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Lofty Idea: "Skywalks" for Mumbai Pedestrians
The "yellow caterpillar" skywalk snakes through Mumbai. Photo by Michael Rubenstein from the Wall Street Journal.

The "yellow caterpillar" skywalk snakes through Mumbai. Photo by Michael Rubenstein from the Wall Street Journal.

Sidewalks in Mumbai are feeling the squeeze. Pedestrians, street vendors, scooters and squatters all compete for space on the gridlocked footpaths around the city, where nearly 60% of the population travels by foot. In response to this overcrowding, the city is building more than 50 elevated walkways, dubbed “skywalks,” as recently reported in a multimedia story for the Wall Street Journal. (Check out the slideshow. And there’s a video, too.)

Some Mumbaikers have praised the city’s efforts to provide cleaner, safer and more spacious facilities for pedestrians. Dubbed the “Yellow Caterpillar,” for its bright yellow curving structure, the new Bandra Station skywalk rises 20-feet above ground and brings people to various office parks along a one-mile path. “There’s security, it’s clean and we get fresh air too,” said one woman.

But other people are not so happy with the recent urban development.

Retailers say they are losing business while residents say skywalks block views, allow pedestrians to peek into private homes and are just as likely to be taken over by homeless families and shopless vendors as the sidewalks.

One solution for the illegal hawkers problem would be to designate speical areas reserved just for them to sell their wares. In Delhi, transport planners installed special platforms for this purpose along bicycle paths, knowing that vendors would probably try to encroach the space otherwise. (See page 14 of this presentation from Geetam Tiwari of the Transportation Research and Injury Prevention Programme at IIT Delhi.)

In terms of accessibility, skywalks can create problems for the disabled, elderly and children, who have a hard time climbing stairs. And even if ramps are installed, skywalks can become a logistical and structural burden. In order to meet the desired 1:10 slope ratio, for example, ramps can end up being really long, making it frustrating for those people who have to traverse the extra distance.

Additionally, skywalks, if not well-lit, maintained and patrolled by security, can raise concerns of increased crime, especially during slower periods of the day, when there’s potentially fewer people watching up above.

One of the biggest criticisms of skywalks (a.k.a overpasses, skybridges, elevated walkways) is that they destroy the vibrancy of ground-level sidewalks, which are said to display the life of a city. As one New York Times reporter wrote about skywalks in Cincinnati, Ohio, “[skywalks have] transformed cities into places to pass through, not live in.” In another story, the president of Project for Public Spaces, a New York-based nonprofit, said that Cincinnati’s skywalks “have left streets lifeless, presenting a cold and alienating environment.”

Renowned urban planner Gil Penalosa said this about skywalks in Minneapolis, Minnesota: “They suck the public life out of the city.” Jan Gehl, the Danish architect who links a city’s success to the vitality of public spaces, agreed.

The problem, Gehl explained, is that skyways violate the first law of successful city-building: keeping people together in a critical mass. Minneapolis’ skyways — as with similar pedestrian bridge or tunnel systems in Calgary, Toronto and elsewhere — disperse people over different levels at different times. On weekdays, skyways bustle and shops flourish for a few hours a day. But at night and on weekends, people are thrown out onto barren and neglected public sidewalks. A social hierarchy develops: the wealthier classes in private spaces on weekdays; poorer people out in public spaces at all hours. That’s not a winning formula, Gehl said. It’s bad for retail business, bad for culture, bad for civic life.

The impression given, said Penalosa, is of a fearful city crouching inward against a hostile climate and a hostile world. That’s not the kind of optimistic city that most people — especially young people — are looking for, he said. Repeating the phrases of economist Richard Florida, Penalosa said that if a city doesn’t present itself as vital at street level, then talented people won’t choose to live there, especially when they can live in Chicago or Seattle or anywhere they like. And if talent isn’t attracted or drifts away, then the quality of a city suffers.

But Mumbai isn’t Cincinnati. Or Minneapolis. Or Calgary, Chicago, or Seattle. In a city like Mumbai, where pedestrians are literally at the mercy of cars and often face a life-or-death situation at street-level crossings (see this video for proof), skywalks may actually bring welcome change. As long as they are planned properly, as requested in this citizen forum.

Still, the better solution would be to fix traffic congestion on the ground first. Instead of asking, “How do we separate pedestrians from vehicles?”, the question should be, “How do we ensure that pedestrians and vehicles can share the same space safely and efficiently?”

A couple of years ago, pedestrians took matters into their own hands (or feet) and led a “Protest Walk,” organized by the advocacy organization Sahasi Padyatri, “to let the authorities know of the need to provide uninterrupted and encroachment-free and
risk-free walking space for pedestrians.” (We interviewed the organization’s founder Krishnaraj Rao here.)

Skywalks simply shift the problem upwards, out of sight, like a Band-Aid suspended in air, trying to fix the wounds of poor urban planning and unsustainable transportation, which should really be dealt with squarely, on the ground.

