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This is the skywalk at the Mysore Bank Circle on Kempegowda Road in Bengaluru. It has an elevator and is well-lit. However, the sides of the skywalk path are covered, so the insides are not visible from the road.
People who need to head from or towards Kandaya Bhavan struggle to cross this part on the footpath, because a large part of the footpath is occupied by the skywalk base.
Harish, an employee at Kandaya Bhavana does not want to use the lift. He thinks it is a waste of time.
The traffic cop, Sreenivasa, stationed near the Mysore Road skywalk to curb traffic violations admits that there are very few who use the skywalks. Most people just cross the road at the signal near the skywalk, almost as if in protest of the service that exists and functional.
Every year, Bengaluru Development Authority (BDA) and Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) announce grand plans for skywalks. They allocate crores of rupees, and opt for the Build-Operate-Transfer mode with the maintenance taken care of by the contractor for the first few years and then handed over to the government. The BBMP recently floated a tender notification for 54 skywalks in Bengaluru—all packed with amenities and promises of being operational 24-hour and a capacity of about 13 people.
However, all this is rendered useless, by pedestrians simply not using it. What could be the reason? Are skywalks really required? If yes, in what kind of roads?
‘Problem of frame of reference’
Sathya Sankaran, a founder member of the citizens’ group Praja RAAG, is of the opinion that skywalks are simply not required within the city. “To a hammer, everything is a nail. In a car, everything including speed bumps, speed restrictions, road width and pedestrians etc. look like obstructions. The people who prescribe skywalks are speaking from the frame of reference of the car,” he quips. “But if you are an 8 or an 80-year-old trying to cross the road, the car is the obstruction, and even the skywalk itself is an obstruction,” he explains.
Harshavardhana, an IT employee from Whitefield, says: “Skywalk are a big NO. I see most crossing the road. It is just an eyewash for government authorities. Instead they should consider fly-over for vehicles and allow pedestrians to cross the road. The reason: vehicles don’t mind driving few (extra) meters for easy flow. But for pedestrians, it is more than 10 times the effort.
“Skywalks in Bengaluru are another example of band-aid on gangrene,” says Peyush Agarwal, a User Experience Consultant living in Kadugodi. A walker, who is as busy as any other person in a car, is asked to climb over a skywalk, instead of just crossing over to the other side of the road at the same level. “The effort and time and dexterity required to do this are more than that required to cross a road,” he adds.
‘Skywalks are designed for 5% of people’
The share of private cars in bangalore is 5%, while 59% of the people take either public transport or walk. “Respect the 21% of people that make their trips on road by just walking, they (should) have more say in traffic solutions than the 5% car users. Currently we are proposing solutions that the 5% of car users are demanding for. We are muting the remaining 21% plus 38% bus users,” says Sathya Sankaran.
Agrees Kathyayini Chamaraj, Trustee of CIVIC, an NGO, “Why shouldn’t pedestrians cross at grade? Why are we made to go up or down? I am opposed to it since it prioritises vehicular traffic against pedestrians.”
“Traffic only needs to be stopped for 10-15 seconds for pedestrians to cross the road. And as per IRC standards, signalled crossing every 200-300 meters is a mandate. Why aren’t we following IRC standards?” asks Sathya Sankaran.
Jenny Pinto, a designer and a resident of Indiranagar, is fighting a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) demanding that the government build better footpaths. “The authorities should look at investing, repairing and providing footpaths instead of putting up expensive, maintenance intensive skywalks. These structures consume power and in a power-starved city, we simply cannot afford something like a skywalk that demands more power,” she adds.
Pedestrian safety at peril?
Once a skywalk is commissioned, the maintenance is neglected. Lifts remain dysfunctional for months without the contractor bothering to check and repair. There is not enough lighting on many skywalks. With added advertisement hoardings on either sides, the pathway looks secluded, which drives away the pedestrians who want to use them.
“The very underpasses and skywalks that are built to keep you safe, end up collecting excreta and become criminal hotspots. They are useless because they are built for athletic young people not for disabled and old,” says Sathya Sankaran.
Mohit Kalra, a software engineer living in Green Garden Layout, says that ramps for cyclists, escalators and elevators for senior citizens are a must. “Skywalk becomes a nuisance when it has elevators that don’t work and has well-lit advertisement but no light on stairs,” he adds.
When are the skywalks required?
Himadri Das, a program manager at World Resources Institute Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, feels that skywalks are required whereever there is heavy and fast traffic like arterial roads or big express highways leading out of the city. The dilemma even in such cases is about the frequency of crossings and the rationale of the exact spots for a skywalk. He feels that on roads with dense traffic within the city, there should be measures to slow traffic allowing people to cross at grade.
V Manjula, Commissioner Directorate of DULT (Development of Urban and Land Transport says that DULT proactively prepared a report on pedestrian infrastructure which includes skywalks and presented it to BBMP. However, the BBMP did not consult them on the 54 locations where tenders were floated for the construction of skywalks.
DULT advises pedestrian crossings at grade within the city, unless the roads are very wide—above 4 lanes—and traffic density is high. Manjula says that there are many factors to be considered before deciding that a pedestrian cannot cross at grade.
Sanjay Joel, General Manager – Service, Sireesh Auto Private Ltd, is also an accident specialist. He agrees with DULT. “You need a sky walk only when the road is too long to cross, with more lanes,” he says, giving the example of a skywalk planned at Mayura Bakery in Whitefield on a narrow road, where pedestrian crossing would have been sufficient.
Are Bengaluru’s skywalks a design failure?
