Mumbai is not a city for pedestrians , certainly not for those who must use the suburban railway stations. There is no space for pedestrians here. The entry-exit points to a station tend to be clogged with haphazard parking of taxis and autorickshaws, tens of hawkers hogging nearly half of the road, and do not always have pavements or sidewalks.
The solution to this mess would have to be to expand the pavements (or build where they did not exist), relocate hawkers from the entry-exit points to the nearest open areas, and regulate the flow of traffic. Other international cities with multi-modal transport systems have successfully created pedestrian walkways at busy intersections. Instead, we’ve got these dreadful structures called skywalks.
The skywalks, more appropriately elevated walkways, were touted as the next big thing in 2007-08. The Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), the top-down bureaucracy-driven planning authority had planned some 50 skywalks around railway stations.
The first one inaugurated was the snaking 1.3-kilometre skywalk at Bandra East in June 2008. It had cost Rs13 crore. The then chief minister, Vilasrao Deshmukh, hailed it as “a landmark for Mumbai…a crucial turning point in the city’s infrastructure”.
Barely eight years later, having constructed only two-thirds of the 50 planned skywalks, the MMRDA has dusted its hands off the project. Quietly, away from the public glare, it has withdrawn from the “landmark” project ostensibly to “focus on major infrastructure projects including the metro, flyovers and link roads”.
It will not construct any more skywalks and it will not maintain the ones it built, according to news reports last week.
The most expensive – and ugly – of them all is the circular skywalk at Nana Chowk that cost Rs50.5 crore of public money. In all, anywhere between Rs735 crore and Rs1,000 crore have been spent on the project. Policy analysts and urban governance activists had raised a number of ethical and practical questions about the need for the skywalks.
They had questioned the MMRDA on the wisdom of spending such a large amount of money to create yet another layer of real estate that disfigured the urban landscape, especially without public consultations or involvement. Some even went to the Bombay high court which restricted MMRDA from providing space to hawkers on the skywalks.
The skywalks have led to ill-placed pillars and columns messing up life on arterial roads below them, provided Mumbai’s rushing commuters shelter from rain, become night shelters for the homeless and party joints for streetside drug addicts. They have given lovers some space in a crowded city, and more. But have they eased the movement of millions of pedestrians who must negotiate their way at least twice a day to and from railway stations?
No one is quite sure about this; not even the MMRDA. Only eight of the skywalks have received a good response with around 50,000-60,000 footfalls a day while nearly 20 of them have only an average to poor and very poor patronage, according to studies done in the last few years.
The lack of exits along the skywalk, inadequate security, non-existent escalators and wrong alignments have kept a majority of pedestrians away from skywalks. They still use the messy roads below, braving traffic and hawkers.
The MMRDA must reflect on this state of affairs. If it had sought public consultations, if it had listened to urban policy activists, if it had paid heed to the objections that came its way, perhaps Mumbai could have been spared the white elephant. The non-democratic and rigid ways of its functioning means that Mumbai may end up with many other projects that do not best serve the needs of its citizens. And the MMRDA is not obliged to answer us.
Pedestrians are 57% of those killed on the roads. Yet, planning for their safe and comfortable passage is not given priority or attention. When it is, they get a somewhat useless thing such as the skywalk.