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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.