Malta is a very small island, yet many people rely on their cars for transportation, rather than more sustainable alternatives such as cycling or walking. During today’s interview, we get to learn more from Carlos Cañas, a Spanish geographer and specialist in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and founder of Walking Malta.
As a researcher within the Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development at the University of Malta, what are your main areas of interest in researching?
I’m interested in sustainable urban mobility, which is a topic that our Institute has been researching for over a decade. While some colleagues focus on public transport or cycling, I have specialized in pedestrian mobility and the use of public space by pedestrians, which is known as walkability.
There are two research questions that fascinate me: What enables and encourages people to walk more? And what happens when people decide to walk more? As a geographer, I try to look into these causes and consequences of walkability from a holistic point of view.
For this reason, when I study what makes people walk more my research considers a wide range of environmental, social, intrapersonal and policy factors. Similarly, when I look into the causes, I consider the significant impact of walkability in public health, the environment, urban liveability and transport, amongst other cultural and socioeconomic aspects.
What can you tell us about the ‘Walking Malta’ project you created?
Walking Malta is a community research project where every day pedestrians help us to better understand the underlying relationships between pedestrian experiences and the public space. Anyone can use our Walking Malta WhatsApp number (+356 7938 9305) to share these four pieces of information with us:
Firstly, a picture of the walk. Secondly, their walking experience. In this case participants are encouraged to use certain key words to help us with the subsequent data analysis. As we are interested in both positive and negative experiences, participants can rate their walks with the key words ‘safe or unsafe’, ‘comfortable or uncomfortable’, ‘pleasant or unpleasant’, and ‘vibrant or dull’. Thirdly, the elements or characteristic of the public space that influenced such experience. In this case participants can write about anything they consider relevant. Some of the most common comments are “no pavement”, “trees”, “traffic”, “nice views”, etc. And finally, the location of the place, which can be shared as an attachment on the WhatsApp chat.
Once we collect, process and analyse these data, we create two main research outputs. On the one hand, we use a Perceive Walkability Index to spatially aggregate all the participants’ experiences and create a web map that shows which areas are considered more pedestrian friendly and which require more attention and improvement. On the other hand, we identify which elements and characteristics of the public space influence pedestrian in Malta, both in a positive and negative way. This in turn, can greatly assist policy in improving the walkability of the place under study.
Why is walking an important activity to encourage for Malta to be more sustainable?
Malta, like many other countries, is currently facing important challenges, such as high rates of obesity, poor mental health, traffic congestion, shortage of parking, air and noise pollution, social inequity and isolation, etc. These are very complex issues with no single or magic solution. However, they all have something in common: More people walking is an efficient and affordable measurement to tackle and improve such problems. Although walking was rarely considered as a measurement with great impact in the past, there are already many leading European cities enabling and promoting walking as a key part for an integral solution against all these problems.
A growing number of research links walkability with the three pillars of sustainable development. From the environmental perspective, a potential shift from car use to walking for short trips would drastically reduce air pollution, as transport is a main source of Green House Gases. From the economic perspective, walkable places tend to boost local economies and attract tourism. Moreover, walkable places with physically active population and better urban mobility reduce significant costs related to public health and traffic congestion. Finally, from the social perspective, pedestrian friendly places enhance community cohesion and social justice. Safe and comfortable walking environment allow children to have independent mobility and help the elderly to maintain an active social life.
What discourages many people from walking locally?
Over 60 participants have already shared more than 1,000 experiences with us. As pedestrians can interact with a wide range of environmental factors as they experience the public space, we have received over 30 different elements and characteristics of the Maltese public space associated with negative experiences that often discourage them to walk.
We received a lot of information about issues related to pedestrian infrastructure. The most common ones are the lack of pavements and pedestrian crossings, their insufficient width or irregular surface. Pedestrian also highlight the lack of streetlights at night or protection from weather, such as shade during hot days or drainage during rainy days with floods, making walking unfeasible. Other common issues are temporary barriers, mainly rubbish bags and bulky waste, vehicles parked on the pavement and construction hurdles. Other relevant issues are exposure to fast traffic linked to unsafe experiences, as well as air and noise pollution, or even odour, which contributes to uncomfortable and unpleasant walking experiences.
What can make Malta more pedestrian friendly?
Walking Malta is not conceived as a tool to complain about the walking environment. Participants can also share observations linked to positive experiences and this can greatly assist policy makers. They can not only tackle and improve whatever is linked to negative experiences, but also extend and further implement whatever has a positive impact in pedestrian experiences, since we have also identified over 20 different positive elements and characteristics.
The most cited positive examples of the public space identified by participants are related to adequate pavements and crossings, mitigation or lack of traffic, public open spaces with nice views and green urban areas. The case of urban trees is quite relevant as they are linked to many different positive experiences. Urban trees make pedestrian feel safer, especially when the trees separate the pavement from the road in the street, even with fast traffic. Many participants also rate their walks as comfortable thanks to the trees’ shade. Finally the visual beauty and restorative nature of green areas are also linked to many pleasant experiences.
If you are interested in hearing more about what Carlos has to say, check out the module dedicated to ‘Urbanism – The “doughnut model” a tool for transformative action‘, shown during the Malta Sustainability Forum.