Govt plan for cycling infrastructure receives opposition support amid concern over rise in vehicle numbers

A government plan to implement a network of cycle lanes around Gibraltar received support from the opposition bench on Wednesday, in a clear indication that both sides of Parliament are seeking common purpose in driving efforts to encourage sustainable transport on the Rock.

Paul Balban, the Minister for Transport, said the first of a series of pop-up cycle lanes would be rolled out in the New Year to test how they work in practice before a permanent network is implemented in future.

His ministry has drawn up a plan for a Rock-wide network of cycle lanes and, after approval by the Cabinet, has shared it with the Opposition and with stakeholders.

The plan will be made public in the coming weeks and presented to the Development and Planning Commission for information purposes - it does not require planning permission – before being rolled out in stages.

"The idea is that we will be rolling out pop-up cycle infrastructure, especially in certain areas where there's bound to be imminent development, so at least we can start seeing how this strategy works for cyclists and users getting used to [it],” Mr Balban said.

"The plan is to roll it out pretty soon, at least in certain sections.”

"Bayside Road will be the first section to be tackled in terms of pop-up infrastructure and we're hoping that very early in the New Year people of Gibraltar will be able to see the fruits of that work."

Elliott Phillips, the GSD MP who shadows the transport and environment portfolios, said the GSD supported the initiative, even while cautioning it may have differences with the government in future on areas of detail in the scheme, including the location of lanes.

"It's fair to say that we all found that project to be one that might well change the way in which our people move around our city, and we look forward to working more closely with him in respect of that," Mr Phillips said.

Mr Balban, who has long argued that the move to sustainable transport should be cross-party, welcomed the MP’s comments, adding: "This is something that will only work for Gibraltar if we see eye to eye in that respect.”

"It's extremely important for the environment and for the future of Gibraltar, so I'm very happy with the comments made by [Mr Phillips]."

"We're very keen for the project to escalate," Mr Phillips said, as he quizzed Mr Balban on possible timings for a rollout of the plan.

"I think we are joined on this particular strategy."

But the exchanges on the cycling strategy came too as Parliament heard that the number of vehicles registered in Gibraltar had increased sharply over the past seven years.

Responding to Together Gibraltar Leader Marlene Hassan Nahon, Mr Balban revealed that registered vehicles had risen from 35,247 in 2016 to 48,641 this year.

"Seeing as the trend seems to be that there's an increase of about 37% in the last seven years of registered vehicles, would the minister say that his [integrated transport plan] that was launched almost six years ago has been a failure?" Ms Hassan Nahon asked.

Mr Balban replied in the negative, explaining that the figures did not clarify the number of vehicles that had been disposed of and adding too that "Gibraltar has grown".

"Gibraltar has got busier, there's more commercial activity," he said.

"Remember too that the figures I'm presenting include not just cars but motorbikes and lorries and vans and all sorts of vehicles which are used for commercial purposes."

"I would love to see less vehicles in Gibraltar, that is something that we all know."

"The population has grown as well."

"We're trying as much as possible to encourage people to adopt other sustainable modes of transport, and the cycling strategy will be just one of those ways that we encourage people to walk more and cycle more."

Ms Hassan Nahon pressed him on this point - the minister said he had no data to support his thesis that commercial and population growth may be behind the increase in vehicle registration - and pointed to "quite a big spike" in the number of new vehicles in 2020, when the government introduced "an anti-green policy" removing import duty on new cars.

In 2020, there were 2,477 new vehicles registered in Gibraltar.

Mr Balban said the policy had encouraged a "displacement" of older, more polluting vehicles in exchange for newer, greener hybrid models.

He said too there had been a greater spike in vehicle registrations in 2018 compared to 2020, and a reduction since.

Joining in the discussion sparked by TG’s question, Mr Phillips said the statistics showed an increase of 13,000 vehicles over seven years "with the same road infrastructure".

"The government was very proud in the 2019 election of the 'green Gibraltar and child friendly city' [but] would he not agree with me that these numbers show that we are moving as a community in the wrong direction?" he asked.

"Whilst I will praise him for his efforts in relation to cycling, because he and I are joined on this question, would he not agree that that vision for the future is looking very, very shaky indeed?"

Mr Balban replied that recent studies by the Ministry of Environment had shown an improvement in air quality and that the purchase of new vehicles was likely a factor in this.

"The result is that tailpipe emissions have been cut down statistically," he said.

"When it comes to looking at whether the increase of vehicles in Gibraltar is something which shows any trends, unfortunately this is happening in many, many cities."

"We do see more people buying cars, this is not just something which is typical of Gibraltar."

He said even though the number of registered cars was up, it did not mean they were all being used.

"The cars of choice being used tend to be the newer ones, and hence emissions do come down."

"I would've liked to have seen a reversal but I think it's going to take us a lot longer."

"I'm hoping that with this initiative and trying to encourage more people to walk and cycle, and having the infrastructure actually laid down physically, will hopefully see a trend and see people adopting those other modes of travel."

"This cannot be seen in the short term, this needs to be seen in the longer term, and that's what I'm hoping for and aspiring to."