Any discussion about Mumbai’s skywalks evokes strong reactions – both for and against it. Various stakeholder groups, including some activists, are polarised in their views on the subject. In this debate, the most significant fact about skywalks is completely ignored. Skywalks are an acknowledgement of the existence of pedestrians by the planning authorities. Otherwise, the disappearing footpaths, extremely rare zebra crossings, insurmountable traffic dividers, eight-lane roads, flyovers and all other vehicle-centric development seem to be based on the planners’ belief that nobody needs to get around on foot any longer.
The only dedicated facility for pedestrians
At the risk of stating the obvious, one needs to put this statement of fact upfront. Skywalks, pedestrian subways and pedestrian underpasses are dedicated pieces of infrastructure made specifically for the common man or the man on the street. Skywalks are relatively low-cost, low-tech and low maintenance. They should be considered as a bare minimum and mandatory facility in all areas where high volume of pedestrian traffic mingles with vehicular traffic on roads.
Strangely, they are seen as an ill-planned extravagance by the thinking classes and opinion makers, most of whom drive around in air-conditioned cars and rarely set foot on the streets. While crores of rupees spent on widening roads and building scores of flyovers for vehicles are considered unquestionably necessary, alarm bells start ringing when a small number of steel structures are constructed for pedestrians to walk uninterrupted, safe from traffic and bad road conditions.
Influential NGOs based in south Mumbai have successfully campaigned against MMRDA’s (Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority) project to build skywalks around Churchgate and Fort area. These crusaders for open space successfully argued that, “Unsightly yellow skywalks (such as the one at Bandra) will mar/block the view corridors of heritage buildings (like High Court, CST Station, Municipal Corporation Building etc.), maidans and precincts and destroy their heritage character and status.” And thanks to their opposition, many skywalk projects were scrapped.
Cannot undermine its utility
Skywalks are extremely useful for millions of pedestrians and railway commuters, who are currently jostling with vehicular traffic daily, climbing on and off footpaths every 30- 40 metres, waiting for lights to turn green or impatiently walking through red signal, besides walking around countless obstacles. During morning and evening rush hours, before or after a long train commute in a sea of sweaty armpits, millions of commuters and office-goers walk like maze of rats on cluttered pavements and risky roadsides. They have been doing this for decades, and they continue to do this amid increasingly dense traffic.
A skywalk that enables a straight walk from Churchgate to Regal cinema or CST Station would have served as a breath of fresh air. During monsoon, walking with an overhead awning is luxury as opposed to getting half-wet on splashy roads under an umbrella. From a vantage point on a skywalk, people may even enjoy the beauty of heritage buildings better. So skywalks cannot be said to be an assault on the “beauty” of heritage buildings.
One particularly significant skywalk project proposed in 2009, but later scrapped, was proposed to link:
- Churchgate to Mantralaya (via LIC Building)
- Vidhan Bhavan to Regal cinema (over Cooperage Maidan,
- Wodehouse Road, Madam Cama Road and the Regal Circle)
- Regal cinema to CST (over D N Road, and passing by GPO etc)
- CST to Churchgate (over Azad and Cross maidans, Western Railway HQ, etc)
By building these skywalks, MMRDA would have given an additional facility to lakhs of pedestrians, enabling them to walk several kilometres safely and with dignity, unobstructed by traffic, hawkers etc. This would have given added safety for children, elderly, visually impaired and the physically challenged. Furthermore, as the skywalks were proposed to have toilet facilities to facilitate thousands of aging people who find it difficult to control their bladder for a long time, it would have provided a humane option.
But, this was put on ice, thanks to activists who screamed, “Why should pedestrians climb up and down? Instead build bridges to make vehicles climb up and down, while the pedestrians can walk at ground level.” These aesthetic and philosophical objections ended up incapacitating the policy makers who were taking their first baby steps towards creating dedicated infrastructure for pedestrians.
Issues raised by critics
Objections to skywalks are often in the form of observations that very few pedestrians use some lengthy skywalks (e.g. Dahisar), especially in the evening hours, therefore raising security concerns for the pedestrians and the neighbourhood. Admittedly, some skywalks appear to have been badly planned – the main shortcomings being the relatively few entry and exit points for accessing the skywalks, and two-storeys of stairs that pedestrians have to climb up.
The challenge for those climbing the stairs is habitual and psychological. Pedestrians have long become habituated to zipping in and out of roads and traffic signals, dodging rushhour traffic, and jaywalking while inhaling vehicle smoke. They need to be educated and motivated to use skywalks, just as motorists need to be painstakingly taught to use seat belts and crash helmets.
Yes, the skywalks should be ideally fitted with lifts and escalators to enable senior citizens and people with physical limitations to use them. But the absence of lifts and escalators does not detract from the usefulness of skywalks for millions of Mumbai’s pedestrians, who routinely climb suburban railway bridges of a similar height. One doesn’t hear the same activists protesting about how it is better to cross tracks than take the railway bridge.
It is wrong for city planners to say that since only a few hundred pedestrians use some skywalks, and prefer to walk on roads, we will stop building skywalks. That is not the way forward, leading towards governance; that is the way leading towards chaos.
See the inequities present in the way road space is currently used:
- Private vehicles carry about seven percent of commuters, but occupy over 45 percent of road space. On-road, parking of private cars, rickshaws and taxis occupies about 30 percent of the available road space during the daytime, and reduces the traffic-carrying capacity of the roads where they are parked by over 45 percent during normal hours, and over 60 percent during rush-hours.
- Taxis and auto-rickshaws carry about five percent of commuters, but occupy over 25 percent of road space.
- Buses and suburban trains carry 88 percent of commuters. Buses, which carry about 45 percent of passengers, use 10 percent of road space.
- More than 85 percent of commuters walk daily for over two kilometers to bus stops, suburban trains, residences, offices and markets. However, less than one percent of the road space is demarcated and reserved for them to walk in the form of exclusive footpaths. Majority of them are forced to share road space with motor vehicles. This is unacceptable in civilised metropolises the world over.
- Hawkers and illegal shop extensions occupy over 10 percent of road space. They cause vehicular congestion
on all station-roads and approach-roads to trunk roads, and reduce the road’s traffic-carrying capacity by over 60 percent. In other words, they increase the journey time of vehicles to more than double during rush hours, prolong the length of the city’s rush hours by over two hours in the evening, and increase the journey time of tired pedestrians by over 20 percent. (It is true that hawkers render commercial service to society by making many goods cheaply available, but they impose hidden costs on society that are unaffordable. They occupy disproportionately large amount of public space without regard to public convenience and safety and avoid paying legitimate rentals for space usage and legitimate tax dues to civic bodies.)
- About one percent of public space at any given point of time seems to be under repairs, flyover construction, widening, concreting etc. However, raw materials, machinery and debris from such activity are loosely regulated, and take up more than three percent of the space, reducing traffic efficiencies. Furthermore, hazards
like ditches and open manholes persist long after the completion of that work, as closure of work is not done in a focused manner.
The same inequity extends to use of public funds for facilitating transport. Crores of rupees are spent on flyovers and sea-links for private motorists, whose number is small compared to pedestrians. Not much thought is given to building infrastructure for pedestrians, despite the fact that pedestrian spaces are shrinking. It is strange that pedestrians are not even being accounted for in the budgeting of public space and infrastructure funds.
It is time to end this inequity now by taking decisive policy stance that recognises not just the existence but the predominance of pedestrians amidst vehicular traffic.