If there is one issue that is guaranteed to generate heated debate in Gibraltar, it is the issue of traffic congestion.
At peak times during the day Gibraltar’s roads are, quite literally, clogged to a standstill.
Much has been made by opposition parties recently about the impact of trucks and goods vehicles on the situation, and in truth this cannot be denied.
The boom in construction projects around the Rock has generated significant heavy traffic, as materials and equipment are ferried to and from building sites. The slow-moving trucks block roads, form tailbacks. But beyond all this there is a deeper, underlying fact that is perhaps more uncomfortable to confront: Gibraltar’s love affair with the car.
In assessing this situation, the Gibraltar Development Plan presents a number of stark facts to set the context.
First it points out the obvious, namely that Gibraltar’s roads are in the main narrow, and quite often steep. Not great for driving on, in other words. Then the report highlights a worrying statistic: In 2005, there were 23,000 vehicles on the road here, just 5000 or so less than the entire population of Gibraltar.
Add to that the impact of visitors across the border. In 1984, a year before the frontier with Spain was fully re-opened, the number of overland visitors to Gibraltar was 477,000. That figure shot up to 7.4m visitors in 2005 and continues to rise year-on-year. Post-Cordoba efforts to ease the flow of traffic at the border and lessen the queues have, officials say, resulted in even greater numbers of vehicles crossing into Gibraltar. The upshot is more queues, particularly on the way out.
The context for these dry numbers, the report points out, is Gibraltar’s “heavy reliance on the private motor car for all trips, many of which are for short distances.”
Perhaps the most damning assessment of the present situation is contained within the environmental impact assessment that accompanies the Development Plan. The assessment was prepared by a specialist UK consultant and provides the benefit not just of an expert eye, but also of an outsider’s perspective.
The author notes that efforts have been made over the past years to encourage the use of public transport, for example by providing free bus rides for children and pensioners.
“This may be the start of a long-term change in attitudes to use of public transport,” the environmental study notes.
“However, the present situation in terms of traffic flows verges at times on gridlock, especially in the morning and evening rush-hours and particularly where these coincide with aircraft movements at the airport involving the closure of the cross-runway road.”
The main driver behind this situation is the prolific use of the private vehicle in Gibraltar, the assessment adds.
This high use of private transport aggravates demands on limited land resources by increasing the need to provide garage and car parking space, which is a particular planning problem.
The study acknowledges that it is easy to point to the drawbacks of the private car and to ignore the fact that for many Gibraltarians it is an essential support to their freedom to travel, “and a way of compensating for the confined nature of living in Gibraltar.”
“Politically, it is difficult to legislate for change, as demonstrated by the length of debate over the idea of congestion charging in London,” the environmental
“However, if there is one subject that needs to be tackled in order to achieve a sustainable future for Gibraltar it is the subject of transport.”
“This is not to argue for the banning of the car or unreasonable restrictions on the rights of individuals, but to suggest that priorities need to be changed to give equal consideration to walkers and cyclists and to design and build effective transfer facilities between cars and public transport.”
The Development Plan introduces a twin-track approach to tackling the traffic problem.
On the one hand it acknowledges the need for new road infrastructure and parking facilities to ease existing congestion. But there is also an awareness of the need to foster a move away from the reliance on private transport to get around the Rock.
“The Plan’s strategic principle in relation to transport is to cater for the needs of private transport but to encourage and facilitate alternative means of transport,” the document states.
Central to the new infrastructure projects is the plan for a new road at the frontier and the airport. By diverting traffic through a tunnel at the east end of the runway, the idea is to ease the flow of traffic and remove the disruption caused by flights.
Additionally the design will rationalise the various commercial goods clearance activities at the frontier, including lorry parking and customs and clearing agents’ facilities.
There is also a proposal to widen Devil’s Tower road and develop park and ride facilities to encourage visitors to leave their cars and use public transport to move around once on the Rock.
Elsewhere, a new link road from Europort to Coaling Island will facilitate the flow of traffic to and from new housing developments in the area of the port, as well as from north to south and back.
In the Upper Town area, the link between Moorish Castle and Willis’s Road will help decongest an area prone to traffic jams, as residential traffic meets cars coming down from the Upper Rock Nature Reserve.
A number of new car parks are also foreseen, some of which are already under construction. The guiding principle here is that developers must compensate for any loss in off-road parking.
The Development Plan also acknowledges the impact on traffic of ongoing construction projects, though it offers only road conceptual ideas on how to tackle this issue.
“During the construction stage of new developments there has been a noticeable trend over the last few years for contractors to appropriate public highway land, whether this be footpaths or parts of the roadway, in order to facilitate their construction activities,” it says.
“The Commission is concerned with this trend as it frequently results in major disruption and inconvenience to the general public by disrupting vehicular and pedestrian traffic flows.”
To tackle this problem, permission for new developments would normally require construction activities to be limited to the site of the application, but there will inevitably be times where this is not impossible.
In between all this, is a commitment to build cycle paths wherever possible. Gibraltar’s size, the plan notes, should make it ideal for cycling, yet less than 1% of the population regularly use bicycles to get around the Rock.
Cycle paths may help encourage others to opt for that mode of transport. Ultimately, particularly in the coming years while much of the new infrastructure is being built, the only real solution to the congestion problem is to leave the car at home whenever possible.
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