There is also a design and maintenance aspect to the skywalk failure story. Sathya Sankaran gives the example of the new overpass near Mekhri Circle, where there is a dysfunctional elevator, which has not been taken care of by the contractor. This skywalk has moved the bus stop away from Mekhri circle, making people walk an extra 500 mts to the bus stop. Nobody uses this skywalk. “BBMP does not know what it means to build scientific skywalks, their design priorities are skewed and they have a free hand since there is nobody to question them,” he adds.
“The engineers and the politicians involved don’t prefer using these facilities themselves, so it is unrealistic to expect usable civic services including skywalks to come out of their minds,” Peyush Agarwal declares.
Clement Jayakumar, Senior Manager- IT Quality in Tesco, who is a resident of Whitefield area, says that a skywalk should not restrict the pavement space. “This is bad design. The stairs should start adjacent to the pavement,” he adds.
‘Skywalks promote more traffic’
Urban planning expert V Ravichander says that a skywalk requires space which is in short supply in the already crowded roads and footpaths. He adds that a skywalk will ease the burden for vehicular traffic, hence makes way for more traffic. Every day 1200 to 1500 vehicles add up in Bengaluru, with no limits set by anyone.
Vinay Sreenivasa, who is a part of Alternative Law Forum, says that skywalk is an old and obsolete design workaround that promotes traffic. “We should instead have manned pelican lights that are easier to maintain and inexpensive to install. Pelican lights are not resource intensive like the skywalks that need electricity for 24 hours,” he adds.
Ravichandar feels that the world is moving towards designs and strategies that calm traffic by adding more signals and allowing pedestrians to cross at grades, which also encourages pedestrianism. “We should follow that path,” he adds, as the money spent on skywalks is “a waste of public money and resources.”
How can skywalks be made useful?
Saraswathi Punagin, an assistant professor at Pesit South Campus, says that with the new signal-free corridors on the rise, skywalks are the next best thing in Bengaluru. “However, these will work only if there are “working” lifts, so even people who cannot climb those steps do not hesitate to use them,” she adds. She gives the example of Marathahalli skywalk, where the lift doesn’t work most of the time. “Skywalks are life saviours. Why would they be a burden to pedestrians? We need to create awareness in pedestrians to use skywalks,” she feels.
Pravir Bagrodia, a Whitefield resident, says that incentive and compulsion are the two methods in which skywalks can be a success. “The effort one has to take, that is, the height one has to climb to, should be proportionate to the width of the road it traverses plus the congestion on that stretch,” he says, pointing to the Tin Factory flyover in KR Puram, Old Madras Road and the new skywalk on Outer Ring Road, near Banaswadi.
Sujith Nambudiri, an employee of an IT company in Bengaluru, compares the Bengaluru’s skywalks with those in Delhi. “Look at the crossings in Delhi, they have long ramps, stairs and lifts… if you make it more accessible and cut down on jaywalking, it is a boon for all,” he says.
BBMP defends the skywalk plan
Basavaraj Kabade, Executive Engineer, Road Infrastructure, BBMP, also heads Traffic Engineering Cell (TEC), that looks after the construction of skywalks. He says that there are over 12 skywalks in Bangalore now (seven without lifts, four with lifts and one with escalator). Five of these are not being used. “We have prepared a feasibility report for 54 locations where new skywalks are proposed, based on pedestrian density and traffic volume data at the location,”; he says.
When asked about the usability of the skywalks, Basavaraj Kabade says the BBMP will make people use them. “Have you seen the K R Puram skywalk? People would cross the road at grade, we then raised the height of the median. People now run up the stairs of the skywalk to cross the road. That’s how people will use the skywalk,” he adds.
Kabade says the BBMP also plans to track the utilisation of skywalks by installing CCTVs in the lifts and near the skywalks. A source from TEC said that there is no such data that exists currently, on the utilisation of skywalks.
Is BBMP doing it for advertising money?
Ravichandar observes that skywalk locations are chosen in places where advertisements will fetch more revenue, which makes no sense to the real cause behind skywalks.
Vinay Sreenivasa says this needs to be further investigated. “Their feasibility report that identifies locations needs to be looked into. Most of the locations identified could be in areas that are also attractive to advertisers.”
What is the revenue that the skywalks generate for BBMP? “Advertisements on skywalks fetch us about 14 lakhs annually (ground license fee of 10 lakhs, plus 260 rupees per sq ft) from the Mysore Bank Junction and about 25 lakhs from the Airport road skywalk. It depends on the location, some locations fetch more money than others,” says Kabade.
However the BBMP claims they are not trying to make money from advertisements. “We go for a PPP, so the maintenance of the skywalk is taken care of by the private partners. And they do a good job. We don’t really benefit much from the advertisements,” says Kabade.
The PPP contract is for a period of 15-20 years, on Build-Operate-Transfer basis. The recovery period for the investors is about eight years. The investors will enjoy a 7 to 12 year period of 100% profit.
Are skywalks a sustainable option?
Nitya Ramakrishnan, co-founder of Whitefield Rising, says: “We need to decide whether we are a pedestrian city or not. Then priority should be given to the right party. For now the city is allowing car sales like crazy, not building any infrastructure at all.”
She says that the city cannot provide reliable public transport or pedestrian-friendly amenities as alternatives so people continue to purchase cars.
Nitya explains that the community in Whitefield tried to promote pedestrian-friendliness and cycle-friendliness, by conducting many cycle days and suggesting cycle lanes, but nothing happened. “The government needs to recognise that public transportation and pedestrian-friendliness is a lesson easily learnt from all developed countries,” she adds.
When asked whether the skywalks are a sustainable option, Kabade quips: “We have shortage of cops and even at signals you see people jumping signals. We are saving the lives of pedestrians by providing skywalks, isn’t that good enough?”