Island of possibilities

Malta’s National ITS Coordinator Peter Paul Barbara offers a compelling inside view of his country’s impressively far-reaching plans to Kevin Borras.

“Our main task, besides giving advice to Central Government on forthcoming EU legislative proposals relating to transport policy, is to come up with project proposals that will compete for EU funds through the various EU funding programmes and seek to include Transport Malta as a project partner in as many projects as possible that fall within the general transport policy and objectives of Transport Malta. We believe that participation in such projects expose Malta to the latest technologies on the market as well as innovation. We are of the opinion that this is a way to move forward concurrently with other European States to continue modernising the transport sector in Malta.”

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A charging point

That, in a very convincing nutshell, is Peter Barbara’s raison d’etre writ large – we may be small, but we have big ideas, so don’t ignore us.

Malta is not the first country that comes to mind when you think of Europe’s most innovative ITS nations, but the publication of its comprehensive National ITS Plan earlier this year caused something of a stir at Thinking Highways HQ. When we decided to print it out (we are still quite old-school at times), we half-expected a small pamphlet, somewhat commensurate with the size of the country itself, but one editorial colleague remarked that “This is more of a book than a brochure” when our printer ran out of paper for the second time. Barbara and his team can certainly be congratulated for the length and breadth of their work but no, environmentalists, we did not have to print that email…

So what was the main goal that drove Malta, and the contagiously enthusiastic Barbara in particular, to compile such a far-reaching ITS plan?

“The Maltese Government’s policy on Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) and Electromobility has to be taken in the context of Malta’s unique geographical specificities coupled with its national and EU environmental targets.

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Renault Twizy on the road

Malta is the smallest EU member state with 416,055 inhabitants and a geographical area of just 316 square kilometres. The population density is extremely high with more than 1,320 inhabitants per km2 that is, over 10 times the EU country average. In terms of urban development and infrastructure, Malta is often referred to as a “city state” insofar as nearly 50 per cent of the population lives in the north and south harbour areas in the conurbation of Valletta. A National Household Travel Survey (NHTS) conducted back in 2010 had concluded that 74 per cent of all trips by members of a household were being undertaken using private passenger cars, either as a driver or passenger. This represents a modal share increase of private cars of more than 5 per cent when compared with the findings of 1998 NHTS survey. This change in modal share was mainly due to a modal transfer of trips from public transport and walking.”

With approximately 322,960 licensed motor vehicles on Maltese Roads (as at December 2013) and with numbers still increasing, Malta’s per capita car ownership is one of the largest in the European Union as far as national vehicle fleets are concerned.

Such car concentrations put additional pressures and challenges on Maltese policy makers to manage such a fleet on such a small road network. This annual increase in motor vehicles particularly in recent years has in turn, been exerting great pressure on Malta’s national transport infrastructure both in terms of the high demand for parking space and motorist demand for increased road capacity.

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Malta’s PORT-PVEV Twizy fleet

“Capacity problems and bottlenecks now exist at a number of critical locations on the 2,350 km of road network, particularly at major traffic intersections located on the 260km main strategic road network,” says Barbara. “During the last few years, traffic bottlenecks spread from the traditional peak hours normally associated with morning and evening commuting into other hours of the day and night. While many of the bottlenecks have been alleviated through recent investment in the upgrade of parts of the strategic road network, the high level of urbanisation and environmental constraints at certain critical sections prove to be an insurmountable barrier to the provision of new road links or widening of existing infrastructure.”


Inevitably this situation is negatively affecting the state of Malta’s Air Quality levels, where transportation is the main source and contributor to the rise in PM10 and NO2   levels.

“In addition to that,” Barbara explains, “the rise in the number of ICE vehicles is also negatively contributing to Malta’s Greenhouse Gas Emission 2020 targets mandated to Malta under the European Union Climate Change and Energy Package, through the burning of more carbon based fuels. The pressure on the Maltese Authorities is set to increase as both the Air Quality Framework Directive and both the Climate Change and Energy targets are to become more stringent in the long term.”

In a country where the car-culture is spread across the population, addressing these problems is something of a mammoth task. Since 2011, the Government had been addressing the public transport sector by overhauling the public transport system leading to a new bus transport system, a new public transport operator and a new bus fleet made up of cleaner and fully accessible EURO V buses to entice private car users to switch the public transport.

