Recently on Viewpoint with Jonathan Scott, we witnessed a rare occurrence.
Although we were missing a representative from the Liberal Party, all other political parties were present and unified, at least in principal, in support of a new Government initiative. Amazing.
Even more amazing is, if you were to review some of the responding comments on social media, you could be forgiven for thinking that the instigator of this initiative is a lone voice trying to promote a personal self-interest. Nothing could be further from the truth.
We are talking, of course, about the Active Travel Strategy that was published recently by the Ministry of Transport, a document which has been a long time coming and, as radical as it is for Gibraltar, is based on data collected from around the world over many decades.
Sometimes the beauty of being so far behind the curve is that all the evidence that you need to demonstrate a beneficial outcome has already been amassed and is well qualified. The wheel has been invented. We do not need any more surveys or consultants to tell us what it can do.
The Active Travel Strategy is constructed around three truths:
• Active travel is better for you, personally, than passive travel
The British Medical Journal is happy to share years of research and has published this conclusion: “Cycle commuting was associated with a lower risk of Cardio Vascular Disease, cancer, and all cause mortality. Walking commuting was associated with a lower risk of CVD independent of major measured confounding factors. Initiatives to encourage and support active commuting could reduce risk of death and the burden of important chronic conditions.”
A further report published in the National Library of Medicine concluded: “Substantial health gains and healthcare cost savings could be achieved by switching short car trips to walking and cycling. Implementing infrastructural improvements and interventions to encourage walking and cycling is likely to be a cost-effective way to improve population health, and may also reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
• Active travel is going to be essential in the fight against climate change
In June 2022, the World Health Organisation stated: “Emerging evidence shows the importance of active mobility in mitigating climate change, notes the publication. For example, a shift from car to active travel is possible for trips up to 16 km in length, and those trips are responsible for 40% of carbon emissions from vehicles. Even if not all car trips could be substituted by cycling and walking, the potential for decreasing emissions is considerable.”
Transport emissions account for around a third of emissions in Gibraltar, or just over 20%, if excluding emissions from aviation, according to the Gibraltar Climate Change Strategy.
• Active travel can help in the battle against road congestion, ensuring roads flow more freely for those making essential vehicle journeys such as the emergency services, taxis, commercial vehicles, the elderly or less mobile, and families transporting children and shopping
A report by Sustrans highlights that ‘a three-metre wide lane can move 700 to 1100 people per hour in cars, whereas for bicycles and walking this increases from 2000 to 6500’.
Effectively, more people who can be encouraged to walk, cycle or e-scooter, will mean less cars and motorbikes on our roads. An outcome that is surely good for everyone.
In recent years support for active travel has been gently accelerating.
With the reported number of vehicles registered standing at 48,641 (The Chronicle, 21.12.2022), a road network of around 50km, and a total population of approximately 34,000, Gibraltar not only has the most number of vehicles per capita, but also the most number of vehicles per KM of road. In the world. By far.
With literally thousands of new flats in planning or currently under construction, most with their own car parking space, it looks as though we are doomed to higher levels of vehicle ownership and no additional space on the roads to accommodate them.
The Active Travel Strategy makes a start at suggesting a vision for an alternative to the current dystopian outlook.
And yet, despite all of the evidence, there are still those who have their doubts that active travel is the direction in which we should be moving.
A few alternatives have been suggested. Rather than nudging the community to make smarter choices, some would rather see us commit to a full scale ‘War on Cars’.
It has been suggested that this might come in the form of restricting the number of vehicles per household and/or making vehicle ownership more expensive by abolishing fuel subsidies, introducing congestion charges, and reintroducing road tax.
These suggestions might suit those who live in a household which only needs one vehicle, and those who can afford additional costs. For everyone else these impositions would be unpalatable.
In opposition to the Active Travel Strategy it would appear that some car users feel they are being discriminated against as some parking spaces will need to be relocated.
It is also felt that the road space allocated to cycle lanes will lead to increased congestion.
