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Opinion & Analysis

#InPerspective: Zoning out: toward a sustainable future

Over the last couple of weeks Gibraltar has been rocked by a community-wide battle over otherwise unassuming parking spaces. And, although the unrelenting gaze of the Gibraltarian public has been momentarily distracted by the affordable housing kerfuffle, tensions continue to simmer. I will use this – no doubt temporary – truce however to reflect, and with any luck influence, the polarised and entrenched narrative of the parking zone debate.

As most readers are aware, in January the Minister of Transport introduced the Residential Parking Scheme’s (pilot) ‘Zone 2’, where the seemingly long abandoned town residents would finally be granted resident-only parking – albeit at the expense of unencumbered free parking for all. Despite the well-intentioned concession to town residents, it has become apparent that there are either not enough cars to fill up the parking spaces, or that not enough of these forlorn residents have signed up to the scheme; in any event, as the GSD has reminded us “on the hour every hour”, the parking areas are all too frequently as empty as ‘la Fuente Capullo’.

The warring parties are divided into two camps: the inconvenienced non-residents who wish to reclaim those spaces and once again see them put into good use on the one hand, and, town residents who wish to protect their long-fought plea for parking and who are adamant the spaces will fill up, on the other. The question in effect hinges on who claims to make better use of the parking. Yet, in my opinion, this question is misconceived, as to me, the overarching question that we should all be asking ourselves is “do I even need to use a car?” With very few exceptions, the answer can only be a resounding “no” – and there is scope for this to be even more categorical.

We in Gibraltar cannot realistically deny the fact that very few of us really have to use a car on a daily basis, or motorcycle for that matter. From the Frontier to Europa Point, Gibraltar is a measly four and a half kilometres in length. More accurately however, unless one lives by the lighthouse and works in the airport, the overwhelming majority of the population need only to negotiate a maximum of two and a half kilometres – the equivalent of Vineyards to Ocean Village. This distance equates to a 30 minute walk or 15 minute cycle. Let me put it another way, the majority of Gibraltarians need not walk for more than a maximum of 30 minutes to go about their daily lives, be that home, work, school, groceries, or other amenities.

The beneficial aspects of walking should in themselves be enough to choose this most natural of means for getting around. That is, walking offers a triple-whammy of benefits, it allows us to get our daily dose of exercise and all the health benefits that come with it, it provides some very positive mental health benefits – especially in countering depression, and of course it also proves extremely beneficial for the environment. But these obvious benefits alone are not enough to encourage more of us to take to the pavements. Instead the suggestion is more often than not met with a barrage of excuses, such as: “but I need to take the children to school”, “what when I have shopping?”, “I cannot spare 30 minutes”, “I live in upper town/ Europa point”, or “what about the elderly and disabled?”

Admittedly, the latter two are objectively fair excuses that in large measure can pardon not walking, but the others more than anything are questions of comfort and convenience. Take for instance the school run. Once again, an overwhelming majority of us live very proximate to the school our children attend, with a distance of no more than a few hundred meters, and to boot, typically on the way to work. In choosing this short stroll instead of driving we not only alleviates the congestion that develops at school drop-off and pick-up times, and the need to park once one gets to work, but doing so also serves to instil on our children the preference to walk.

Moreover, even when the option to walk is complicated by geography, such as living in the upper town or Europa point, or indeed incapacity, the elderly and disabled, the default should not be getting the car or hoping on a motorcycle. As I emphasised in my January article “the locals don’t use it and tourists struggle to: buses ‘out of service’?”, we have the enviable choice to use free public transport. Although as also set out in that article, there are improvements to be made in order for this to become even more appealing, including more frequency and better accommodation for prams and wheelchair users.

In fact with relatively few changes Gibraltar has the potential to become a truly environmentally friendly city of the future, at least (initially) on the transport side of things. But the burden cannot be planted solely on Government, it falls equally on us as the community to opt for less car use, as has been the case in Copenhagen.

Over just a few decades Copenhagen has managed to see bicycles become the preferred mode of transport. That is, more people get around on bike than on anything else. Combine that with public transport users and you arrive at a capital city, of over two million inhabitants, with little road congestion and well on course to achieve its goal of carbon-neutrality by 2025. But this has only been achieved through the combination of government-citizen initiative. From the government end there has been a mixture of deterring car use with a tax of 150% (yes, really) on car purchases, a high tax on petrol, a high road tax, and high prices for paid parking – approx. £4 an hour in inner Copenhagen – and, encouraging use of bicycles with priority of cycling infrastructure ahead of roads, an enormous cycle lane network, cycle-only areas, and bicycle parking aplenty. Anecdotally, in winter cycle lanes are cleared of snow before roads. Of course, there is a well-functioning public transport system as an alternative for those unable to cycle, albeit at a steep price. On the citizen end, there is an inherent national pride in achieving environmental goals, as well as an overwhelming willingness to reap the health benefits of cycling.

Perhaps Gibraltar is still a long way from becoming a cycling utopia – although given that most of us live in flat reclaimed land it is very much possible. Nevertheless, unlike Copenhagen, as set out above, we benefit from short distances between pretty much everything, meaning that walking is a credible alternative. With a shift in mentality, and honest reflection on the question of whether we really need to use a car or motorbike, and brave government measures discouraging car use, we can aspire to a more sustainable Gibraltar. Who knows, perhaps the wrangle over the parking zones might prove the catalyst for this future.

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