This, however, didn’t entirely alleviate the problem. “Although public transport patronage increased considerably since the start of the new revamped public transport operations started, the problem with traffic congestion continued to increase, a fact attributed to the fact the Maltese economy was growing and that people needed to travel more.

“In this respect the Maltese Government through the Ministry for Transport and Infrastructure and Transport Malta which is the National Transport Authority and transport Regulator, the public transport system is being continually improved, with an enlarged bus fleet and the introduction of additional bus routes to increase accessibility and address the demand from the public. To alleviate road traffic congestion, over the coming few years, the Government will increase its support for maritime inter-harbour ferry services to enhance a modal split between the different mode of transport.”

In addition to these measures the Maltese Government is currently looking at other innovative services and solutions that could be implemented to make public transport more sustainable and environmentally friendly. The Government has also recently embarked on additional robust and challenging actions specifically relating to the deployment of Intelligent Transport Systems and Electromobility, which is the subject of a separate article in Issue 2 of Thinking Cities. Two National Action Plans have so far been published, each containing specific projects and measures against a set time frame during which they will be implemented.

Says Barbara: “The ITS Action Plan also follows the Intelligent Transport Systems European Framework Directive, so answering your question, the reason for the drive to go down this route was two-fold, the urgent need to address traffic congestion and secondly to follow the other EU Member States with respect to interoperable ITS deployment. On the other hand, the formulation and publishing of the Malta National Electromobility Action Plan was mostly driven by various factors, notably to address the need to improve national air quality levels and to address Malta’s national Climate Change and Energy 2020 targets.”


As a relative newcomer to the world of Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS), the next two years will see Malta rolling out ITS at a national level. For a small island state the planned deployment of ITS is going to be substantial, both in terms of the impact on the transport system and in terms of investment that has been earmarked for urban traffic management and control. With all this new technology making its way onto Malta’s roads and into the consciousness of its populace, it seemed like a good time to ask how much of it is homegrown and how much is imported? With all respect to Maltese companies have been seldom present in the exhibition halls of the ITS Europe and ITS World Congresses.

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Mitsubishi i-MIEVE: compact, electric vehicles are ideal for these narrow roads and out-of-town driving alike

Barbara, fortunately, takes my question in the manner in which it was meant. “Much of the ITS technologies being currently deployed is imported from abroad or through local agents. Purchasing of such equipment and related solutions are procured through the respective procurement rules of the Government. I would say that at the moment there are a number of companies employed in ITS-related products and solutions. I do not think it is prudent to single out specific companies, but what I can say is that there is scope for a niche market here. I am pleased that local companies are making themselves felt in the international market,” he continues. “We hope that there will be more companies investing both in ITS as well as in the electromobility sectors. If there is increased interest from the private sector, Government may consider in the future the setting up of an electromobility and ITS  innovation hub, where companies can carry out R&D activities in Malta and use it as a test-bed for future innovative solutions.”


Sometimes, as a journalist, you find yourself asking a question that you had told yourself not to ask but somehow you asked it anyway. The interview is going well, you and the interviewee are getting on fine so you relax a bit and your guard slips. The next inquiry I put to Peter Paul Barbara was just that question. I knew the answer already but heard myself say it. So, do you look to other countries of a similar size for inspiration, in terms of technology and implementation?

“No not really. As I said earlier, Malta has unique geographic specificities. When I say geographic I mean both in terms of physical topographic characteristics, weather conditions, urban and spatial characteristics, land restriction as well as how people live their life in general. All has to be taken in the same context and one cannot leave anything out of the equation. I say it is a unique ecosystem.  I don’t think that there is another European country of the same size with same kind of population. Luxembourg for example has a very small population comparable to Malta but then its land mass is huge compared to ours. You live in London – your city is approximately 1,572 km2   in area. Malta’s is 316km2 .We cannot apply to Malta what other countries do. Even as far as governance and the administration of the country are carried out. For example, local governments in Malta operate very differently from other European countries, where each city has its own transport policy specifically for that city. In Malta this approach doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense that each local government would have their own local transport policy. All policy issues concerning all of the economic sectors and respective activities are conducted in top-to-bottom approach. However, that said we do take note of the technologies that are available on the market and we adapt these to suit our needs and specific circumstances.”