These vehicle owners fail to see that at least they will still have the choice whether or not to use their vehicles.
In contrast to this, without having safe conditions for cycling (and, in places, walking), we continue to deny people the opportunity to use transport modes that can help them stay fit, can save them time and money, and can help them contribute to the preservation of our environment.
Whole generations have grown up unable to cycle to school in a country blessed with an amazing climate for biking and relatively short journey times.
Even if cycling is not for you, I personally do not believe that you have the right to deny it to others. That is the discrimination which is at last being addressed.
The allocation of public funds and resources (such as space) will always ignite lively debate.
Social media has given people the opportunity to be fabulously generous with their views and opinions.
‘Why should money be spent on cycle lanes and pavements when we are still discharging untreated sewage into the environment?’ Good point.
‘What about attending to the state of the roads first?’ Another good point.
‘And why should cycle lanes and pavements be a priority over on street parking?’
I think we are all acutely aware of the finite funds and resources available and accept that there will always be differences of opinion on their allocation.
Ultimately, we entrust our Government to look at where they can get the best return on investment for the most amount of people.
Politicians from opposing parties lending their support to the Active Travel Strategy indicates that they understand just how important this initiative is at this point of time in Gibraltar’s evolution.
A car is an asset that is used 5% of the time. If it is parked on the road it is potentially spending 95% of it’s time in the way of you and your family enjoying a better quality of life.
Ultimately technology will erase this inefficiency.
Until then we need to regain the use of our street space for the majority rather than the minority.
Take 10-20 car parking spaces away on Prince Edward’s Road, and 10-20 people will feel aggrieved.
Introduce pavements where those cars were parked and everyone will be able to walk that stretch without being in fear of losing their life.
Another characteristic of this form of debate is that it results in people making widespread, generalised attacks on users of other vehicles to them.
A car owner hates cyclists because they are too slow on the open road, ride two abreast and have a smug look on their faces when they pass cars that are stuck in traffic; the cyclist hates all car drivers because they all pass too closely, drive too fast and fail to indicate; the pedestrian hates the cyclist and e-scooter rider because they all ride on the pavement and run red lights.
Like all generalisations, these are neither accurate nor helpful.
Those who endanger the lives of other road users through reckless and inconsiderate behaviour do have one thing in common, but it is not their mode of transport. A war on these individuals is something I would support over a war on cars.
Finally let’s not forget that active travel is not an entirely new concept in Gibraltar.
The pedestrianisation of Casemates Square and Main Street has stood the test of time and remains a testament to the benefits to areas of our city without vehicle access.
I can imagine the instigators of that initiative faced the same opposition to that being exhibited today against Transport Minister Paul Balban and his team.
I am sure there were some who were aghast at the thought of not being able to park outside the shop on Main Street which they needed to visit.
How were the shops on Main Street going to survive if you weren’t going to be able to do that?
And yet, like in so many cities which are relinquishing their reliance on motor vehicles (or, indeed, banning them completely), they are seeing not just survival but economic boom as people enjoy spaces with less noise, better air quality, and maybe even some greenery if you’re really lucky.
I believe that those nostalgic for a Gibraltar where the car is king need to prepare themselves for a new era which is now ready to dawn.
The tipping point has come and Gibraltar will move on to a better tomorrow, where opportunity, choice and the environment are given more consideration.
This is what our Government and the opposition parties finally understand, and what the Gibraltarian people deserve.
Full disclosure: The writer of this opinion piece is a co-founder of EBike-Gibraltar. EBike-Gibraltar was created in order to demonstrate a sustainable and credible alternative transport choice for single occupancy car and motorbike journeys, and also to provide the first eco-friendly vehicular tour of the Upper Rock Nature Reserve. Since inception in 2019, EBike-Gibraltar have been lobbying for cycle lanes and they are one of over 50 local organisations who campaign under the banner ‘Stay Calm and Support Safe Cycling on the Rock’. To date over 450 people have joined this Facebook group.