are trying to do with public transport,” he said.
He highlighted the fact that a free bus service cannot make money, with paying customers covering approximately just one quarter of the costs.
Consequentially there is no scope for a night bus that would be operational all year round.
“And it is a shame,” he said.
But he noted that the number of users it has also fluctuates and, while that might mean there are less cars on the road, in an ideal world Governments would be prepared to foot that bill.
“Whether we can now, I don’t know if it is something we can do,” he said.