“The fact that we do not have as yet a fully fledged Intelligent Traffic Management and Traffic Monitoring System, gives us the opportunity to build everything new from the ground up without the need to upgrade existing or ageing equipment,” explains the ebullient Barbara. “Hence the current and future investments that are earmarked for ITS deployment, is intended to put in place the foundations for Malta’s future National ITS network. We are doing this in accordance with the latest industry standards as well as in line with the EU-ITS Framework Directive as well as the EASYWAY Guidelines. “At this stage we are at a point where the projects offered are being evaluated and it is expected that installation works will start over the coming few months.”

Barbara maintains that traffic management, especially the management of congestion, is a challenge everywhere, regardless of whether it is a city or an island, but I was still keen to know what measures are taken to overcome the geographical and spatial limitations that must surely compound the problems.

“In the case of the Maltese islands, that’s Malta and Gozo, urbanisation is rapidly eating away from the geographical boundaries that in the past separated a town from a village or a village from another village. In my opinion, Malta is taking the shape of a one large cosmopolitan city. The difference lies in the respective topography of Malta when compared to that of a planned city. At this point in time, Malta is made up of a number of conurbations that by time will continue to expand and merge together into one continuous urban area. Even as a capital city Valletta is not really comparable to any other major cities like Paris, London, Rome or Tokyo that are regarded as financial centres in their own right. These cities, all have their own specific “Historical City Centre” from where the city grew outwards into one large urban agglomeration.  In the distant future, Valletta may also end up as the “Old Historical City Centre” within a large urban agglomeration – Malta.”

On several occasions, transport consultants contracted by the Maltese authorities have offered traffic related solutions that are already in place in a number of major European Cities but which were entirely unsuitable for Malta. Such solutions do not really work as every geographical area has its own particularities and specificities, and hence generic solutions do not really make any sense in a country the size and shape of Malta.

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Part of the PORT PVEV Project: new BMWi3 at Muscat’s showroom

“It is for the same reason we do not have a bicycle culture as in, for example, the Netherlands. This is because the Maltese hilly typography and extreme climate conditions across the different seasons make it almost impossible to adopt the same culture.  Anyone who has visited Malta will know the reasons for this! The main challenges arise because space is limited. We can’t do anything about that but what we can do is introduce technologies to try and make our transport system more efficient, and that is how we intend to face those challenges.”


Barbara was kind enough to give me a few hours of his time but I was conscious of taking up too much of it as his diary was already overflowing with appointments. He certainly isn’t short of things to do.

“No, far from it! Right now I am fully immersed in pipeline project preparations. My overall responsibility is to implement the Malta National Electromobility Action Plan. This is a major challenge for us. We have planned deployment year by year and we cannot afford to miss these self-imposed deadlines. Another important project we will be working on in the future is the planning of the second phase of ITS Deployment that will be done in conjunction with the Directorate responsible for traffic management set up recently within Transport Malta. The National Intelligent Transport System (ITS) Action Plan is a synthesis of how Transport Malta intends to roll out Malta’s first major ITS deployment which is split in two phases and spanning an eight-year timeframe. The first phase has already started in 2013 and will continue through 2017 while the second phase will be carried out in the following three years, from 2018 to 2020.”

Malta’s ITS Action Plan has been developed within the framework of the six main priority areas split into a number of actions contained in Directive 2010/40/EU that will be carried out over a seven-year timeframe.

“Through this deployment and because of the small and manageable size of the transport network, Malta will be one of the first European countries to have all of its main road network, transport hubs and termini seamlessly connected in real-time at a national level,” says Barbara proudly. “The roll-out of ITS at the national level in the first phase will generate vast quantities of raw travel and traffic data that can be filtered and structured to provide a vital monitoring and assessment tool for transport planners and operators, emergency services, policy makers and control bodies.”

Initial preparations are already underway for the second phase of the ITS Action Plan that envisages further enhancements and additions to Phase 1 as well as its extension to Malta’s urban core areas.

“The main aims of Phase 2 will be to further improve public transport efficiency, road safety and air quality. Transport Malta shall carry out a mid-term review of this Action Plan towards the last quarter of 2015 to assess the results achieved during Phase 1 of deployment,” concludes Barbara before thanking Thinking Highways for our interest and hurrying off to his next appointment.

The sheer scale of the National ITS Implementation Plan is quite clearly not just a marketing tool. Small island, big ideas indeed.


Peter Paul Barbara is National Coordinator of the Malta National Electromobility Platform and Intelligent Transport Systems