Within a few years, the city's skyline is set to change dramatically. A lot of attention has been devoted to one component of this transformation – the Monorail and Metro Rail projects. But the many proposals to build pedestrian walkways in the air, broadly termed as skywalk projects, have gone largely unnoticed.

The Highways Department will commission five foot overbridges next year that will have “elements of skywalk”. The CMDA has floated a plan to connect the Chintadripet and Chepauk MRTS stations with a 1-km-long skywalk. The Metro Rail project also has its fair share of skywalks.

These skywalks would provide an island of safety for pedestrians trying to cross busy traffic intersections. Access to mass-transit stations would be more convenient. At least, that is the plan.

But what really are the costs and benefits of devoting urban spaces to build skywalks? Would pedestrian safety improve when a few such facilities come up? The term ‘skywalk' may sound swanky, but are there better solutions available?

Take the example of the skywalk that is slated to come up between the underground Chennai Central Metro station and the Park Town MRTS station. Once passengers climb up from the Metro station located nine metre beneath the ground, they would be expected to ascend a further eight metres to reach the elevated walkway. It would be somewhat similar to climbing a six-storied building at one go.

A similar arrangement would play out at the underground High Court Metro station, where a skywalk is expected to provide inter-modal integration with the Fort MRTS station. Experts term such a setup as nothing more than symbolic attempts to address pedestrian issues.

In response, Chennai Metro Rail Limited officials say that the skywalk near the Central station, estimated to cost Rs.36 crore, is a temporary measure. Efforts would be made to provide an at-grade (ground level) enclosed walkway. “Escalators would be provided wherever possible,” a senior CMRL official said. “However, it is true that providing facilities for pedestrians on the road surface itself is the best solution,” he added.

To highlight this point, a look at Mumbai's experience is instrumental. With its 36 skywalks, built in just three years at a cost of over Rs.700 crore, the city is home to one of the largest skywalk networks in the world. But poor usage of the facilities has pushed the government to halt construction of any more skywalks.

Sudhir Badami, an urban transportation consultant for the government of Maharashtra, said: “The skywalks have not been useful. They were primarily built to disperse crowds from the suburban stations towards taxi stands, bus stops and commercial areas. But surveys show that only 12 per cent of the train commuters transfer to a skywalk.” Terming the ‘yellow caterpillars', which is the street-name for the yellow tinted skywalks, as a blot on the urban landscape, he said people prefer to use the road where there is social contact and eateries as well as shops.

“Besides, climbing nearly 10m is equivalent to walking 100m in terms of energy expenditure. That is why people risk crossing the road and even jump across medians. The only lasting solution is to make the design of our roads pedestrian-centric,” Mr.Badami said.

“Skywalks are just an expensive half-measure aimed at covering up the failings of city administrations that are still unable to provide safe, walkable environments on our roads,” he added.

Mr.Badami also argues that skywalks do work in some specific cases. At least three of the 36 facilities in Mumbai have been successful and they receive a considerable amount of pedestrian flow.

“The point is it cannot be a blanket solution. Escalators do help, but they increase cost. The priority has to be to improve pedestrian facilities on the road, which can be done at a fraction of the cost.”

H.M. Shivanand Swamy, project director of the Ahmedabad Bus Rapid Transit System, said: “It is possible to have a safe pedestrian crossing at the ground level every 250 metres without greatly affecting the interests of vehicle users.” Such crossings are available all along the BRT route.

“It is unfair to make someone climb up 7-8 metres to cross a nine-metre wide road. Urban roads belong to people. The interest of vehicles should be secondary. Mumbai's experience must teach lessons to other cities.”