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  • Ganesh,

    Thanks so much for sharing this. I’m wondering if there’s a more comprehensive study about this issue. Keep us posted if you find one.

    Erica

  • A back-of-the-envelop math exercise to check whether these skywalks can be supported by their advertising revenues….

    http://urbanslate.wordpress.com/2010/03/17/feeding-the-yellow-caterpillar/

  • All the “Metro” links in Mumbai are ‘East-West’ links. The Skywalks are anywhere and everywhere! The basic issues that need to be probed are,
    has the need for such east west links been established by any ‘origin-destination’ surveys to determine the daily volume of projected traffic?
    If yes, does the volume and the carrying capacity of Metro justify its construction at a cost of about Rs. 120 crores( $ 24000,000) per km.?
    Are so many sky walks required, usable and necessary?
    Have any other options both for the “Metro” and the Skywalks been examined and evaluated?
    Was any need/pedestrian traffic volume and “desire lines” study conducted before embarking on the construction of the Skywalks?
    Judging by the scant use of the constructed sky walks and the fierce opposition of the residents of the areas it would appear that most of these were or are being constructed not because they are required or necessary but perhaps just to make the city look “modern’ and in the process benefit the builders and the officials/politicians

    The Metro train rake is expected to carry 72 passengers which is equivalent to a single Decker bus load! A most modern low carriage bus would cost less than Rs. 1 crore.($ 200,000) Which means that for the same passenger carrying capacity Metro is costlier by 120 times! The question arises whether there is sufficient road space available to accommodate plying of additional buses.
    Yes, it is possible by earmarking special bus lanes or- in the latest jargon- BRT or Bus Rapid Transit system. The expenditure, apart from the Bus, will be just for ‘marking’ the special Transit lane. Alternatively more double Decker buses can also be plied on the East-West routes.

    Even at this late stage in Mumbai when construction for “Metro” is in full swing, has the option of converting these elevated rail tracks in to elevated roads been considered? The width is adequate to carry minibuses and will save on the special rolling stock of the Metro rakes that needs to be imported and constitute about 50% of the cost or about Rs. 60 crores per km..

    Apart from BRT, the carrying capacity of the existing roads can be increased by disallowing roadside parking during daytime, restoring the sidewalks to the pedestrians (who presently walk on the roads) by removing the encroachments, hawkers and illegal structures and restricting the registration of new motor vehicles to available parking spaces in residential/commercial buildings only. In my paper on Traffic & Transportation in Mumbai available on the website http://www.angelfire.com/indie/pmapte. I have given with facts and figures how the existing road and rail infrastructure of Mumbai with a very low cost up gradation can serve the city for at least next 20 years

    Is it plausible that the great administrative and technical talent in the State Government and MMRDA/MCGM have not been able to think of cost effective options like BRT which any city planner would have first examined before embarking on astronomical expenditure on Metro for the East-West corridors or the Skywalks? Why has credit not been sought from the World Bank? Is it because the World Bank would definitely ask for a thorough study of the issues and require the authorities to establish conclusively that there is no other option except “Metro” or the Skywalks?

    If a very low cost solution to the problems of Traffic & Transportation in Mumbai is possible (if there is political will and administrative capability). then why is this huge expenditure being incurred and the docile citizens being made to undergo hardships?

    Is it that in the eyes of the Politicians ,Bureaucrats and Technocrats (PBT) Mumbai cannot be considered a ‘World City’ unless the Foreign tourists see ‘Skywalks’, elevated Metro rail cars, and a memorial in the sea? These projects (about 60 km of Metro and the Skywalks together) will cost about Rs.8700 crores. Will the people of Mumbai really benefit from these projects? Or will these only help the builders to secure large contracts and earn huge profits of which a major share may be siphoned off to the PBT? It only strengthens my belief that ‘projects in Mumbai are undertaken for their propensity to generate kick backs for the PBT and any benefit accruing to the general populace is incidental and unintended!’

    Prakash M Apte

  • I agree that challenges of urban planning must be met on the ground unlike having it suspended midair. However, in case of Mumbai, sadly, the authorities have woken up too late. With the city already bursting for space, it has to rely on such techniques to make life easier (and safer). However, the slope of the stairway is a major concern. In fact, many refrain from taking the skywalk merely by the thought of taking those steps.

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  • Louis

    Anyone speaking about skywalks in supercrowded cities should look to Hong Kong island, which has mastered the 2-story sidewalk development pattern. Both levels are crowded, and there is a street scene on the second level as well as the ground. If you have enough people for 2 sidewalks, then why not? Just have those skywalks connected to the buildings, and you get 2 levels of retail in place of one. It works great for connections to the subway, and certainly makes walking a faster, safer mode.

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  • certainly prohibitively expensive but how about putting the motor vehicles on a separate level and leaving the ground level to pedestrians.