This post is intended as a follow-up to Erica Schlaikjer’s recent post about the new “skywalks” in Mumbai. She highlighted several common criticisms – that these elevated walkways are inaccessible for the old and the disabled, that they destroy the vibrancy of streets and that they are poor alternatives to solving the real problem: the automobile. She also suggests, though, that skywalks might bring “welcome change” for cities like Mumbai, where pedestrians walk in extremely unsafe conditions.
It becomes clear from a cursory study, however, that Mumbai planners do not necessarily view skywalks as a solution for improved safety, but rather, increased pedestrian flow. The idea is to move pedestrians up and away, making room for everyone else down below, including motorists and illegal street vendors who encroach on footpaths.
But to pit walkers against hawkers is to ignore the real problem. A real solution would preserve the vibrancy of Mumbai’s street-level marketplaces. Most importantly, it would be about getting pedestrians to their destinations, not about getting pedestrians off the roads so that motorists have a free pass.
A Wall Street Journal slideshow shows pictures of what’s squeezing sidewalks around western neighbourhoods in Mumbai. It has pictures of phone booths and cobbler stalls, and vendors selling coconuts, sugarcane juice and vegetables. The message is clear: street vendors refuse to budge, so the city planners are being forced to make extra space for pedestrians to move.
When the problem is formulated that way, the proposed solution – an elevated walkway – seems to be the obvious solution. Indeed, this seems to be the logic behind the decision to build them. “We clear [the street vendors] and they just come back,” an MMRDA official is quoted as saying. “That’s why we thought, ‘Let’s create some additional space on the road by going elevated.’ ”
It is of course true that encroachment reduces the space available for pedestrians. Debris and electrical equipment and advertisement boards placed in the middle of the sidewalk are especially dangerous (as this good professor found out — he fell on the pavement and broke six ribs while trying to step around a billboard.) But not everything that disrupts pedestrian flow is bad. Trees, for example, take up a great deal of space on already narrow footpaths. But they also provide shade, without which it is impossible to walk in the summer.
Street vendors also offer crucial services to pedestrians. I have walked all my life in Indian cities, and the luxury of knowing that I can find a vendor selling something to eat or drink every hundred meters is much more important to me than having a perfectly designed footpath with no encroachments.
Several commentators have stressed on this point. William Whyte – the famous chronicler of pedestrian behavior in New York – speaks of pedestrians in Tokyo being drawn to vendors even when the entire street has been opened up for walkers. Streets with shoeshine people, for example, are some of the most preferable busiest spaces.
Elsewhere, Dr. Geetam Tiwari, associate professor of transport planning at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, argues that “pedestrians need cobblers on the road to have their footwear fixed, just as much as car owners need tyre repair shops… All commuters need cold drinks, snacks and other services on the roadside. These services have to exist at frequent intervals, otherwise walking or bicycling would become impossible, especially in summer.” These principles are valid internationally, but they are especially applicable to India.
It is also important to note that the skywalks cannot take the pedestrians everywhere. In most cases, the skywalks will serve only a fraction of the pedestrians. In West Mulund, for example, the proposed skywalk provided no connectivity to the northern portions of the locality. It was fiercely opposed by people whose livelihood depends on the vitality of neighbourhood markets and people who have little hope of improved access due to the skywalk, and eventually, the MMRDA had to cancel the project.
What About Safety?
In my experience, walking is not very dangerous when you are walking along the road, even if a footpath is absent. Especially in Mumbai, pedestrians have safety in numbers (watch this video of people heading into Dadar Station during rush hour — organized chaos.) Things get really risky only when pedestrians have to cross busy roads, in other words, when they have to interact with motorists. And even with a skywalk, most users will have to walk the last quarter-mile on the roads, in the midst of motorists.
So the solution, then, must address the problems of pedestrians at-grade, where men returning from work can eat a vada-pav before going home for dinner, where working women can buy vegetables and look longingly at the latest fashions in sarees, and where kids can guiltily eat ice-cream. While hawkers need to be regulated, they must also be recognized as essential to Mumbai’s street-life.
Views from the Street
Let’s take Mulund West as an example of a proposed skywalk project. It is a classic case of a solution being misapplied. Mulund is a largely residential suburb where the railway station is surrounded by a thriving market area. The traders were against the skywalk because they feared that it would reduce their sales. The map below shows the area served by the railway station (in brown), the market area (in red), and the proposed skywalk (in blue). Clearly, the skywalk would serve only a small portion of the community.
If I had to make an alternative plan for this area, I would make the market area a non-motorised zone and reserve the main approach road to the station for public transport and para-transit. I propose that during rush hour, four arterial roads from the station (shown in blue) be redesigned to allow only non-motorized vehicles, buses and auto-rickshaws (three-wheeler taxis), and four cross-streets (shown in green) be preserved for non-motorized use only. These steps would have to be complemented with improvements in outer streets, including the redesign of the footpaths, restrictions for on-street parking, and the construction of off-street parking facilities.
Why would such a plan work? First, we know from experience that pedestrian-friendly streets are great for commerce. Second, it provides more opportunities for improved BRT and auto-rickshaw services for the more distant areas served by the Mulund railway station. Lastly, the most harrowing part of the daily walk suddenly becomes a lot safer and a lot more fun. For the majority of commuters in Mulund who either walk or use public transport, this would be a strong improvement.
MMRDA has been proposing a single solution – a skywalk – for fifty different localities in the Mumbai metropolitan region. But even if some areas do need skywalks, other areas might have different needs. The needs of people in Andheri/Mulund are obviously different from the needs of people in Bandra.
Instead of choosing a solution first and then scouting around the city for problems to solve, the planners should study the problem first and then find the best solution. Then, perhaps the “caterpillars” (as the skywalks are called) won’t have to crawl in the sky. Instead, they would be on the earth, where they belong.