Putting Mumbai's skywalks to use

Carlin Carr, Mumbai Community Manager
Mumbai, 17 October 2014

Cities around the world have taken bold measures to cut cars out of the center to pedestrianize streets. Madrid recently announced an ambitious plan to restrict cars by charging a hefty fee to anyone who dares enter the off-limits zone. A decade ago, London also implemented a congestion charge to enter an eight-square kilometer central zone from 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. Singapore's Central Business District, which is just slightly more than two square miles in area, has 33 tolls that surround it.

The "war on the car" is a shift that has yet to take hold in cities such as Mumbai, where car-centric development dominates discourse, even while millions get around by walking. A majority of the poor still commute on foot — a challenging feat in a city badly in need of sidewalks, crossing signals and, yes, even pedestrian zones.

Rather than moving over cars in favor of walkers, the city decided to send them away — or at least up. It first proposed an elevated pedestrian walkway — a skywalk — in the '60s. It was to extend from one of the city's main stations, Churchgate, to Flora Fountain — a stretch that connects rail commuters to the financial district. It's also a stretch full of architectural heritage and parks, all of which walkers would now miss out on.

Although the skywalk didn't fly back then, the idea was later revived in a $123 million dollar joint project between the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) and the Maharshtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC) in which 50 skywalks were planned, according to Embarq's blog, the City Fix. "The goal was not only to build the world's largest skywalk network, but also to shape Mumbai as an innovative leader in urban planning among developing cities. Due in part to poor planning and a contractor-driven agenda, the skywalks are now largely a blight on the city."

Today, there are 37 skywalks around the city. One of the ongoing concerns is that they are unsafe, particularly for women, and they lack accessibility for the elderly and handicapped. Since dismantling the infrastructure would require significant noise, intrusion, and money, Embarq has proposed a plan to improve the usability of existing skywalks across the city and inaugurate better planning for those that will be built in the future:

  • Increase usability with proper signboards to help first-time commuters.
  • Increase accessibility for all populations by providing escalators and wheelchairs at all skywalks.
  • Increase infrastructure maintenance for clean walkways and to avoid unwanted encroachment.
  • Strategically place skywalks around metros and airports to connect and integrate different modes of transport.
  • Partner with local vendors to occupy areas around the footpaths and drum up foot traffic — increasing safety and helping local businesses.
  • Provide both male and female security guards to increase security for female commuters.

Skywalks certainly aren't the answer to Mumbai's pedestrian woes. However, they have already taken over heavily trafficked areas outside stations, for example, so making them more useful to people is key. Greater foresight is needed as Mumbai moves forward with transport planning to make it safer and easier for pedestrians; after all, if the world is calling for more sustainable and livable cities, that mission can hardly be accomplished without radically shifting away from letting cars dominate urban environments.

Photo: Amey Raut

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